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Resources for Developing CBE Programs

Learn from Our Experience

As the pioneering university that brought competency-based education to scale in higher ed, WGU has not only leveraged this innovation to better serve our own students—we've led the way in helping other institutions develop CBE programs of their own while working with policymakers to increase its acceptance and pave the way for continued growth.

New or future student?

This page is for institutions, academics, policymakers, and others interested in implementing competency-based programs. You'll be more interested in understanding what CBE will mean to you as a student at WGU.


Developing a new competency-based program is highly iterative. At every step of the process before the program launch, all the stakeholders weigh in. Even after it’s up and running, a program and its courses can and often do evolve. New marketplace demands and student needs, as well as constantly improving learning resources, mean that program and course development is an ongoing process.

Journal of CBE

The Journal of Competency-Based Education is published by Western Governors University and John Wiley & Sons, Inc. It is a peer-reviewed, online journal intended for circulation in the higher education community.

With an emphasis on rapid review and dissemination, JCBE aims to advance knowledge through theoretical and empirical study across arenas of inquiry related to competency-based education and its evolution.

What is Competency-Based Education?

There is a growing interest in competency-based education (CBE) for higher education as one of the approaches to accelerate students' progress-to-degree while assuring the quality and validity of that degree. At this time, there is no single definition of exactly what constitutes competency-based education. There are definitions being used by the U.S. Department of Education for financial aid purposes and a variety of definitions used by regional accreditors. The media and philanthropic community have taken notice of this emerging trend.

With all this swirling information, we hope this website can be of value to those who want to understand how CBE can work and how they can get started on the development of CBE programs at their own institutions. Dive deeper into competency-based education—and perhaps learn to implement a CBE program of your own.

This information on CBE was funded in part by grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

General Tenets of CBE

A key characteristic that distinguishes courses in a CBE program from other courses is that students can accelerate to completion. They make progress toward course objectives based on demonstrating the knowledge and skills required at each step (or module) along the way. That is, learning becomes the constant—and is demonstrated through mastery of learning objectives, or competencies—and time becomes the variable. And while some students accelerate their progress through some courses, they may take a more standard pace in other courses. In some CBE programs, students can begin or end their coursework throughout the year rather than at the start or completion of semesters, so finishing one course enables them to get started on the next right away.

Competencies are the core of the CBE curriculum. In professional programs, they should align with both industry and academic expectations. The process by which they are developed should be explicit and transparent. Program-level competencies should reflect the skills and knowledge that students will need at the next stages of their development, whether it is further education or employment.

A valuable aspect of the CBE model is its ability to incorporate the realities that people master subjects at different rates and bring diverse levels of prior experience and knowledge to that mastery. A CBE program should allow students to progress through the curriculum at an individualized pace, which means that just-in-time academic assistance and other support must be provided to keep students motivated and on track.

Learning resources that students use must be aligned with competencies and be consistent for all students. The learning resources (developed locally, licensed from commercial vendors, or adapted from open educational resources) must be of high quality, accurate, engaging, at the appropriate level of difficulty, and be well matched to the learning objectives defined for the course. The assessments to assure students’ mastery of the competencies must be aligned with those competencies. They must also be reliable and secure.

The CBE model is very interactive. The program and course competencies must be aligned with employer and further education requirements to enable students to reach their individual goals. Course delivery, learner support, and assessments must be adjusted to the new model. In order to make sure students are actually prepared for a career when they graduate, CBE programs are meant to be directly applicable to their jobs. And many CBE programs allow students to start applying what they learn before they graduate! Because CBE is so flexible with timing, many students are working full-time as they are earning their degree. And CBE courses mean they can start directly applying skills to their work even while they are still learning.

CBE Can Take Different Forms

Students progress at their own pace by demonstrating competencies. However, the packaging and support for the students may differ.

Direct Assessment:

Students demonstrate achievement of competencies without regard to courses or credit hours. They show proof of mastery of the individual competencies through summative assessments such as exams, simulations/demonstrations, and portfolios.

Course/Module Based:

Students demonstrate mastery of skills and knowledge at a course or module level. Competencies, defined at the program level, are translated into topics that are packaged into the courses or modules.

Different Institutional Strategies:

The institutional context drives the strategy a particular institution will take. If designing from a blank slate, it is possible to develop an entirely CBE-based organization. Most colleges are not in that position, so there are some choices to make. In addition, many community colleges are part of a statewide system. Those systems can be useful vehicles for opening broad access to a CBE program and assuring program sustainability.

Different Institutional Model Examples

Western Governors University was founded by U.S. governors to be responsive to employers and fill workforce needs in their states. WGU's founding strategy had three main components: capitalize on then-emerging internet and communications technologies, emphasize affordability, and build flexible courses and curriculum around the competency-based model. The concept has helped more than 100,000 nontraditional students earn their degrees while maintaining work, family, and life obligations.

Northern Arizona University’s CBE project chose to create a separate organization in which to house their CBE program. They call it Personalized Learning. It has several academic programs within it, but is housed within NAU’s Extended Campuses. The Extended Campuses is part of the university but can operate somewhat independently from the usual academic structures.

Probably the most difficult but the most promising approach for existing institutions is the integration of CBE into the existing college structure. There are two approaches that are emerging based on the organizational structure of the college and its culture.

