Complete Step-by-Step Competency Course and Program Development Guide Parts 1 and 2

What is the Complete Step-by-Step Competency Course Development Guide? It’s a blueprint to develop competency based courses. This guide takes you through the entire competency course and program development process.

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Link to Program Development Guide Index

The Journey - over the next 12 weeks:

You’ll learn how to create world-class competency based education (CBE) courses and programs.  Over the next 12 weeks, I’ll create a new blog post with exclusive Strut commentary and lessons learned.  As each new post is revealed, you’ll take another step forward in the process of designing exceptional CBE learning experiences. At the end of our journey, these blog posts will become a downloadable PDF document.

Exclusive Strut Lessons Learned: This document will help guide you around the barriers to a successful CBE program implementation.  Part 1 of this document is designed to sell and explain the need for another learning modality.  Don’t underestimate the importance of selling the CBE concept to stakeholders and peers.  Support from faculty leadership and peer groups is critical to the success of any academic initiative.  Because it’s still relatively new - CBE isn’t well understood. Many key stakeholders don’t understand CBE’s core tenants and target use cases.  Over prepare the team by investing time in educating the institution.  Anticipate misinformation about CBE will surface, e.g., isn’t CBE just a way for students to test out a course, etc.    

Exclusive Strut Lessons Learned: Writing down the high-level characteristics of a CBE program is critical to long-term program success.  The list will help get everyone on the same page.  Review these points with each team until they become second nature.  Consider placing these points on the first page of every communication.  Note: the points below are a starting place for your institution.  Please adjust these to fit your institution SLOs, PLOs, ILOs, etc.    

Characteristics of Competency-based Education:

  • Students advance as they demonstrate mastery
  • Definitive measure, transferable learning objectives (LOs)
  • Authentic assessments promote insights and optimistic learning
  • Personalized lessons and timely student support
  • Opportunities to grow soft skills, adaptability, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.

Exclusive Strut Lessons Learned: Understand that project failure is a real possibility.  How do I reduce the probability of failure?  The list of “Dos” below is a great starting point.  Number 10 points at the need for routine contact between several key stakeholders and offices.  Go into this journey with an open mind, but understand that operationally, flexible learning will require a different course development approach and alignment with accreditation/Title IV regulations.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking CBE is just another online program.  CBE is indeed online, but the difference is - self-paced courses employ asynchronous Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI).  The CBE team needs to clearly understand how accreditors and federal auditors may classify an “improperly designed CBE program” as a correspondence course of study.   


  1. Get executive sponsorship
  2. Don’t underestimate the importance of selling CBE to stakeholders and peers
  3. Leverage a formal Communication Plan to proactively communicate/educate stakeholders   
  4. Anticipate CBE misinformation; plan routine communications with stakeholders
  5. Develop and follow a plan that aligns with institutional goals/objectives 
  6. Become aware of the operational and compliance challenges with flexible learning early
  7. Enforce course development standards and patterns from day one 
  8. Establish governance controls that ensure adherence to course development standards 
  9. Establish a Formal Program Development Charter to secure resources/community buy-in
  10. Maintain regular contact between the CBE project team

Exclusive Strut Lessons Learned:  It takes a village to implement CBE. Most CBE initiatives fail due to operational execution.  Ensure the CBE team includes key functional areas such as Financial Aid, Registrar, Admissions, Programs, Student Support, Marketing, Information Technology, Academic Affairs, Student Accounts, Faculty, and others as the situation dictates.  Another important point - decisions made early in this process have an outsized impact on success or failure.  Goal congruence is critical to ensure everyone is aligned and onboard with challenges ahead.   

See how Strut's course solution can help you.
See how Strut's course solution can help you.

Leverage our complete white label degree program and course catalog to get online fast.Strut’s customizable course catalog provides a rapid (30 days) pathway to online courses with zero capital expenditures.Schedule a call now.

Leverage our complete white label degree program and course catalog to get online fast.Strut’s customizable course catalog provides a rapid (30 days) pathway to online courses with zero capital expenditures.Schedule a call now.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
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Part 1: General Information 

Introduction {The following “General Information” section is not in stone.  Please adjust as needed and update supporting evidence to reflect your instructional culture.}

Recent economic forecasts indicate that U.S. post-secondary education participation rates will slow. Concurrent with lowered enrollment forecasts are continued preparedness gaps in the national workforce. Such workforce preparedness gaps have created a call for high quality degrees that both proficiently and efficiently prepare post-secondary students for employment in today’s rapidly-growing, knowledge-based economy. Employers seek validation from educators in which alumni are ready with a comprehensive set of knowledge, skills, and abilities. 

