MIT Massive Annotated Bibliography

I chose to complete my annotated bibliography on Competency Based Education (CBE), which is a trendy topic in education today. At the beginning of the semester, the extent of my knowledge of CBE was essentially that CBE approached teaching in a different manner than traditional “seat time” education. Traditionally, each student spends the same amount of time studying a topic, and at the end of that time they are assessed to see how well they learned it before moving on (they only receive more time to study a topic if they do egregiously poorly and are forced to retake the whole course). CBE aims to instead make level of mastery fixed, and students are given as much time as they need on a topic to reach that level of mastery. In this way, every student should be competent in all content areas before they graduate. This idea, especially in conjunction with ideas I’ve learned about differences in individuals speed of learning (e.g., see The End of Average by Todd Rose) seemed very compelling to me, and a promising direction for schools to move towards in the future. I was also interested in looking at CBE for my annotated bibliography because I am working on a small project with Prof. Sanjay Sarma to investigate how CBE is (or isn’t) used in areas where attaining competency is a matter of life or death (e.g., flying an airplane or performing a surgery). For this reason, the references I found are not all on traditional K-16 education, and many extend into other educational domains.

Chyung, Seung Youn, Donald Stepich, and David Cox. “Building a competency-based curriculum architecture to educate 21st-century business practitioners.” Journal of Education for Business 81.6 (2006): 307-314.

This article discusses applying CBE to curriculum design, in this particular case for business education. The paper provides a nice background to definitions of CBE and terms within CBE. They argue for definition of competencies within each field: “the generic dictionary scales are applicable to all jobs and none precisely.” The paper provides a framework/flow-chart for how one particular program developed a CBE-based curriculum for “Information and Performance Technology.”


Ennis, Michelle R. Competency models: a review of the literature and the role of the employment and training administration (ETA). Office of Policy Development and Research, Employment and Training Administration, US Department of Labor, 2008.

This review covers the use of competency models in assessing employees (or potential employees) and in determining what is necessary of an employee. Here competency is used to mean being able to apply knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors and characteristics to performing a task. Furthermore, competencies are “specific personal qualities that are ‘causally related to effective and/or superior performance,’ are common across many settings and situations, and endure for some time.” A competency model is a tool for identifying the competencies needed for a specific role (i.e., a behavioral job description). Competency models are hierarchical: foundation which is common to many roles is common, and pieces more specific to a certain job are built on top of the foundational elements. Competency models provide a language and framework for determining the qualification of workers to move into different positions or how to improve their performance in the current position. Tying in assessments to competency based measures is important to successfully using competency based models. WGU pops up in the review as a higher education institution using competency models to try to train better teachers.


Frank, Jason R., et al. “Toward a definition of competency-based education in medicine: a systematic review of published definitions.” Medical teacher 32.8 (2010): 631-637.

This paper seeks to establish a clear, widely accepted definition of CBE within the medical field, which they approached by reviewing the medical literature on CBE (as well as searching Google). Four major themes within definitions of CBE are identified: organizing framework, rationale, contrast with time, and implementing CBE. Their proposed definition of CBE is as follows: “Competency-based education (CBE) is an approach to preparing physicians for practice that is fundamentally oriented to graduate outcome abilities and organized around competencies derived from an analysis of societal and patient needs. It deemphasizes time-based training and promises greater accountability, flexibility, and learner-centredness.”


Hamilton, Neil W., and Sarah Schaefer. “What Legal Education Can Learn from Medical Education About Competency-Based Learning Outcomes Including Those Related to Professional Formation (Professionalism).” (2015).

This report discusses CBE’s adoption in the medical field in the context of how their lessons can help CBE in law (which adopted CBE later). One of the main takeaways are that core competencies of being a doctor were identified (professionalism, patient care and procedural skills, medical knowledge, etc.) and that these competencies are assessable. Another main takeaway was the idea of the “hidden curriculum”: that much of what medical students learn is not in lectures or didactics, but through interaction with attending physicians in rotations at hospitals and clinics. If the hidden curriculum doesn’t support the stated curriculum, it undermines the authority of the stated curriculum as representing the field’s true best interests.


Hodge, Steven. “The origins of competency-based training.” Australian journal of adult learning 47.2 (2007): 179.