Some institutions have well-developed, centrally managed distance, or e-learning programs. This is the natural vehicle for incorporation of CBE practices. For example, at Sinclair Community College in Ohio, their previous e-learning operation already included their online course development as well as student support. They had in place an instructional design model, course development processes, assessment development processes, tools, templates, and outcomes mapping processes. The existing course development process was based on a master course model that resulted in one high-quality set of learning materials for each of the online courses. They also had a limited case management model for targeted students’ support. This division of the college became the home of the CBE programs.

Austin Community College District (ACC) in Texas did not have a centralized operation to support faculty in the development of e-learning resources. Consequently, they centered their CBE program within the academic department from which most of courses would originate. ACC built a strong relationship with local employers, hired an instructional designer, and developed a student support structure. The management of the CBE program remains in the designated academic department, but as other departments are adopting CBE, the support organization may shift.

In Washington State, policies were in place to allow a statewide coalition focused on CBE to develop. About a dozen community colleges have formed a coalition within their system structure so all can contribute to a CBE transferable degree program. Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has taken the lead in opening up statewide online resources.

Learn More

The following pages dive into large topics of implementing CBE programs, the thought-leadership insights around CBE, and current events around the learning model.

Implementing CBE

How to develop programs, courses and assessments using competency-based design.

CBE in the News

A collection of news articles that speak to the growth of and trends in CBE, both within WGU and among other learning institutions.


A key characteristic that distinguishes CBE from other courses is that students can progress at their own pace. They make progress toward course objectives based on demonstrating the knowledge and skills required at each step (or module) along the way. That is, learning becomes the constant—and is demonstrated through mastery of learning objectives, or competencies—and time becomes the variable. Some students can accelerate their progress as other students might take more time and practice to advance. At some colleges, students can begin or end their coursework throughout the year, rather than at the start or completion of semesters.​

A CBE certificate or degree program is made up of CBE courses that allow students to have some control over the speed of their progress toward earning a certificate or degree. As with individual CBE courses, CBE programs also have clearly defined learning objectives, or competencies. In some programs, students must pass a capstone assessment or otherwise demonstrate mastery of these program-level competencies, in order to be awarded the certificate or degree.
A recent article in Change magazine offers five guiding principals for high-quality CBE programs:

  1. The degree reflects robust and valid competencies.
  2. Students are able to learn at a variable pace and are supported in their learning.
  3. Effective learning resources are available any time and are reusable.
  4. The process for mapping competencies to courses, learning outcomes, and assessments is explicit.
  5. Assessments are secure and reliable.

For more information about these principals, see S. Johnstone and L. Soares, “Principles for Developing Competency-Based Education Programs,” Change (Mar.-Apr. 2014), available at

Colleges are developing CBE courses and programs as one of several options to meet student needs. In particular, CBE courses are attractive to students:

  • Who already have pertinent skills or knowledge through prior work experience or training, including in the military
  • Who have work schedules or family lives that make classroom attendance difficult
  • Who want to accelerate their learning pace
  • Who otherwise prefer courses that are self-paced

Students have successfully completed a wide range of general education courses in CBE programs. For example, Western Governors University (WGU) has been offering general education courses through CBE for 18 years. WGU’s model is consistent with the LEAP framework (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), which was developed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU). See more information about WGU’s offerings

Community colleges that are piloting CBE programs are generally beginning in computer or information sciences, since many faculty in these programs already offer online courses or are familiar with CBE approaches. They are also developing programs in business, in keeping with the needs of students.

In most of the community colleges that are developing CBE programs, the CBE courses are based on existing courses that faculty have been offering for years. As with online education, CBE courses represent a new mode of delivery in most of these cases, but not a new curriculum. In these cases, faculty members adapt the existing courses to a CBE model, based on existing faculty procedures and requirements at the college.
Where the CBE courses represent new curriculum, faculty members are more likely to work in teams to create the new courses based on existing procedures and requirements for new curriculum development at the college. Typically, faculty lead these teams.

As with all courses, community college faculty and staff provide support services for students enrolled in CBE courses. In many cases, instructors find they have more time to provide personalized academic support to students because they do not have as many lecturing responsibilities. In addition, the best CBE programs provide students with student success “mentors” or “coaches” who contact each student regularly, check in on their progress, and make recommendations for academic or other supports as needed.

Community colleges have adopted a wide range of approaches to providing assessments for students in CBE courses, based on faculty direction. Assessments can take many forms, including multiple-choice tests, presentations, demonstrations, and research papers. Multiple-choice assessments are scored automatically. Projects and papers are typically scored by evaluators or faculty members working with a rubric.
At WGU and at some community colleges:

  1. Students take formal assessments at the beginning of each module (or course segment) to determine the material they’ve already mastered (if any) and where they need to focus their learning. Students that pass the assessment can move on to the next module.
  2. Students may take quizzes while studying within a module. In most cases, these quizzes are not part of their grades, but rather help them determine what they have learned or may need to learn before taking the module’s final assessment.
  3. When students have completed studying within a module, they take another formal assessment on the material in that module. Each college determines its own procedures for the taking of formal assessments.

Colleges with high-quality online programs offer robust assessments that are proctored with secure systems either face-to-face or electronically. Similarly, colleges that offer high-quality CBE programs offer these same tools. With robust assessments that are computer generated, programs can administer different versions of questions so that students cannot post common results or answer keys.

These web pages were created by the grantee (Western Governors University) and does not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Labor or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Department of Labor makes no guarantees, warranties, or assurances of any kind, express or implied, with respect to such information, including any information on linked sites and including, but not limited to, accuracy of the information or its completeness, timeliness, usefulness, adequacy, continued availability, or ownership.