Specifically, for the growing non-traditional student population, there are  increasing concerns not only on the quality of degrees, but also post-secondary  degree attainment rates and the escalating costs of tuition and fees. Non-traditional students manage multiple commitments and priorities; therefore, they specifically look for degree programs that provide them flexibility in time and  location for faster time to degree completion. As such, the increasing scrutiny on  completion rates, the need to broaden accessibility to non-traditional students,  and the mounting pressures to reduce the cost of a degree has created a  “perfect storm” for disruptive innovation.

Competency-Based Education: Overview 

Traditional colleges and universities award credit for classroom hours attended,  conferring degrees based on students’ completion of a certain set of courses for  a given number of credit hours. In contrast, competency-based education (CBE) is an outcomes-based approach to education where the emphasis is on  what comes out of learning, what graduates know and can do, rather than how many hours are spent in the classroom. With this defined framework,  institutions can clearly delineate to students what they will learn upon degree  completion while outlining to employers what graduates will know upon  employment. Thus, the knowledge attained with the degree and the  knowledge needed to succeed in today’s labor market can be bridged. As  such, there is rising interest in competency-based programs as this model allows  for institutions to achieve the following desirable objectives: 

• Highly customized and personalized learning environment for students through self-paced learning and mastery of competencies through technology-rich learning platforms  

• Faster time-to-degree completion and lower net-priced tuition through the creation of an integrated, cross-disciplinary curricula that eliminates  redundancies in learning 

• Increased consumer confidence for students and employers by identifying and assessing competencies that are relevant for success in today’s workforce 

According to a survey conducted by the Gallup Poll and the Lumina  Foundation, the American public supports CBE programs with nearly 70% of Americans favoring the awarding of college credit based on mastery of course  content rather than time spent in the classroom. For these reasons,  competency-based education appears to be the innovative solution that will  address the current affordability, access, and quality issues facing higher education today as it is an alternative education model that looks towards  delivering high-quality degrees at a reasonable cost.

Exclusive Strut Lessons Learned: Program selection is important to the success of a CBE initiative.   Keep in mind, CBE isn’t generally designed for students without some professional or academic experience.  Also, CBE programs typically focus on real-world or authentic assessments.  Perhaps start with a discipline or domain that is understood by the majority of stakeholders.  Graduate level business and technology programs are great candidates because they provide tons of authentic assessment opportunities.  In addition - CBE embraces the concept of job skills.  Finally - Business and technology are generally easier to align with student and institutional learning outcomes.  Conclusion - keep it simple. 


Part 2: Program Overview 

Program Vision and Goals {adjust as required/update}

Established in [YEAR], [INSTITUTION NAME] is a [public or private for-profit, private/non-profit or university/college]. With its storied academic tradition, [INSTITUTION NAME] provides quality  education to primarily [TYPE] students and adult learners who demand the same high academic standards as a traditional [UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE NAME], but with greater flexibility and curriculum that reinforces relevance career skills.  Its mission to become “[MISSION HERE],” [UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE NAME] blends a legacy of academic excellence with an innovative competency-based education model.  

[INSTITUTION NAME] is well-positioned to implement a competency-based degree program. With a long-standing commitment to quality education,  [UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE NAME] will build upon its evidence-based foundation in order to implement competency-based education programs that will parallel the college’s/university’s current online programs. The foundation for the development of the  [UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE NAME] CBE program is built upon a number of learning and motivation theories. 

Competency-based education is a rapidly emerging innovation in the higher education landscape today. Together and in close partnership, [UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE NAME] and Strut Learning will collaborate on a high-quality competency-based program. As such, the purpose of this Competency Development Guide is to help stakeholders understand the step-by-step process of developing competencies and the accompanying assessments.

Program Details and Definition of Terms 

The first CBE program [UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE NAME] will roll out is the [Program Name].  The [Program Name] Competency Mapping (see  Appendix B) outlines the competencies and objectives for the competency based program. The [Program Name] degree and the current [number] areas of emphasis are composed of [number] unique competencies across multiple content areas.  Competencies for the [Program Name] are divided into [DOMAIN] Core and General Education domains and [number] Emphases [NAME], [NAME], [NAME] and [NAME]. With the exception of [orientation], there are [X NUMBER] competencies in the [PROGRAM] Emphasis [note: if more than one program/emphasis - extend this section]. 

