Skip to Main Content Skip to bottom Skip to Chat, Email, Text

How do competency-based programs work?

By Michael Feder

At a glance

  • Competency-based (CB) programs allow students to progress through courses after completing assessments demonstrating that they have met or mastered specific competencies.
  • CB programs can empower students to move through their degree with a higher level of independence and flexibility, compared to traditional degree programs.
  • Competency-based programs are suited for students who are self-motivated and require that students have deep professional experience in their area of study.
  • University of Phoenix offers CB programs  in business administration, health management and administration, information systems and nurse leadership.

What are competency-based programs?

When it comes down to it, pursuing an education should prepare students with the competencies they can use in their everyday lives. 

At its best, CB programs can help students build useful competencies that are aligned to their current job or future job prospects, save money on their degree, and take more ownership of the pace of their educational experience.

Once students believe they are ready to be assessed on a competency, they can choose to submit an assessment showing that they have demonstrated that competency. If successful, they will be one step closer to completing their degree. 

So instead of waiting for the end of the semester for a final exam, students can choose to complete their assessment when they have demonstrated that they are competent in what’s required to complete the assessment and the knowledge associated with it. Students collaborate closely with faculty to define specific due dates for assessments. 

While students in competency-based programs enjoy a certain level of independence, they are also required to meet regularly with faculty members. Faculty help illuminate the course content, encourage students to reach beyond what they think they might be capable of, and motivate and support students through the course content and competency assessments.  

Explore University of Phoenix's faculty-supported, self-paced

learning to earn your degree faster

What is the difference between the CB learning model and traditional classroom education?

Whether learners complete a degree program centered on the competency-based model or a traditional one, many of the results are the same. Students earn the same degree and possess many of the same skill sets and knowledge, regardless of the specific model they choose.

The difference between the competency-based model and the traditional model lies more in the journey than the destination.

In both models, students are given the opportunity to demonstrate the knowledge they’ve gained. This is done through assessments. In the traditional model, students can expect academic progress to be assessed at certain times within a course, on the same schedule as other students. In this model, every student in a class submits an assignment at the same time or posts to a discussion board at the same time, regardless of their individual progress. A student who understands the assessed information earlier still progresses through the content at the same pace as a student who takes a bit longer, for instance.

With faculty input, students pursuing a competency-based degree can decide when to be assessed on the competencies they’ve learned. This means a student with deep experience in the field can complete a course earlier than others who have less experience or need more time to prepare for the assessment. This may translate to faster course completion, saving students time and money.

How do competency-based programs work?

In many competency-based programs, students advance through the coursework at their own pace within the term. Instead of attending scheduled lectures, for instance, students may access the material at any time. They can shape their study time around a schedule often full of work and family obligations.

At University of Phoenix (UOPX), CB students take groups of three or four courses at their own pace over 16-week periods. With the support of a faculty member, they work through the course materials. Prior to each competency assessment, students submit a written personal reflection on their learning. After grading this reflection and offering feedback, faculty work with the student as the student prepares to complete the competency assessment.  

The assessments are rigorous and can take a significant amount of time and effort to prepare for. They demonstrate competencies that are applicable in the everyday work of professionals. They can often even be used as a work product to share with a student’s current or potential employer.

Once students prove their knowledge in one competency, they can move on to the next. This allows students to work through their degree requirements at their own pace within the term.

Who are competency-based programs for?

Competency-based programs aren't for everyone. The self-paced and independent nature of the program can be difficult for those looking for a more structured progression through their degree program.

In general, competency-based programs are for students who:

  • Have professional experience in their area of study (in fact, this is a requirement for admission)
  • Are self-motivated, independent learners

This makes CB programs great for students who have started their career journey and are looking to strengthen their skill set with an education that acknowledges their existing employment and life experience. The flexibility and self-paced aspects of these programs make them particularly well suited to working adults.

What is the difference between credit-based CB model programs and direct-assessment CB model programs?

There are two main types of CB models at UOPX:

  • Credit-based CB
  • Direct-assessment CB

In the credit-based CB model, learning experiences in the program equate to credit hours, the standard unit system at UOPX and common at most colleges and universities, measuring the amount of time students spend on course content and assignments.

The direct-assessment CB model removes the requirement that a CB model program equate its learning experiences back to the credit-hour equivalency. Faculty members can directly assess a student’s knowledge, moving them forward in their degree program in a way that doesn’t depend on calculation of credit hours spent.

The direct-assessment CB model is a relatively new concept among CB programs but has the potential to accelerate learning faster than the credit-based model.

Learn more about CB programs at University of Phoenix!

If you are interested in pursuing a CB degree, learn more about offerings from University of Phoenix. At UOPX, students take three or four courses at their own pace every 16-week period with the support of a faculty mentor. CB courses have the same rigor as their traditional counterparts but allow students the opportunity to earn a degree in less time and at a lower cost.

Think a CB program is the right fit for you? Learn more about CB degree programs on offer at UOPX, including:

If you need more information to decide if a CB program is right for you, explore the table below that compares traditional degree programs at UOPX with CB learning programs. For more information, visit


want to read more like this?

University of Phoenix logo


     About University of Phoenix

Rise like
a Phoenix

As pioneers in online higher education since 1989, University of Phoenix is an accredited online university for working adults. We are proud to offer quality educational pathways through flexible, career-focused online degrees, certificates and professional development courses that fit into your life and options to save you time and money. Our students are supported every step of the way, including career services for life.

Let us help you take the most direct path to your future career goals. We’re ready when you are.

Online degrees

More than 100 online programs aligned to 300+ careers.

Online courses and certificates

Explore professional development and earn credentials.

Ways to save

Learn ways you can save as you pursue your goals.

Let us help you jumpstart your goals. Connect with us.