Conference PaperPDF Available

Competency-Based Education at the Doctoral Level: Perspectives from the Fielding Experience

Competency-Based Education
at the Doctoral Level:
Perspectives from the Fielding Experience
Katrina Rogers, Charles McClintock, Monique Snowden,
Orlando Taylor, and Mario Borunda
Perspectives from the Fielding Experience
Katrina Rogers, Charles McClintock, Monique Snowden, Orlando Taylor,
and Mario Borunda, Fielding Graduate University, September 2014
This essay considers competency-based models in doctoral education within the
context of their current advancement in higher education. The authors present
Fielding Graduate University’s 40 years of experience in offering competency-
based PhD programs as a case study, as well as perspectives on the requirements
for making competency-based education (CBE) work at the doctoral level and the
implications for prior learning assessment (PLA) and accreditation.
Although many decades old, higher education models that focus more on outcomes than on
seat time are gaining interest and application in American higher education (Fain, 2013). These
models—which have been advanced at a variety of institutional types from Alverno College to
Western Governors University—generally focus on allowing students exibility in the strategies they
use for acquiring mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. The
outcomes-based strategies provide alternatives to the way that college credits can be earned or awarded,
and provide students with personalized learning opportunities.
Competency-based teaching and learning strategies have been a particular focus of this increased
interest. Competency-based models typically require a clear and distinct set of learning outcomes that de-
scribe expectations for students (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2012, p. 10). Competency-
based models were introduced in the United States in the late 1960s largely in response to concerns by
some that students were not being taught the skills required for life (work) after college. These models
have waxed and waned over the years for a variety of reasons, not the least being conicting educational
policies, faculty and institutional resistance, and implementation complexities.
Fielding Graduate University2
The U.S. federal government, a few philanthropic foundations, and some accrediting bodies (e.g.,
WASC) have encouraged colleges and universities to intensify their consideration of competency-based
(sometimes referred to as outcomes-based and more recently prociency-based) models in their toolkits
for the delivery of educational programs. This encouragement is frequently couched in the belief that
such models can potentially make college education more affordable, efcient, and productive, while
reducing time to degree attainment and contributing to national workforce needs (Soares, 2012, p. 1).
For example, cost reduction is a major element in the educational model and marketing at Western
Governors University (WGU) and Capella University, two institutions that feature competency-based
programs. On its website, WGU features exible, online learning, “learn when its ts your life” (WGU
website, 2014, p. 1). In its marketing brochures, Capella claims that competency-based graduate and
professional programs have the “potential to signicantly reduce the cost of a degree, accelerate the time
required for degree completion, and better align learning to the needs of employers and society” (Capella
Education, 2013, p. 1). In July 2014, New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno announced that
four institutions in that state had formed a statewide network to advance prior assessments of college
credit for learning acquired previously on the job or from life experiences. This effort was reportedly
advanced to lower costs and time to degree while increasing access and retention.
A major federal impetus for encouraging consideration of competency-based and related outcomes-
based models was a 2005 congressional bill (U.S. Code Title 20, chapter 28) that dened higher education
programs that qualied for federal nancial aid as follows:
an instructional program that, in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as the measure of
student learning, utilizes direct assessment of student learning, or recognizes the direct
assessment of student learning by others, if such assessment is consistent with the accred-
itation of the institution or program utilizing the results of the assessment.
In a subsequent 2013 Department of Education (DOE) message to the higher education community
(March 2013), the language was further dened as follows:
Financial aid may be awarded based on students’ mastery of “competencies” rather than
their accumulation of credits. That has major ramications for institutions hoping to
create new education models that don’t revolve around the amount of time that students
spend in class.
To date, the discussion and application of competency-based educational models have focused large-
ly on undergraduate education and little on graduate education. Moreover, consideration has not al-
ways been carefully calibrated to attend to potential disciplinary differences in outcomes (prociency)
expectations. In addition, the focus has been more on the outcomes achieved from such models—some-
times in a checklist-like manner—rather than on giving equal time to the learning processes that may
Competency-Based Education at the Doctoral Level 3
undergird the application of such models. The as-
pect of focusing more on content than process is
sometimes a common critique of competency-based
education (CBE) models also.