This paper discusses the “societal” and “theoretical” origins of CBT. CBT arose in the US in the 50s, 60s, and 70s due to societal trends towards accountability and personalization. Apparently Sputnik was the impetus, and fear of Soviet technological superiority spurred the federal government to play a larger role in education and training. The key theoretical influences on CBT were behavioral psychology (due to competencies being observable behaviors) and systems theory (training as system). The paper also discusses specific theoretical contributions to CBT.


Jamieson, Lynn M. “Competency-Based Approaches to Sport Management.” Journal of Sport Management 1.1 (1987).

This paper discusses the require competencies of sport managers/professionals (not to be confused with athletes). Competencies for such a position are in areas such as business procedures, communications, facility/maintenance, governance, legality, management techniques, etc. This paper’s analysis of CBE in sports management uses a lot of Likert scoring and statistics, but is not particularly insightful with respect to CBE, I thought CBE applied to a relatively unique field would be more interesting.


Jones, Elizabeth A., and Richard A. Voorhees. “Defining and Assessing Learning: Exploring Competency-Based Initiatives. Report of the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative Working Group on Competency-Based Initiatives in Postsecondary Education. Brochure [and] Report.” (2002).

This is a long report (almost 200 pages) that outlines competency based education in the context of higher education. It is intended to be used as a resource for professors or administrators who want to start competency based initiatives at their institution. The report identifies four main categories of “strong practices” in CBE institutions: planning, selecting assessments, ensuring learning experiences are relevant to competencies, and reviewing assessment results for iteration. There are some good specific examples of what the authors identify as competencies (e.g., see exhibit 2, appendices). The report includes a comprehensive annotated bibliography with many further references that look valuable for deeper study. The majority of the report is used to describe 8 case studies. I should return to this to read them in further detail, but one observation I had was that (at least when this report was written) most of the assessments described were indistinguishable from traditional assessments (test, essays graded by rubric, etc.).


Lorenzo, George. “Western Governors University: How competency-based distance education has come of age.” Educational Pathways 6.7 (2007): 1-4.

This article reports on the success of Western Governors University (WGU) an institution which is entirely distance learning and competency based. Here competency based is stated as meaning that students earn their degrees by passing assessments rather than completing credit hours. WGU seems to target adult learners (the reported average student age is 38) and students who wouldn’t be well served by a traditional residential university education. The types of assessments used include objective tests (I’m not sure what this means), performance tests, portfolios and projects. As an example, for teaching licensure students must perform 12 weeks of live teaching under observation as one of their assessments. There is also an attempt to use industry standard certifications when they available (this is often the case in IT and health professions). This article paints a very promising picture of WGU (although I also get the vibe that it is written by WGU’s publicity department) and its use of CBE. One question I am left with is how effectively CBE can be implemented outside the program areas offered by WGU (business, IT, health and teaching). See also the WGU program guidebook, annotated below.


Malan, S. P. T. “The ‘new paradigm’ of outcomes-based education in perspective.” Journal of Family Ecology and Consumer Sciences/Tydskrif vir Gesinsekologie en Verbruikerswetenskappe 28.1 (2000).

This paper reviews the roots of OBE and attempts to put recent efforts in perspective. OBE is an approach to education where the focus is on successful demonstrations of learning sought: where the “what” and “whether” of learning is more important than the “when” and “how.” OBE dates back to the middle ages (craft guilds). CBE was big in the US in the 60s, and was based on six components: explicit learning outcomes, flexible time frame, varied teaching activities, criterion-referenced assessment, certification based demonstrations, and adaptable programs. The author argues that calling OBE a paradigm shift is overselling it, as there is insufficient research base to verify the claims of OBE, and that OBE is not fundamentally different paradigmatically from traditional educational approaches. OBE is discussed as a transformational (rather than transmissive) approach. OBE uses performance-based and authentic assessment strategies within the context of criterion-referenced assessment, which must integrate knowledge, skills and values.


McClarty, Katie Larsen, and Matthew N. Gaertner. “Measuring Mastery: Best Practices for Assessment in Competency-Based Education. AEI Series on Competency-Based Higher Education.” American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (2015).

