March Through Your Degree

Demonstrate mastery and move forward with competency-based education.

First popularized in the 1970s, competency-based education (CBE) has become a fashionable innovation in higher education today. With hundreds of new programs popping up across the country, CBE presents a viable option for completing a degree while serving our country.

The prevailing definition of competency-based education comes from the Competency-based Education Network: “Competency-based education learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace.” In other words, CBE focuses on your demonstration of what you know and can do, rather than on where, when, or how you learned the skills to do it.

CBE is a good fit for the military learner as, in the very core of its operation, it recognizes the learning you gain every day on the job. Skills gained in military service translate not only to the classroom but beyond into the workforce. CBE gives you a way to have your mastery of the knowledge, skills, and abilities employers seek recognized by an accredited, respected institution of higher education.

So you’re likely now asking, “how does this work?” First, all CBE programs are a little different; they each have their own way of operating that is unique to the institution. However, in general, you enter a CBE program and pay for a subscription period or term of three, four or even up to six months. During this term, you can attempt as many competencies as you are able. To attempt a competency, you typically study utilizing provided materials and then take an authentic assessment, which requires you to demonstrate mastery of the competency by applying it to a real world situation. For example, if you are in a competency on marketing, rather than being asked to explain what a marketing plan is, in authentic assessment you’ll be asked to create a marketing plan for some entity.

Each institution has their own way of recording your mastery. Some institutions use a pass/fail, some a mastered/not yet, and some institutions will give you a grade. What’s important is in general, it’s not a one shot deal, you have multiple attempts at the assessments, building more mastery of the competency in the process.

As part of American Public University System, American Military University has long been recognized for educating those who serve. In an effort to continue to provide flexible, affordable programs, APUS recently launched Momentum, a direct assessment CBE program initially available for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, emergency and disaster management, fire science management and retail management. In short, Momentum measures students’ learning directly, through real-world application of knowledge, skills, and abilities, or competencies, which have been developed by our faculty and align with industry needs. Utilizing direct assessment allows us to focus on what our students learn, not how long they hang out in our virtual classrooms.

Students are never alone with Momentum, which may differ in other institutions. From the first conversation with an admissions representative, our students discover that everyone at APUS wants to see them succeed. Once enrolled each student will have an academic advisor, a faculty mentor, and a host of subject matter experts. Think of Momentum faculty mentors as a learning coach—they’ll help each student discover their strengths and will guide them in crafting their competency plan. Faculty mentors work with the student for the entire term, sometimes longer, helping them tie the academic threads through the competencies they are working on. Subject matter experts, who are part of our regular faculty, are ready to share their knowledge, to answer questions about competency topics, and to provide feedback on students’ work. All this in addition to being surrounded by the university’s entire support staff including career coaches, librarians, and more.

Momentum students have their own virtual classroom through which they access their personalized, adaptive learning content. APUS has gone a step above in crafting our CBE programs by building them in an adaptive learning platform in which students take a diagnostic pre-assessment for each competency. This assessment drives their personalized learning content and advises their subject matter expert as they guide each student’s learning pathway toward their final mastery assessment.

The personalized learning content may include textbooks, primary sources, videos or interactive materials. What makes it personalized is the system it’s stored in, which learns from how our students interact with the material and the knowledge checks to feed students the content they need to gain mastery of the competency. While engaging with the content, students also have the opportunity to engage with the subject matter expert for the competency—to broaden their knowledge in the subject and receive feedback to guide their journey through the competency.

CBE can work for any learner who has the willingness to commit the time as well as the aptitude to work diligently in a mostly independent manner. While CBE students are supported, across the board, by faculty and professional staff, the typical interaction with other students in an online environment is not common in CBE. In order to accelerate learning, it helps if CBE learners have experience or prior learning in their field of study. Additionally, as with any online learning, CBE learners need to have access to a reliable internet connection and the hardware and software to connect with their virtual classroom. Support from a personal network of family and friends to help balance the load of school with the other life commitments is also crucial to succeeding as a CBE learner.

CBE is not an “easy way out.” Though it can potentially be faster, the pace at which a student moves through any such program is in their own hands. One student I interviewed during a qualitative study on CBE learners finished her associate degree in just nine months. But she committed time each and every day to work on her studies to reach that goal. If you are ready to put all you’ve learned in your prior studies, life, and through your military experience to the test, I urge you to consider a CBE program!

Cali Morrison is the Director of Alternative Learning at American Military University. Learn more about how the AMU program works, who an ideal Momentum student is, and what programs are being offered by visiting

Volume 14 Issue 1
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