With respect to graduate and professional
education, there is a rather long history of national
disciplinary societies having the authority to accredit
professionally oriented master’s and doctoral programs
based upon the offering of a curriculum in which
rather precise and measurable learning outcomes are
required by degree recipients. For example, medical
schools have long used competency-based learning
for training (Frank, et al., 2010, p. 638), including
such models for residency training as well as class-
room learning (Dolan, 2000, pp. 1178-9). In 2013, the
Department of Education approved Capella Univer-
sity to offer the rst MBA program in the country based entirely on assessing demonstrated competencies
rather than on completing a certain number of credit hours. Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degrees
represent an example of competency-like graduate programs that have been introduced on the scene in the
science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines in recent years (National Professional
Science Masters Association, 2014, p. 1).
Fielding Graduate University is among a small number of doctoral granting institutions in the United
States that have focused on competency-based doctoral education. Since its founding 40 years ago, Fielding
has emphasized a doctoral education model that “distributes” customized and highly mentored learning
and research opportunities in formats to meet the needs, aspirations, and learning styles of its students,
including online and blended education and face-to-face instruction as well as self-directed, active, and
community-based learning. It also assesses prior learning and awards credits toward the doctorate in pro-
grams such as media psychology, human development, human and organizational systems, and education.
The Fielding model is characterized by networked learning programs for adult students based on
an assessment model that offers considerable latitude for self-paced, self-directed learning. The model
recognizes various modes of learning as it emphasizes not only preparing scholar-practitioners but also
that learning is more than what students know, in the conventional sense of the word; equally important
is that they are able to put what they know into use.
In the sections that follow, we will explore the following topics pertaining to CBE and doctoral
• Selected elements of successful CBE at the graduate level
• CBE at the doctoral level: Fielding Graduate University
Prior learning assessment and accreditation in doctoral education
The discussion
and application of
educational models
have focused largely
on undergraduate
education and little on
graduate education.
Fielding Graduate University4
As with every aspect of CBE implementation, several elements must be in place for success to ensue
at the doctoral level—and for the concept to gain institution-wide credibility and acceptance. These
elements include a cadre of well prepared faculty, technology and staff support, and a defensible
evaluation research plan. In addition, doctoral granting institutions must be mindful of the need to
prepare the next generation of college and university faculty with CBE expertise.
Faculty Development
The major entry point for consideration of competency-based education at the PhD level (beyond
evidence of competence to conduct independent research as demonstrated by the completion and
defense of the dissertation) revolves around the need for a critical mass of well-trained faculty in the
research, theory, and pedagogies to successfully deliver CBE. If competency-based education is to
attain maximal success and credibility within academia at all degree levels, a cadre of faculty is clearly
needed that have such knowledge and competence, and traditionally prepared faculty are generally
wanting in this regard! Since the doctoral degree is generally a preferred credential for most college
and university faculty positions at all institutional types, doctoral granting institutions have a role to
play in preparing future faculty for CBE delivery and in providing professional development oppor-
tunities for current faculty.
Traditional faculty at doctoral-level U.S. institutions are
generally well prepared to provide advanced-level educa-
tion in a graduate education model that focuses on teach-
ing advanced-level courses, facilitating advanced seminars
that focus on theory and research as well as research men-
toring leading to the completion of a doctoral dissertation.
In a sense, an expected “competence” in all PhD programs
is the demonstration of an ability to produce new knowl-
edge as indicated by the completion of a defensible doctor-
al dissertation. In competency-based doctoral programs,
however, more is expected, specically the availability of a
faculty that understands and is well prepared to facilitate
linkages among and between advanced, demonstrable,
and assessable courses as well as program and institutional
competencies. In general, these linkages should establish
the identication of specic learning outcomes, assess-
ment rubrics, indices of student achievement, program
evaluation data collection and analysis requirements, and
a feedback loop for program improvement.