This report examines assessment in CBE, and sets a number of recommendations. The authors argue that it is critical to validate the assessment instrument used, that meaningful competency thresholds must be set which are based on multiple sources of evidence, and that assessment design should be drive by external validity (i.e., will employers care how students performed on these assessments?). These points are important because CBE cannot be successful without effective competency assessments. The article covers many specifics of the steps that should be taken in designing and validating an assessment.


Miller, Gregory E. “The assessment of clinical skills/competence/performance.” Academic medicine 65.9 (1990): S63-7.

This is a (quite well written) review of assessments used in medical education. The definitions used don’t map perfectly to many other CBE references in this bibliography, and the review distinguishes between knowledge, competency (meaning “applicable knowledge”), performance (meaning “demonstration in an artificial environment”), and action (what I would normally think of as performance, i.e., “doing the task in a real environment”). The review describes the different assessments developed and in use (at the time of writing) to infer all four of these characteristics of physicians in training. It is impressive how ahead of the curve the assessments described seem, given that this review is from 1990. The review also includes a number of insights gleaned from the field and the author’s experience: summative testing must be quite long to be accurate and ranking students is less important than determining if they’ve achieved a cut-off level of mastery. It is interesting to see that the author doesn’t know where professionalism should fit into medical education, an issue covered in depth in some of the other references in this bibliography (which had the benefit of being written almost two decades later).


Mueller, Paul S. “Incorporating professionalism into medical education: the Mayo Clinic experience.” The Keio journal of medicine 58.3 (2009): 133-143. APA

This paper discusses professionalism as a core physician competency. The paper claims that professionalism can be taught, learned and assessed (as opposed to being an intrinsic personal characteristic) and it is critical to do so as part of the education of certified medical professionals. As they argue that assessment of professionalism is critical, the authors also discuss methods for formative and summative assessment.


Scalese, Ross J., Vivian T. Obeso, and S. Barry Issenberg. “Simulation technology for skills training and competency assessment in medical education.” Journal of general internal medicine 23.1 (2008): 46-49.

This paper discusses the use of simulations in medical education and assessment, which has become more common partially due to a larger focus recently on competencies. They look at three types of simulations in particular: part task trainers, computer-enhanced mannequins, and virtual reality simulators. These technologies can help faculty save time and give students educational opportunities without exposing patients to novice practitioners. They also allow a proactive rather than ad hoc educational process (do whatever procedure needs doing at the time). In addition to benefits associated with teaching, simulations offer strong opportunities for assessment of competency.


Voorhees, Richard A. “Competency‐Based learning models: A necessary future.” New directions for institutional research 2001.110 (2001): 5-13.

This paper (chapter?) discusses the basic ideas of CBL as well as their potential to be implemented in higher education. Includes the popular pyramid diagram describing the relationships between competencies and other pieces in the conceptual learning model of CBE. The chapter discusses bundling and unbundling of competencies for different contexts. Competencies should be transparent, unambiguous and measurable. I should probably see if I can get a copy of the book from the library to do a more in depth reading.


Western Governors University. “Program Guidebook: Post-baccalaureate Teacher Preparation, Social Science (5-12).” (2015): 1-14.

This is a program guidebook for one of the teaching programs at WGU (see the article by Lorenzo above for details on WGU), which includes useful details and specifics about how programs are run at WGU. In addition to an explanation of what CBE means (in terms of relevance to the student), the guidebook also includes information on their mentoring approach, and how to connect with other students (since all coursework is completed online). The guidebook also covers the required assessments in detail, including supervised teaching demonstrations and a professional portfolio.

Through the process of writing my annotated bibliography, I learned a lot more about the definitions and frameworks associated with CBE, going beyond the basic idea that CBE is an alternative to seat time requirements. While not all definitions in the literature are 100% consistent, I think most of the authors I read would agree that a competency is the capability of applying knowledge, skills and abilities to the successful performance of a task. I also learned about competency models, which provide a framework for how different individual competencies can be bundled together, leading to successfully fulfilling a particular role or job (similar to how a single competency might bundle knowledge and skills in order to successfully perform a single task within that job). If one takes this approach to understanding what makes someone competent (or incompetent) at their job, it makes sense to design courses and educational opportunities so that they lead to their students acquiring valuable competencies.

