Academic Tutors and Coaches Support Competency-Based Education at Brandman University

I talk about the Brandman University competency-based education (CBE) just about everywhere I go. Every time I present the concept, whether in a formal setting like a conference or meeting or in a friendly conversation, I am amazed at how many people are fascinated with the concept. Sure, there are those traditionalists who think I am a heretic, especially when I share our Brandman student-faculty model. But then later, privately, they tug on my sleeve to tell me about their son-in-law or daughter who needs a degree and they ask if can I help. We all seem to know someone who missed out on getting their degree the old-fashioned way. For those students, perhaps the traditional learning experience just never clicked. And of course, everyone seems to have an opinion as to why that is, but my focus is on why CBE works, especially why it clicks for so many of our students.

One reason CBE works is that it is very much a personalized learning experience. It has all the elements: it is individualized, self-paced, differentiated, technology-based, and supported by coaches and faculty. It also has enough room for students' expression of their multiple intelligences and preferred learning styles. Of all these elements, one in particular stands out when I look at Brandman's student satisfaction ratings: our student-faculty support structure.

For adult learners the student-faculty relationship is a complex social arrangement where interaction and shared experience facilitate student engagement. Student engagement, whether the subject is K–12 or higher education, relies on a highly respected connection, an imperative for learning that impacts retention and persistence. In our CBE program, that relationship looks much different from the traditional college classroom. We even call our competency-based faculty by a different title. We use the title "tutorial faculty" because it describes what they are, a group of teachers who work with one student at a time. This relationship is not limited to just the faculty member alone; it also includes the academic coach.

Tutorial faculty and the academic coach assess student performance and, when necessary, develop authentic, personalized, remedial learning activities to support student mastery. It is a relationship-based environment that is both individualized and differentiated. And it is a key reason CBE works for a Brandman student.

In a recent student satisfaction survey CBE students were asked to rate the degree to which they agree with statements about their interactions with tutorial faculty and the academic coach. Overall, 90 percent said their tutorial faculty member is accessible for help when needed and that they would recommend their tutorial faculty member to another student. Similarly, 89 percent indicated their tutorial faculty proactively reached out to offer help, and 88 percent said tutorial faculty link or direct students to resources that will improve their learning. And when it comes to providing timely and thoughtful feedback to students, 93 percent rated tutorial faculty very high; on knowledge about competency content, 92 percent rated them very high.

The feedback gathered on the performance of the academic coach indicated high satisfaction across all aspects measured, with ratings of very satisfied/satisfied ranging between 94 and 100 percent. All respondents indicated that they were very satisfied/satisfied with the academic coach's reachability by phone or e-mail, knowledge about program requirements, and understanding of student needs.

Brandman University's CBE program connects with students — it clicks — because it is individualized, differentiated, and technology-based. It embodies personalized learning. More importantly, our program offers students the relationship-based touch points they need to succeed on their learning journey toward a college degree. Other institutions interested in CBE might want to investigate our model as a successful way to promote higher education completion among adult students.


Diane Singer is assistant professor of marketing at Brandman University. She serves the competency-based education program as the project manager and marketing education subject-matter expert.

© 2016 Diane Singer. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0 International.