Doctoral granting
institutions must
be mindful of
the need to
prepare the
next generation
of college
and university
faculty with
CBE expertise.
Competency-Based Education at the Doctoral Level 5
To achieve these linkages with faculty, an intensive development program for graduate faculty with
two different foci should be considered. One focus should be aimed at those who are eager to embrace
the concepts and methods of CBE, including best practices for assessing and perhaps giving academic
credit for prior learning. This focus would include a thorough review of the conceptual framework and
terminology for CBE and prior learning assessment (PLA) and processes for developing master syllabi
that include learning outcomes and related assessment rubrics. Importantly, there is a need to illustrate
the use of prior professional experience through portfolios of student accomplishment such as work
projects and professional presentations. A yet to be developed part of this effort is to compile a wide range
of artifacts or portfolios of material that might be presented as evidence to be assessed for its equivalence
to curricular mastery.
The effectiveness of this type of faculty development effort will be enhanced by the availability of
case studies and examples across a range of disciplines, including those with licensure/certication
requirements for practice (e.g., clinical psychology, audiology), those with strict and structured disciplinary
educational standards (e.g., natural sciences, economics), and those that have degrees of multidisci-
plinary content (e.g., organizational behavior, education, communication).
The second approach to faculty development for doctoral faculty should be designed to over-
come faculty resistance to change based on the idea that “if it’s not grown here, it can’t be any
good.” High barriers to cross-institutional trade characterize much of doctoral education. While
transfer credits might be allowed rather frequently for baccalaureate degrees, this is often not the
case for doctoral degree programs. Consideration of prior learning through professional experience
or general postgraduate studies—let alone course credits for such experiences—is likely to meet with
incredulity among many graduate faculty members. This reality highlights the need for clear learn-
ing outcomes and rigorous assessment processes of prior learning to ensure academic equivalence
at the doctoral level.
Preparation of the Future Professoriate
Although critical, it is not enough to prepare a cadre of current faculty to deliver competency-based
instruction. In anticipation of the growth of CBE and PLA, there is the need to integrate these ideas
for faculty development into graduate curricula for current doctoral students as a part of preparing
the future professoriate to use these tools along with other classroom pedagogies. This issue has the
same urgency that is now recognized for online and blended learning as a means for ensuring that
current doctoral students who seek academic and other instructional careers will have sound prepa-
ration in distance learning pedagogy.
One controversial form of CBE disaggregates the role of faculty member into potentially separate
functions of assessor of prior learning, mentor to guide students in study to meet curricular requirements,
and developer of assessment tools and instrument. These foci could not only assist in preparing future
faculty but also provide guidance on graduate education competencies that would support CBE and PLA.
Fielding Graduate University6
Technology and Staff Support
There are a number of technical and staff support implications surrounding the growth of CBE and PLA.
Most obvious is the need for student information systems that can accommodate student learning at
the time they need it as well as documentation of prior learning assessment rubrics and credit equiva-
lencies. Additionally, technical and staff support is needed to provide student support services online
at all times. Indeed, many commercial providers are beginning to build this functionality into systems.
The challenge for graduate education programs, similar to that in purchasing online learning or course
management systems, is to assess the features and their relevance for the doctoral experience and to
determine the value of different commercial providers.
Also, as with the advent of online and blended learning, there may be a need for staff specialist posi-
tions to assist graduate faculty in developing assessment tools. For example, depending upon the detail
and degree of structure involved in assessing prior learning, staff with psychometric test development
expertise could assist faculty in professional and technical graduate elds such as business and engineer-
ing in designing rubrics to assess the acquisition of learning outcomes expected of their programs and
possibly required by their accrediting bodies.
Evaluation Research for CBE in Doctoral Programs
Finally, and similar to what has once again been happening with online and blended learning
(McClintock, et al., 2013), there is a need for research that evaluates the processes and outcomes of
CBE and PLA. This research agenda should have both internal and external dimensions, and should
include the development of an internal program assessment cycle that informs program improvement.
