How One Institution is Using Competency Based Examination to Accelerate Degree Completion

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Seeking to provide students with multiple paths to earn credit toward a college degree, Colorado State University-Global Campus already offers a wide range of alternative credit options, including Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) and credit for CLEP and DSST exams. But recently — in June 2014 — CSU-Global added a new option, allowing students to take Competency Based Exams (CBEs) in a wide variety of undergraduate courses.

We recently talked with Dr. Jon Bellum, provost and senior vice president at CSU-Global, to learn more about how his institution is using this credit alternative.

How Competency Based Exams Work

CSU-Global began working to offer CBEs for the majority of their undergraduate courses about a year ago, after a series of small-scale pilots to determine whether CBE was a good fit for their programs. They discovered that it was a good fit for all but a few courses and subsequently rolled out the program more widely.

The CBEs were developed in-house, with faculty and instructional designers working together. The tests are designed to measure the outcomes of the class that students would otherwise take, just as projects measure outcomes in traditional online courses. CSU-Global faculty write each exam, which consists primarily of multiple-choice and short-answer questions.

Once students identify the exam they want to take, CSU-Global provides an exam preparation environment. That environment includes:

  • Course content
  • A study guide to help them prepare for the exam
  • Practice quizzes modeled after the exam questions so students can get a “diagnostic” feel for their mastery of the material

Once students are ready to take the exam, they pay $250 for a 3-credit CBE or $150 for a 1-credit CBE, and the online exam is administered and proctored by a third party. Students are permittedd two attempts to pass the exam, which requires a score of 70 percent or higher to receive credits for the equivalent course.

Course credit earned through CBEs is marked with an EX on a student’s transcript (e.g., SOC101EX for Introduction to Sociology). Credit earned in this fashion is not automatically transferrable to other Colorado state institutions under the state’s current transfer policy (Colorado gtPathway), and students planning to transfer are encouraged to check with the transfer institution before undertaking CBEs. However, that may change in the near future, as Colorado’s Commission on Higher Education recently began working on a comprehensive statewide policy regarding the awarding and transfer of alternative credit of all forms, including CBEs.

How CBE Differs from Other Alternative Credit Options

A key difference between PLAs and CSU-Global’s CBE program is that the CBE option does not assume students have prior knowledge.

“With the CBEs, we don’t expect the students to already know the knowledge. We give them the opportunity to learn that knowledge using many of the same materials that are in the courses.”
Jon Bellum, CSU-Global

Some students taking CBEs might indeed have subject knowledge from previous studies or training, but other students might pursue CBE because they can take the exams faster and at a lower cost than the corresponding course. CSU-Global’s eight-week courses focus on project-based assessments modeled after what’s going on in work environments, in part because many of their students are working adults. But some students prefer the exam approach and the acceleration it offers.

The Challenge: Helping Students Decide whether to Take CBE or Traditional Coursework

“The biggest challenge is, first of all, getting students to see that this is an alternative and that they can use it, and once they get educated about it, to have them take the plunge,” Bellum remarks.

“CBE takes that locus of control and puts it squarely on the student. There isn’t a faculty member asking them to turn in their papers this week. Students really need to be self-motivated learners.”
Jon Bellum, CSU-Global

In preparing for a CBE, students do have an advisor to talk with on a regular basis, but the onus of completing the CBE ultimately lies with them.

Once students complete a CBE, however, most tend to complete additional ones because they better understand the process and requirements.

To encourage greater participation, CSU-Global has worked hard to promote CBE and other forms of alternative credit:

  • Students are introduced to alternate credit sources, including CBEs and PLAs, along with CLEP, DSST, and ACE-approved training, in the initial introductory class that all students take.
  • Advisors reiterate the benefits of CBE and other alternative credit sources and provide new students with information about these alternatives methods for documenting learning.
  • Email blasts remind students of alternative credit opportunities, and information about CBEs is also shared on the portal.

CSU-Global has been effective in getting the word out about the new credit option; the number of CBE registrations increased from 226 in 2014 to more than 600 this year, a 150% increase.

The Difference that CBE and Alternative Credit Can Make

CSU-Global is committed to giving students multiple pathways to degree attainment, and CBEs are an important new part of that approach. “We really want them to use these credits because it’s going to decrease the time to completion and it’s going to decrease the cost. Both of those are going to help them graduate at a higher rate than if they didn’t,” Bellum explains.

Having CBE as an option allows students to choose the approach that works best for them, given their learning style and the degree of prior knowledge they bring to their coursework. Working adults who enroll at CSU-Global are often ready to work toward a degree as quickly as possible so they can start a new career or earn the qualifications they need to advance to the next level. Reducing the time to degree prevents the frustration some feel when locked into traditional eight- or sixteen-week classes.

The lower cost of CBEs also decreases the financial burden on students, particularly working adults whose budgets might otherwise dictate putting coursework on hold or who might otherwise need to take on greater debt to complete their coursework.

“We’ve really worked to give students as much choice into how they either bring credits to us or demonstrate that learning. We just adopted a principle where we don’t want to lock them into one model.”
Jon Bellum, CSU-Global