Competency Structure: Details and Definitions 

A competency is a focused learning experience within a learning domain that is  related to a well-defined content area. The content areas are identified as  domains, and each domain is broken down into subdomains as a way to  categorize learning concepts. The subdomains are then divided into  competencies, which are organized into objectives. Each objective is further  broken down into topics.  

Exclusive Strut Lessons Learned: Keep in mind - the following pattern (Domain, subdomain, competencies, objective, topic) isn’t written in stone. However, you’ll need to consider the need to break down paradigms.  New terminology is one method to break old patterns.  With that in mind, there’s nothing stopping anyone from renaming a competency to a course, or a learning objective to Week 1, Week 2, etc. These patterns are specific to each institution.  However, the failure to maintain a consistent pattern - will create significant pain with students, accreditors, and Title IV reviews.  And at the risk of being classified as redundant.  As a rule - compliance audits will always test asynchronous courses/programs to see if they should be reclassified as correspondence courses/programs.  Consistent course design/development patterns enable compliance reports to provide direct evidence that the course/program isn’t correspondence. 

An example of the hierarchy appears below, using the “Legal Environment” competency. 

Domain: Business Core 

    o Subdomain: Business Law and Ethics 

          ▪ Competencies: Legal Environment – I: Demonstrate an understanding of the U.S. legal system and the legal environment of  business. 

                • Objectives: Understand the relationship between business  and society, etc. 

                    o Topics: Corporate social responsibility, etc. 

Each competency will be reviewed against success criteria that are outlined in the Competency Based Education Pre-Flight Quality Tool. 

Exclusive Strut Lessons Learned:  Type I, II, and III competencies.  This guide focuses on two types of adaptive competencies.  Type I is a highly structured adaptive learning experience.  A Type I is designed for the lower Bloom’s taxonomy remembering or understanding.  For higher Bloom’s levels - the Type II adaptive enables more dynamic learning and teaching environments.  Both Type I and II include Interactive Discussion Questions (IDQs) to ensure compliance with Title IV Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) rules.  RSI is one of the key elements distinguishing distance education from correspondence education.  IDQs ensure students answer faculty initiated questions within a private one-on-one threaded dialog.  Each IDQ dialog is graded and saved as evidence for accreditation and Title IV compliance.  Not discussed below, Type III competencies are generally used at the graduate and postgraduate levels.  A Type III competency is distinguished by the absence of objective based formative assessments in favor of rubric based IDQ case studies and faculty initiated questions.  How this is implemented varies based on the institution's learning management platform.  Strut Learning provides a low cost compliant IDQ plugin to ensure RSI is completed and available for compliance audits. 

Exclusive Strut Lessons Learned: (... and yes, this section intentionally repeats some of the information above):  An important message to non-profit and for-profit institutions venturing into the flexible learning or CBE modalities.  Flexibility comes with both challenges and rewards.  In general, most CBE courses don’t require fixed student attendance schedules, e.g., T-TH 5-7pm.  Now the operational fun begins.  Later in this document pay particular attention to Title IV rules on Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) and Substantive Academic Activity (SAA).  Within Academic Affairs it’s important to stress to Subject Matter Experts and Instructional Designers the importance of compliance with RSI and SAA.  What’s the concern?  Without a formal policy that governs faculty initiated questions (RSI) within a self-paced program - there’s a significant risk that the USDE will categorize a CBE program as correspondence.  And unlike a standard online course where a for a fixed period - evidence is required that the RSI actually occurred as proposed.   RSI is one of the key elements that distinguishes distance education from correspondence education.  Above all - consult with your Financial Aid department and Title IV legal counsel early and often.      

Type I Adaptive Competency vs. Type II Dynamic Adaptive Competency 

Within the [PROGRAM], all competencies are identified as either Type I or Type II. Approximately [input your percentages]% of the competencies are Type I, and approximately [input your percentages]% are Type II. This determination was based upon the Program Council’s evaluation of what types of assessments are most appropriate for students to successfully master the  competency. Bloom’s taxonomy was carefully considered. For example, if the  competency was designed to prepare students for mastery of skills related to remembering or understanding, it was designated as Type I, and the summative  assessment therein would be project/objective and manually/auto-graded. If, on the other hand, the competency was designed to prepare students for mastery of skills related  to analyzing, evaluating, and creating—and required a project-based assessment—the competency was designated as Type II. Bloom’s category of “applying” could align with either Type I or II, and the Program Council made  the designation based on their overall evaluation of the mastery they expect  students to achieve. Final assessments for all Type II competencies are  subjective tests which require manual grading.