The ideal setting from a research design standpoint is to assess learning outcomes and postgraduate ca-
reer outcomes within a single doctoral program that has traditional classroom graduates as well as those
who graduate under a CBE format. Selection bias is likely to be an important factor to assess because
students who choose CBE are likely to be older and possibly more adept at independent learning than
those in traditional educational situations.
Fielding Graduate University was the realization of the vision of several founders: Frederic Hudson,
Hallock Hoffman, Renata Tesch, and Marie Fielder—all distinguished higher education administrators
and practitioners. The founders envisioned a nationally recognized graduate school that would serve
midcareer professionals wanting to pursue an advanced degree but whose educational and professional
objectives could not be met by traditional institutions of higher education. Their success was predicated
on two basic, rather advanced notions.
First, the founders speculated that students seeking advanced degrees at Fielding would often be mid-
Competency-Based Education at the Doctoral Level 7
career adults who wanted to enhance already well-established academic and professional skills; who
would be committed to effecting a midlife career change; and all of whom, by the nature
of their quest for a quality graduate education at midlife, would be interested in being part of a
lifetime-learning community.
A second pillar of the Fielding founding model was the recognition that middle-aged and older adults
typically bring experiences to graduate study that are signicantly different from those of young adults.
Thus, the traditional pedagogical method of education—active teacher, passive learner—were thought to
be possibly inadequate or inappropriate for such learners in doctoral education. To accommodate and
capitalize upon the learning styles of its students, Fielding developed a rigorous, supportive learning model
that continues to this day as exible, adult-centered, self-directed, task-oriented, and competence-based.
Squarely in the center of the progressive educational movement at the time, Fielding’s doctoral learn-
ing model was originally designed as a hybrid, competency-based model. Its students would travel to
various locations all over the country to meet with faculty in intensive face-to-face seminars and then
return home and work directly with faculty and other students in their communities and elsewhere.
Fielding’s philosophy, then and now, is based on Malcolm Knowles’s major principles of adult learning
(Knowles,1973, pp. 38-40):
Adults are motivated to learn as they develop needs and
interests that learning will satisfy.
• Adult orientation to learning is life and/or work centered.
• Experience is the richest resource for adult learning.
• Adults have a deep need to be self-directing.
Individual differences among adult learners increase
with age and experience.
The [Fielding] founders envisioned a nationally
recognized graduate school that would serve
midcareer professionals wanting to pursue an
advanced degree, but whose educational and
professional objectives could not be met by
traditional institutions of higher education.
Fielding Graduate University8
In Fielding’s early years, these principles informed the develop-
ment of competency-based doctoral programs. In this approach,
the notion of competencies had a different quality than the way
competencies are dened today. Rather than identifying specic
competencies, the focus was more holistic. The learning models
were focused on facilitating learning that would help midcareer
adult learners become better scholar-practitioners. Students were
expected to acquire knowledge and be able to demonstrate that
they could put some such knowledge into practice. The university
focused originally more on competence in leading change at the
intrapsychic, group, and organizational level which led to creat-
ing large order systems change. In the early 2000s, however, at
the urging of constituencies and its accreditation agency (WASC),
Fielding developed doctoral-level competencies (DLCs) that have
become increasingly granular, and students’ work is now assessed
for university-wide as well as program-level competencies.
At Fielding today, CBE focuses on building skills and intel-
lectual achievement linked to learner needs, as dened by the
faculty mentor and the student. CBE’s doctoral education is
complex, involving multiple and explicit layers of assessment,
which include but are not limited to written essays, portfolios,
products from eld experiences and practitioner/professional
settings, and multiple media such as lms, videos, and montages. Learners create their learning plans
in dialogue with their mentors and others based on what they seek to know.
For example, one of the distinctive features of doctoral study at Fielding is that faculty members are
not teachers in the conventional sense of the word. For years, Fielding’s founders gave each new faculty
member a copy of Laurent Daloz’s book on effective teaching and mentoring (1986) as a reminder
that Fielding’s learning model is different from the learning model faculty follow elsewhere in higher
education. Fielding intentionally seeks to hire graduate faculty with a deep commitment to student
mentoring and to helping students design learning experiences and assess their learning outcomes as
they develop doctoral competencies. Rather than featuring “sage-on-the-stage” professors, the Fielding
model features self-directed learning, guided by faculty whose primary responsibility is to facilitate
learning and personal development toward the goal of becoming a PhD recipient through the classic
methods of dialogue and discussion.