Many of the references covered how to develop curriculum which uses CBE or how to implement CBE principles at an existing educational institution. Competencies associated with the course should be identified, and aligned with the learning objectives and course activities. Additionally, an assessment (or set of assessments) needs to be selected that accurately gauges the competency level of the student. Additionally, a level of achievement associated with successful acquisition of the competencies should be identified. Many references also covered more specific examples within a particular area of study, because while this general list of steps is simple, identifying competencies and developing assessments are very field specific and can be very involved.

I learned about some specific implementations of CBE in higher education, and while I found resources describing a number of different case studies, the case which is represented in my bibliography is Western Governors University (WGU). WGU seems to be successfully implementing CBE programs in business, IT, health and teaching, and mainly targets older students. CBE seems to match well with these fields (which have specific tasks that employees should be able to perform, somewhat in contrast to getting a degree in philosophy, for example), and there are many authentic performance assessments available that could demonstrate with confidence that a student has the necessary competencies without some seat time requirement. For older students, this model also seems very advantageous, as it avoids a full 4 years being required for a new degree when two or more of those years might be review of material they already learned through previous schooling or employment. WGU shows that CBE has promise in higher education, although there are definitely open questions for how the success at WGU would translate to more traditional institutions (e.g., residential colleges that primarily enroll young students).

It was very interesting to learn about the adoption of CBE in medical education, which many of the references I annotated were about. Medical education began to integrate aspects of CBE relatively early on, with the Miller review describing a well-established battery of CBE assessments already implemented and researched in 1990. This makes sense, because many of the tasks expected of a physician can be broken relatively cleanly into different competencies and the outcomes of their tasks are unambiguous and critically important (e.g., if a patient dies, that is a poor outcome potentially indicating a lack of competency). Somewhat unexpectedly however, one of the key features of CBE seems absent from medical education: there is still heavy reliance on seat time requirements. Medical school lasts at least four years for all M.D. students, and each residency program has a set number of years that must be completed before a physician can practice independently. It seems that some elements of CBE have been adopted in order to improve educational outcomes and alert institutions to individuals who need more training on a particular procedure, but the pieces which would accelerate the certification of doctors who don’t require this length of training are missing. For the critical competencies associated with medical doctors, it seems the powers that be still trust seat time requirements more than competency based performance assessments.

Besides the more factual information I learned, I came away with two main impressions of CBE. One of the impressions is that it seems very easy to come up with a curriculum in a CBE wrapper (i.e., identify desired competencies, choose activities aligned with those competencies, etc.) that is essentially identical to traditional education, just with an exit assessment rather than seat time requirements. While this might still sound appealing, in these cases (which I think are most commonly the application of CBE to K-12 education) it seems the assessments are often just essays that are graded with rubrics designed with competencies in mind. For most K-12 topics (with possible exceptions in areas that we’re already good at assessing in a very quantitative way, like math), I think CBE is still far from being able to claim the victories that have been achieved at small scale in higher education.

The other impression I got is that good assessments are key to the successful implementation of CBE, and developing good assessments can be very difficult. Related to the previous point about some CBE being traditional education in a different wrapper, if you have high confidence in the assessment being accurate, then the CBE class really starts to look more novel. However, I personally don’t think that essays graded with rubrics are a very effective way of assessing student competencies, although more research into the area showing their success could change my mind. The more exciting prospect to me is the development of assessments that begin to look more authentic and performance based, which I think represent a true departure from traditional educational structures. Of course, much further work would be needed to develop such assessments, and it’s not clear to me who could provide the resources for that development.

Overall I still think the basic ideas of CBE are compelling, and it makes sense to move towards that direction in K-16 as well as other areas of education. Even so, I think there is a lot of work that needs to happen before CBE will be more effective (and have more public trust) than traditional seat time education, especially in terms of assessment. I’m also wary of some attempts to implement CBE, which don’t seem to be that different from the systems they would replace, although they could still be helpful in incrementally developing curriculum, activities and assessments, so maybe there is little harm in those attempts. I’m excited to see what happens with CBE in the future, but I’m not convinced that if it becomes adopted in name, it will truly represent a shift in educational philosophy.

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