Learning, Adults, and Competency-Based Education

Learning, Adults, and Competency-Based Education

Michelle Navarre Cleary (DePaul University, USA), Kathryn Wozniak (Concordia University Chicago, USA), Catherine Marienau (DePaul University, USA), Gretchen Wilbur (DePaul University, USA), Derise E. Tolliver (DePaul University, USA) and Pamela Meyer (DePaul University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0932-5.ch011


Because competency-based education (CBE) programs ask students to demonstrate what they know and can do and because CBE students often work at their own pace, competence-based learners need to be able to articulate and to manage their own learning. Drawing upon our research and experience developing, teaching in and consulting to competency-based programs for adults in domestic and international higher education contexts as well as workplace and community settings, the authors demonstrate the necessity and give examples of how to teach CBE students to be competence-based learners.
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In the rush to develop CBE programs in higher education, it is not surprising that learning can take a backseat, particularly for those programs targeting adult students. It is easy to assume that adults already know how to learn – that they just need opportunities to validate the learning they have already gained in their lives and to be pointed toward resources that they can use to pursue new learning independently. Adults do come to CBE programs with a significant amount of learning. However, they can struggle to transfer that learning, while what they have learned about how school works often does not serve them well in competence-based programs (Navarre Cleary, 2013). Forty plus years of serving adult learners has made it clear to the authors that the potential for substantive new learning and for degree completion is compromised without focused attention on guiding CBE students to extract learning from experience and assume agency as learners. 1

An emphasis on learning in the design, development and delivery of CBE programs is particularly important for adult and other students for whom school is one of many major responsibilities. As Erisman and Steele (2015) most recently noted, the 30 to 35 million students with some college but no degree in the United States need more, not less support, for learning. To achieve goals like Lumina’s Goal 2025 to increase the number of Americans with a college degree or similar credential to 60%, competency-based programs need to provide learning environments that work for those who have already been educationally underserved: “21st century students: adult learners without a college degree coming back to college, low income students, students of color and first generation students” (Lumina, n.d.). Competency-based programs that assume learning, rather than elevate it, run the risk of increasing the educational attainment gap, a point Lewis et al. (2014) made for K-12 students, but which is just as true for those in higher education.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Learning Agility: The ability to adapt old learning to new contexts and the ability to seek out and apply new learning.

Adult Students: Students who are 24 or older or those who have the social, psychological, and/or economic responsibilities of adults. School is rarely the only or sole responsibility for these students.

Competency-Based Education: Education programs designed around outcomes or competencies. Students in CBE programs advance toward completion by demonstrating what they know and can do rather than by meeting credit hour requirements.

Transformative Learning: Learning that changes what and how one thinks and acts, especially learning that changes how one thinks about the world and one’s self as an actor in it.

Andragogy: Teaching and learning strategies and concepts that intentionally consider the adult experience; a counterpart to “pedagogy” but with a focus on the adult learner instead of the child learner.

Metacognition: The ability to identify, track, and evaluate one’s thinking processes and strategies.

Competency-Based Learning: The learning needed for competence development, including learning how to articulate and manage one’s own learning.

Prior Learning Assessment: The evaluation of learning a student has acquired outside of a formal college course, such as through work experience or certification examinations.

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