In the Fielding model, large skill sets can be broken down into competencies, which have sequential
levels of mastery. Competencies reinforce one another cumulatively as learning progresses; the impact of
increasing competencies is synergistic, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Fielding’s current
certicate of completion reects this core practice in terms of how it thinks about adult learning.
The learning
models were
focused on
learning that
would help
adult learners
better scholar-
Competency-Based Education at the Doctoral Level 9
Fielding assesses doctoral students across three university-wide competencies in addition to
program-specic competencies: diversity, critical thinking, and scholarly writing. As an example of program-
specic competencies, the doctoral program in the eld of human and organizational development assesses
competencies in the following areas:
• Knowledge of the literature
• Creative thinking
• Appropriate use of personal voice
Understanding of ethical issues and social justice and
ecological implications
• Ability to reect on own practice in light of theory and research
• Understanding of research methodological issues
• Effective use of faculty feedback for revisions
Technical skills for written work, including appropriate
formatting, correct referencing, and thorough proong
Another aspect of competency-based education, which Fielding faculty members pioneered,
involves designing learning experiences to support students as they practice using and applying
required competencies in different contexts. Competency is not just about knowing a content area
but also about having the capability to take action. The underlying concept is that students must
go beyond knowledge acquisition and demonstrate that they can apply what they have learned in
different situations.
Lessons Learned from the Fielding Experience
The Fielding example reminds us of a core premise of the CBE movement, which is that what matters
most in any educational experience—including doctoral-level degree programs—is not what courses
or knowledge areas are offered or the number of credit hours completed by students. Instead, it is
what students can demonstrate they know as a result of their educational experiences and how they
can use what they know in their postgraduate professional and personal lives. In the aforementioned
2013 Department of Education memorandum to the higher education community, the case was made
that the outcomes-based model involves “transitioning away from seat time in favor of a structure that
creates exibility, allowing students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content,
regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide exibility in the
way credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities”
(Department of Education, 2013, p. 1).
Fielding Graduate University10
This latter statement is an almost exact description of the learning model Fielding featured when the
institution opened 40 years ago. Going forward, Fielding and other institutions that offer competen-
cy-based programs at the doctoral level must seek to further advance these models in at least two ways.
First, they must be committed to educating the next generation of faculty who will be expected to excel
at the tools of CBE at the undergraduate level in such areas as individual learning within a group context,
prior learning assessment, self-directed pedagogies, and educational technologies that support all aspects
of the student experience. Second, Fielding and other institutions must seek to further rene compe-
tency-based education at the doctoral level to encompass three needed pillars in the future of higher
education generally, which are access (attracting more diverse constituencies in a multicultural society),
affordability (building new models that are less expensive yet high quality), and relevance (demonstrating
the value of a graduate education both philosophically to support democracy and specically as a way to
build human capital).
An important way forward, in our view, is to link CBE with prior learning assessment (PLA) at the
doctoral level. Utilizing a rigorous methodology for PLA combined with CBE could result in afford-
able and relevant graduate education in general, and doctoral education in particular. Coupling CBE
and PLA creates the possibility of more individuals being eligible for a quality graduate education
experience. It would also open up a space for the knowledgeable potential student who may lack
only the opportunity for structured educational experiences.
In many ways, however, PLA is the “thorniest” issue of the CBE movement—especially at the doc-
toral level. Moreover, there are clear accreditation implications when it comes to awarding credit hours
toward graduation. The American Council of Education, for example, informs prospective college stu-
dents as follows:
A sign that you might be dealing with a diploma mill is if it awards unlimited credit for
prior learning (accredited colleges and universities typically state very clearly in their pol-
icy the maximum number of PLA credits and transfer credits they will accept). Further, an
accredited institution will accept prior learning credits only if they are accompanied by
thorough documentation and demonstration of competency (2014 p. 1).