While the Type I Adaptive or Type II Dynamic Adaptive Competency designation shape the students learning experience. In a Type I Adaptive Competency, prior to taking the final assessment, the student participates in an adaptive-learning  experience consisting of a series of formative assessments, the results of which guide the student through the competency objectives and topics. The adaptive  learning environment “adapts” the student’s experience based on what the  student already knows. This means that each student has a different learning  path based on how the student answers a series of items. 


In a Type II Dynamic Adaptive Competency, prior to taking the final assessment, the student participates in formative assessments and a more flexible self-guided experiences but still have an adaptive component. As in Type I Adaptive Competence, the experience guides the student through objectives and topics. Unlike Type I, students answer auto graded objective items and the adaptive guidance is accessed through a feature labeled Quiz Overview. They receive  automated feedback on these checks for understanding, and, if their scores  require improvement, they review materials and answer the items again via the Quiz Overview feature.  

In both Type I and Type II adaptive formative assessments, the assessments are called,  “Checks For Understanding,” (CFUs).

The differences between a Type I Adaptive and Type II Dynamic Adaptive Competency are summarized in Table 1: 

Assessment Type Differentiation (Type I Adaptive vs. Type II Dynamic Adaptive Competencies)

Based on the example noted above, competencies were reviewed, and the  following information details objectives and topics, which, as noted in the  example, are the final bullet points in the hierarchy.

Objectives Definition

Each competency consists of objectives. An objective is a measurable  statement that describes what a student must be able to do to demonstrate a  subset of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are necessary to successfully  complete the competency. 

Topics Definition 

Topics are subjects that are covered within a specific objective. They provide an opportunity to organize the learning/content for students into more manageable chunks. In many ways, topics can be seen as an enabling, or sub objective to the learning objective that it is aligned to.  

The Student Learning Experience  

Now that the competency structure has been defined, it is important to review  the student learning experience. The learning experience includes learning  activities and assessments.  

Learning Activities Definition 

A learning activity is any learning experience that gives students an opportunity  to learn, practice, and refine their understanding of the content needed to  master an objective/topic and ultimately the summative assessment for the competency. Learning activities are designed and developed to align to  objectives. Typically an objective includes more information than would be  included in a learning activity, and then the activities are aligned to topics. A  learning activity may include readings (from Strut Learning content or elsewhere); video  and audio clips (for example, from YouTube or Ted Talks); PowerPoint slide presentations (from Strut Learning content or elsewhere); a Q&A board (where students  can post questions to which other students can respond); student-generated discussions, learning journals, wikis, and blogs; practice exercises; links to web  and library research and resources (which will be embedded in the content), interactive exercises, multimedia elements (animation, etc.), and simulations. The goal is to create a series of learning activities for each objective that a student feels motivated and encouraged to continue. These should also  prepare the student to take the summative assessment.  

A simulation is a sophisticated type of learning activity that has been designated as appropriate for select competencies. Specifically, a simulation is an instructional, interactive learning event that requires input and participation from a student. Simulations can create a more engaging and immersive environment for students to further apply what they are learning. Simulations will be developed on a case-by-case basis, and the faculty SME will work with the Strut Learning team to design appropriate simulations to accompany the content.


The second part of the student learning experience is the assessments.  Assessments were described earlier because they go hand in hand with the  distinction between Type I and II competencies. From the point of view of the  student experience, and as a quick review: 

There are two types of assessments within each competency: 

1. Formative assessments (also called Checks for Understanding or CFUs) are self-assessments that are aligned to objectives and topics. These are presented to students as an opportunity to assess their learning.  Regardless of the level, these are auto-graded. Like learning activities, CFUs are tied to either objectives or topics depending on the depth of  the objectives. 

2. A summative assessment (also called a final assessment) is provided at the end of the competency to determine mastery. In a Type I Adaptive Competency, these are either auto-graded or a project(s). In a Type II Dynamic Adaptive Competency, these are generally manually graded, but there's an also auto-graded option. When a student successfully completes the summative assessment, the student has mastered the competency and may continue work in the program. The purpose of the learning activities and formative assessments is to prepare the students to successfully complete the summative assessment.

Next week?  We get into the hard part - the backwards competency design process.  Part 3: Preparation for Competency Development

See how Strut's course solution can help you.

Leverage our complete white label degree program and course catalog to get online fast.Strut’s customizable course catalog provides a rapid (30 days) pathway to online courses with zero capital expenditures.Schedule a call now.

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