Guest Contributor: Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins, Senior Digital Educator, Cengage Learning. 

My husband has a four-year physical education bachelor’s degree.  In eighteen months, my brother-in-law earned an automotive technician certificate.  Our next-door-neighbor and very dear friend completed a six-month computer programming certification.

Do industries care how long it took for someone to complete his/her education, or do they care more about what you learned and whether you’re competent enough to perform?  Should institutions highlight time?  Or should they highlight learning?

Competency-based learning (CBL) offers flexibility unlike that of traditional post-secondary education where students move at their own pace, and it focuses on measuring how much one has learned, not the length of time it took for one to learn.  Institutions of higher education are definitely taking a closer look at adding CBL to their catalogues, and here’s why.

Today’s college student looks different from the college student of decades past.
Changing personal obligations, changing industry needs, changing economic realities … all of that and more have changed the demographics of the college classroom.  Rows of wide-eyed fresh-out-of-high-school pupils are now mixed with, for example, industry professionals reentering to the classroom; military heroes returning home from fighting abroad; and full-time employees, parents, and adult children caring for aging parents. As such, CBL recognizes devoting an entire four years to learn a new skill or obtain proof of having mastered a concept may not be feasible for these individuals whose schedules are already jam-packed.

Time is still a factor.
Have you ever taken a course where you know you could have learned more (or better) if you’d had more time?  Or have you taken a course and felt like sixteen weeks was entirely too much time to devote to the topic, that you could have learned and mastered the content in a quarter of the time allotted for the course?  CLB takes that into account with its self-paced format that allows a student to take as little or as much time as he/she needs to prove mastery.
Some students may simply need documented proof of what they already know.
For those individuals who have already completed their education and are returning to the classroom to update their skills, learn a new skill, or reinvent themselves, let’s not discount the fact they have earned educations in their respective places of work.  If a student can demonstrate a competency by earning a passing score on some form of a CBL assessment, then does it matter from whence or how he/she learned it?  CBL allows students to receive college credit for knowledge received outside of the classroom.

Industries want more than transcripts; they want people who can DO what’s on those transcripts.
This may be the most significant reason for academic institutions to give CBL their attention. Companies’ growing concerns of college graduates showing up to their places of work not already prepared to immediately demonstrate proficiencies suggested by the courses listed on their transcripts cannot go unnoticed.  What exactly does that bachelor’s degree mean?  Does it accurately identify that which a student can perform?  CBL may have the answers in the form of offering a better definition of a college degree, explicitly spelling out exactly what a student can do, the competencies a student has.

If you want to learn more about competency-based learning or how you might embed into your course some relevant competency-based strategies to enhance teaching and learning at your institution, then check out the TeamUP virtual workshop “What’s the Word on Competency-Based Learning.” All registrants can receive continuing education credit for attending the session.

Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins is a Senior Professional Educator with Cengage Learning’s Peer-to-Peer Faculty Development team, TeamUP, and she teaches for the Associate’s Program at the University of Phoenix.  See some of Bridgett’s other projects as well as more information on this blog topic at the TeamUP Professional Development Portal by visiting