The preceding statement connotes an implicit challenge for individuals desiring to enroll in in-
stitutions and programs that offer signicantly more PLA credits than might be considered reason-
ably aligned with accreditor standards. This is especially true when one is considering enrollment
in a doctoral program. On the institutional side, administrators and faculty at all degree levels must
maintain the academic integrity of their institutions and its curricula while simultaneously attend-
ing to more rapidly shifting needs and expectations of students, employers, and society in general.
Competency-Based Education at the Doctoral Level 11
Throughout higher education, academic leaders are faced with changing views of what constitutes an
earned degree, whether undergraduate, professional, or graduate, from a particular institution. Further,
a mounting question at all levels is: How do we know when and from where students are actually
learning, thereby culminating in the demonstration of competencies that reect learning outcomes
having been realized?
The PLA Dilemma
Propelled into the educational forefront by a conuence of events in higher education, specically
in relation to CBE and initiatives to “crack” the credit hour (New America Foundation, 2012), PLA
has emerged from the shadows of more generally applied transfer credits. Further, deliberations on
the future of CBE and college-level learning are intrinsically tied to renewed considerations of the
less ubiquitous application of PLA.
On one end, CBE engages a learning process that accentuates learning outcomes in terms of students
advancing “in their program of study not by accumulating credit hours, but by demonstrating their skills
and knowledge of particular subject matter competencies through a set of assessments” (New America
Foundation, 2012 p. 1). On the other end, PLA is an interwoven process of evaluating and valuating
learning outcomes that are reected in and evidenced by the expertise, knowledge, and skills individuals
acquire while “living their lives: working, participating in employer training programs, serving in the
military, studying independently, volunteering or doing community service, and studying open source
courseware” (Council for Adults and Experiential Learning, 2014, p. 1).
At the graduate level, PLA requires a rigorous methodology that evaluates competencies by measuring
artifacts produced by the potential graduate student within a framework of learning objectives. This kind
of analysis can only be done by accomplished faculty members and senior administrators who are uent
in CBE and in the culture of assessment.
At the nexus of CBE and PLA processes and outcomes is accreditation. In terms of learning, accredi-
tors have been historically and principally outcomes focused. On the other side, however, accreditation
agencies have been longstanding sentries of thresholds that delineate how much extant learning must
take place “at” a particular institution and “within” the context of accreditor approved programs. Thus,
the collective potential of CBE and PLA to reduce the cost of a degree and accelerate the time required for
degree completion is ostensibly circumscribed by the cumulative percentage of program requirements
that will not be granted by way of prior learning assessment. This framing has inhibited innovative ways
of thinking about PLA and CBE at the doctoral level.
Doctoral granting universities seek to sustain numerous forms of accreditation that convey institu-
tional, school, and program quality to internal and external constituencies. Furthermore, depending on
its academic program offerings, an institution may be challenged with maintaining multiple and layered
accreditations for their doctoral programs that are guided by different standards, processes, and timing
for accreditation reafrmation. The particulars of an institution’s accreditation mix require careful con-
sideration when determining which programs—including its graduate and doctoral programs—are most
Fielding Graduate University12
viable or vulnerable in terms of CBE and PLA. In most cases, feasibilities of opportunity or susceptibilities
to challenges are neither predetermined nor xed by institutional, school, or program accreditors. Argu-
ably, the ways and means by which institutional and academic leaders view accreditation as a constraint
to the construction of learners, learning, and learner outcomes is another tie that binds innovations in
higher education.
A New Model
Moving from CBE as construct to competency-based prior learning assessment (CB-PLA) in praxis at
the doctoral level necessitates placing learners at the center. That is, a key distinction between edu-
cation and learning is the entity being emphasized—educator or learner (Knowles, et al., 2011). The
framing of competency-based doctoral education suggests that educators (faculty) are at the center
of the learning process. Alternatively, CB-PLA can effectively, and necessarily, sever the educator
from the learner. Thus, learners and learning are foci of learning assessment. Moving from lowercase
c (credit) to uppercase C (Competency) hinges on strong assessment cultures and associated practices.
