Best Practices for Implementing CBE Programs

Tawnie Cortez and Brooks Doherty

Tawnie Cortez, Senior Vice President and Brooks Doherty, Department Dean, Rasmussen College

Rasmussen College in Minnesota is an early adopter of flexible competency-based programs and part of a network of colleges working with regional accreditors and the US Department of Education to address shared challenges to designing, developing, and scaling competency-based programs. In a recent webcast Q&A, two leaders from Rasmussen, Tawnie Cortez, Senior Vice President, and Brooks Doherty, Department Dean, shared the college’s CBE journey and best practices for implementing CBE programs.

What is CBE?

Campus Management: Competency-based education (CBE) provides students with more flexible and cost effective ways to complete their degrees, gives institutions more effective ways to assess learning, and helps to address concerns from many employers about the skill levels and readiness of recent college graduates.

Was it easier for Rasmussen College to offer CBE programs being a proprietary school?

Tawnie Cortez: No. It really was not any different as there is a regulatory process and path to offering competency-based programs. We are regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission in the North Central Region. Our path to regulatory approval is the same: we go through regional accreditation then the Department of Education.

We were accepted as an experimental site. That was an important path long before we began to build programs, so we have traveled the same regulatory path as would any institution.

Traditional faculty are having trouble translating student experiences and identifying the actual skills or competencies that they need to achieve. Do you have any strategies with faculty or any advice for helping faculty through this?

Brooks Doherty: It’s really a question of what environment you are creating for faculty. What we found really helpful at Rasmussen College is formalizing and creating a space for faculty to have regular conversations about how CBE works for them. And being able to talk openly about what some of the challenges are and how they can meet this learning curve.

We’ve had meetings with faculty leadership every Monday for one hour for 18 months. These meeting are really about asking the big questions, paying attention to some of the shifts that are happening in the field, and giving faculty a formal and regular space to have these discussions.

I also suggest that institutions considering CBE not assume that faculty are going to absorb it by osmosis. Do not rely on just one or two training sessions. Have an ongoing conversation with your faculty and let them lead the discussion to really make sure they are meeting the curve. And it is a big one.

Whether it’s a committee or something less formal, institutions should foster conversations about what curriculum and specific competencies are going to work, which ones can be utilized in their entirety, and which ones you may have to tweak and run through curriculum committee. This can be led by faculty in that performance structure.

We are working on CBE for general education courses and would like to assess competencies through courses as well as co-curricular and extracurricular activities. How do you count those experiences equally?

Brooks Doherty: This is not for us right now. But I have heard other institutions doing things like this or exploring the idea. I think CBE is a great model for general education. We just need to go back to what the assessment model can look like. Remember, CBE is about students demonstrating what they know as soon as they know it.

So if they are exhibiting knowledge or skills within a general education course or classroom, allow them to demonstrate it. If they are learning outside the classroom in some type of a service learning environment or maybe in their workplaces, they can still demonstrate in a valid and reliable way which competencies they met and how they met them.

So again, it speaks to really having a strong and firm assessment model. Once you have that assessment down, it frees up the way that students can learn and the spaces in which they can learn.

Did you implement any additional compensation for faculty who developed or went through the CBE process?

Brooks Doherty: We assign work units to faculty, which is essentially how their compensation breaks down. Faculty receive work units for building and supporting CBE courses.

I mentioned those meetings with faculty leadership at Rasmussen that took place over 18 months. At the beginning, we were really focused on building that system for faculty, so faculty got a work unit for doing that.

What does your CBE curriculum look like? Is it course-based, modularized, project based or other? Does it fit one of those topics or general headings? Or how would you describe your CBE curriculum?

Brooks Doherty: Going back to the earlier point that different institutions are doing different things. Rasmussen College is building a course-based program structure. It is definitely project based. So we are still working within courses. Within those courses, students have a flexible and non-linear learning path that is measured through authentic projects.

Most of our courses are six competencies. So, for example, in a Principles of Financial Accounting course, the student would have access to the assessments and work through smaller authentic assessments associated with each one of the competencies.

We do not want our CBE graduates to just accumulate knowledge without synthesizing it. We do not want fragmented learning by our graduates, so our courses are designed so that students work through each one of those six competencies. There is also a seventh assessment, a synoptic assessment that makes the student connect the dots between courses. It is a good measure of high-order thinking that is really valued in the world and rightfully so. So it’s not just a collection of independent competencies, but how the student connects them as well.

Substantive interaction seems to be one of the requirements that has been difficult for institutions to define and track. Can you share any lessons learned in meeting this requirement?

Brooks Doherty: Regular and substantive faculty interaction is essential to any CBE model. This means giving students frequent opportunities to interact with faculty members. What you don’t want to do is have a model where faculty are only available when students raise their hands.

You do not want this to be a student-driven faculty model. The institution and faculty are obligated to offer regular opportunities to learn, interact, and collaborate. The substantive side is about making sure that there are rich learning and feedback opportunities.

You also don’t want to build a program that is only technology driven, robot graded, and multiple choice. There is certainly space for that in assessments. But you want that rich authentic assessment, which gives the student the opportunity to talk about the learning and learn more in an iterative way. If you are doing those things on a regular basis, you are starting down the right path with your faculty model.

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