Defining and Measuring Competencies: Best Practices for Competency-based Education

Concurrent Session 1

Brief Abstract

This presentation will outline where competencies come from and how to write them, as well as present an assessment strategy for measuring learner competence.


Dr. Barbara E. Rowan is the Director of Academic Research, Efficacy, and Evaluation for Course Design, Development, and Academic Research, a part of Higher Education Services at Pearson. In this role, she is responsible for aligning internal standards to third party standards, leading and managing efficacy culture and workflow efforts, and developing and implementing a research roadmap that focuses on instruction, assessment, and learning models and practices. Prior to joining Pearson in 2010, Dr. Rowan spent 20 years in higher education, holding a variety of administrative positions and teaching research methods and statistics courses, both on-ground and online. Dr. Rowan's research interests include computer-based testing, measurement equivalence between computer-based and paper-based measures, student motivation and engagement in the online environment, and online assessment evaluation. Publications and presentations focus on assessment in self-paced, online courses; creation and validation of a measure of quantitative literacy; competency-based education; the science behind learning design; and assessment and measurement-related topics. Dr. Rowan received her B.A. degree in Mathematics and English from Malone College, her M.S. degree in Psychology from Georgia College, and her Ph.D. in Assessment and Measurement from James Madison University.

Extended Abstract

John started college back in his early twenties, but soon came a wife, children, a “real” job, and a mortgage so college had to wait. Lately, co-workers with college degrees have been given promotions even though John has more years of experience. He needs to finish his degree. When John checks out online programs, he is overwhelmed by how many classes he has to take and how long it will take him to complete his degree. What about courses he’s already taken? What about the skills and knowledge he has from 15 years of working in the field? Within a competency-based education (CBE) program, previous coursework, knowledge, skills, and experience count for everything. CBE awards college degrees for what students know and can do, whether they take the full course or not.

The purpose of this presentation is to define competencies and discuss the assessment strategy needed to measure competence in learners. The goals of this session are for participants to: 1) Understand how a CBE program differs from a traditional program; 2) Understand how a competency differs from an outcome; 3) Be able to draft specific and measurable competencies; 4) Understand the assessment strategy necessary for measuring competencies; and 5) Understand the process involved with writing and vetting rubrics; validating assessment measures; and establishing cut scores. 

After a brief introduction to CBE, session participants will be presented with a framework for developing program competencies, mapping outcomes and courses to those competencies, and assessing learner competence. Through this presentation, participants will learn where to find competencies and how to write them in a specific and measurable way. Further, a very specific assessment strategy for measuring learner competence will be shared with participants. The assessment strategy will not only include how to measure competencies, but also what type of assessments should be used and how to determine which scores equal competence. Information on writing and vetting rubrics, conducting validation studies, and establishing cut scores will be provided, as well. Participants will leave this session with the skills and information needed to write and measure competencies for a CBE program.