Enacting learning assessment that strongly, therefore defensibly, conveys individual learning is fun-
damental to the conferral of a comprehensive uppercase CREDENTIAL.
In addition to institutions founded on a CBE platform, like Fielding Graduate University, or a more
recent innovation, like Southern New Hampshire University, many colleges and universities are at the
precipice of change, including many that offer graduate and doctoral studies. Higher education is both
on and at the brink of a PLA movement stimulated by CBE. Being “on” the brink of a breakthrough is
markedly different than being “at” the brink of a breakdown. In both cases, and beyond the preposition,
clearly something is changing from one state to another. What is less clear, however, is the exibility that
colleges and universities will be afforded and employ in terms of respective degrees of freedom in the
margins, at the edges, and within the borders of the CBE, PLA, and accreditation triad.
The particulars of an institution’s accreditation
mix require careful consideration when
determining which programs—including its
graduate and doctoral programs—are most
viable or vulnerable in terms of CBE and PLA.
Competency-Based Education at the Doctoral Level 13
Competency-based education (CBE) has a long history in U.S. higher education. In recent years,
however, it has moved from the periphery to a central focus for addressing access, affordability,
and relevance for today’s diverse student populations. While most of the recent interest in CBE has
focused on undergraduate education, there are signicant implications for teaching and learning in
doctoral education.
As we suggest in this essay, doctoral education is a critical part of the evolution in higher education
involving CBE, just as it has been in recent years in online education. Moreover, doctoral granting
institutions have an opportunity—indeed a challenge—to produce a new generation of faculty members
who are capable of using CBE to promote access and learning for students across the landscape of higher
education institutions. In addition, as has been the case with online learning, the renewed attention
given to teaching and learning, including explicit learning outcomes and their assessment, addresses the
increasing diversity of career trajectories of doctoral students and enriches the traditional apprenticeship
model for doctoral education. At the very least, CBE models have the potential for guiding graduate
faculty in making more explicit what they want graduate students to learn and how best to assess it,
irrespective of their ultimate career goals.
In sum, the next innovation in doctoral education will need to include CBE and, especially for older
adults entering graduate education, prior learning assessment (PLA). As with all of higher education,
CBE and PLA at the doctoral level will minimally require the following:
An orientation toward student-centered, rigorous, supportive
learning that is also exible and self-directed and includes
applied practice of doctoral knowledge
An understanding of multiple modalities for doctoral
instructional programs that are competency-based
Consideration for university-wide as well as program and
course-based competencies
An institutional approach to faculty development that includes
preparing the future professoriate for CBE and PLA
A deliberate investment in support staff and technology to
manage the logistics
A well-designed formative and summative evaluation research
Fielding Graduate University14
About the authors
Katrina S. Rogers is president of Fielding Graduate University. She has held teaching positions at Northern Arizona University,
the Thunderbird Global School of Management, and Coconino County Community College, working with undergraduates of
underrepresented groups as well as graduate students in interdisciplinary and international settings.
Charles McClintock is president of the Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law, professor emeritus at Cornell University,
and dean emeritus at Fielding Graduate University. He co-authored
Online Graduate Education
for the Council of Graduate
Schools and specializes in issues of access and innovation for adult graduate education.
Monique L. Snowden is vice president of Academic and Enrollment Services at Fielding Graduate University, and has held
senior administrative positions at Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies and Texas A&M University, specializing
in learner-centered strategic enrollment management. She is the vice president of access and equity for the American
Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Ofcers.
Orlando L. Taylor is vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Research and director of the Institute for Social Innovation
at Fielding Graduate University. He is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities and has held
several senior university leadership positions in higher education. Currently, he directs a major NSF-funded project to prepare
women in the STEM disciplines for leadership positions in higher education.
Mario Borunda is provost at Fielding Graduate University. He has held academic leadership positions for several decades,
including deanships at Wheelock College and Lesley University.
