Volume 10 Issue 3 (2021)

Competence and competency in higher education, simple terms yet with complex meanings: Theoretical and practical issues for university teachers and assessors implementing Competency-Based Education (CBE)

pp. 39-52  |  Published Online: July 2021  |  DOI: 10.22521/edupij.2021.103.3

Andrew G. D. Holmes, Marc Polman Tuin, Sophie L. Turner


Background/purpose – British, European and American universities are increasingly adopting competency-based learning, yet, there are different and conflicting definitions of competence, competency, and competency-based learning. Consequently, multiple interpretations and understandings are held by educators in respect of what these terms mean, when applied to their own teaching and assessment practices. Therefore, unless informed and considered discussion has taken place amongst staff about their individual understandings and interpretations, any development of new, competency-based assessment processes and procedures, is necessarily problematic. The main purpose of the paper is to stimulate reflection and discussion, so that teaching staff can arrive at a common understanding and interpretation of what competency-based education is, so that they may develop appropriate, authentic and equitable assessment processes.

Materials/methods – The methodology used was a systematic review of literature on competence, competency-based learning and the assessment of competency-based learning.

Conclusion – This paper provides an overview of the main issues and tensions involved in clearly defining competency within higher education programmes and assessing competence, along with two clear recommendations for practice. The recommendations have significance for all higher education teaching staff involved in programmes of competency-based learning.

Keywords: Higher education, competency, competence, competencies, assessment, competency-based learning.


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