American Council of Education. (2014).
Adult learners guide to prior learning assessment
. Retrieved from
Capella Education. (2013).
The U.S. Department of Education approves groundbreaking learning model
Retrieved from
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2012).
Competency-based degree programs in the U.S
Chicago: CAEL. Retrieved from
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2014).
Prior learning assessment service
. Retrieved from
Daloz, Laurent A. (1986).
Effective teaching and mentoring: Realizing the transformational power of adult learning
. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Competency-Based Education at the Doctoral Level 15
Department of Education. (2013, March 13).
Education department releases guidance on providing Title IV eligibility
for competency-based learned programs
. Retrieved from
Dolan, L.( 2000). Competency-based residential training.
Academic Medicine
, 75, (112), 1178-1183.
Fain, P. (2013, April 22). Credit without teaching,
Inside Higher Ed
. Retrieved from
Frank, J., Snell, L., Cate, O., et al. (2010). Competency-based medical education: Theory to practice.
Medical Teacher
32 (8), 638-645.
Klein-Collins, R. (2013).
Sharpening our focus on learning: The rise of competency-based approaches to degree
. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.
Retrieved from
Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2011).
The adult learner: The denitive classic in adult education and
human resources development
. (7th ed.) London: Elsevier.
Knowles, M. (1973).
The adult learner: A neglected species
. Retrieved from http://
McClintock, C., Benoit, J., & Mageean, D. (2013).
Online graduate education
. Council of Graduate Schools.
Washington, DC.
Maehl, W. H. (2000).
Lifelong learning at its best: Innovative practices in adult credit programs
. San Francisco, CA:
New America Foundation. (2012).
Prior learning and competency-based education
Retrieved from
National Professional Science Masters Association. (2014).
Overview of the NPSMA and PSM degree
Retrieved from
Soares, L. (2012).
A ‘disruptive’ look at competency-based education: How the innovative use of technology will
transform the college experience
. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
Western Governors University. (2014).
Website front page
. Retrieved from
2020 De la Vina Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93105-3814
©2014 Fielding Graduate University
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Although competency-based medical education (CBME) has attracted renewed interest in recent years among educators and policy-makers in the health care professions, there is little agreement on many aspects of this paradigm. We convened a unique partnership - the International CBME Collaborators - to examine conceptual issues and current debates in CBME. We engaged in a multi-stage group process and held a consensus conference with the aim of reviewing the scholarly literature of competency-based medical education, identifying controversies in need of clarification, proposing definitions and concepts that could be useful to educators across many jurisdictions, and exploring future directions for this approach to preparing health professionals. In this paper, we describe the evolution of CBME from the outcomes movement in the 20th century to a renewed approach that, focused on accountability and curricular outcomes and organized around competencies, promotes greater learner-centredness and de-emphasizes time-based curricular design. In this paradigm, competence and related terms are redefined to emphasize their multi-dimensional, dynamic, developmental, and contextual nature. CBME therefore has significant implications for the planning of medical curricula and will have an important impact in reshaping the enterprise of medical education. We elaborate on this emerging CBME approach and its related concepts, and invite medical educators everywhere to enter into further dialogue about the promise and the potential perils of competency-based medical curricula for the 21st century.
Credit without teaching, Inside Higher Ed Retrieved from https
  • P Fain
Fain, P. (2013, April 22). Credit without teaching, Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from news/2013/04/22/competency-based-educations-newest-form-creates-promise-and-questions
Competency-based residential training
  • L Dolan
Dolan, L.( 2000). Competency-based residential training. Academic Medicine, 75, (112), 1178-1183.
Prior learning assessment service
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2014). Prior learning assessment service. Retrieved from
Adult learners guide to prior learning assessment Retrieved from Capella Education The U.S. Department of Education approves groundbreaking learning model
  • American Council
  • Education
American Council of Education. (2014). Adult learners guide to prior learning assessment. Retrieved from Capella Education. (2013). The U.S. Department of Education approves groundbreaking learning model. Retrieved from Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2012). Competency-based degree programs in the U.S.