4 Ways Competency-Based Education Is Changing Nursing Education

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Traditional time-based education models go something like this: For two weeks, we’ll be covering topic A, then we’ll focus on topic B for the next two weeks, and so on. The problem with this approach is that the end goal is to check a box, not master a skill.

Competency-based education programs, on the other hand, take a dynamic, learner-centered approach in which students must demonstrate that they possess both the knowledge and ability to safely and effectively “do” before moving on to the following competency — making it well-suited for nursing education.

Despite this, the concept of competency-based education has only begun to gain widespread acceptance in nursing education within the past decade. So today, we’re looking at four ways competency-based education (CBE) is changing nursing education.

1. Improving Clinical Judgment and Patient Outcomes

Nurses have long made up the largest healthcare workforce, putting them in an outsized position to improve healthcare outcomes. 

However, to do this, nurses must possess a comprehensive set of competencies beyond textbook knowledge, including critical thinking, clinical skills, and the ability to adapt to various patient care situations.

Countless individuals and organizations have pushed for competency-based education in nursing because they want to improve patient outcomes. And for good reason… Alarmingly, just 23% of new registered nurses were found to be competent with basic clinical judgment in 2017. This is despite passing the NCLEX-RN.

Clearly, for outcomes to improve, new nursing professionals must be well-versed in theoretical knowledge and, more importantly, capable of applying their knowledge and skills in real-world situations.

CBE addresses this need by emphasizing measurable, observable skills and outcomes. Rather than progressing through a program based on credit hours or time spent in class, students move forward based on their ability to demonstrate proficiency in specific competencies. In other words, competency-based education shifts education from memorization to mastery.

By establishing and standardizing competencies and entrustable professional activities (EPAs) that students must demonstrate in order to practice safely — as well as making real-time clinical coursework adjustments to reflect students’ needs — nursing schools can more efficiently allocate resources. All while graduating students who are better equipped to face the challenges of an increasingly complex healthcare system.

2. Fostering Greater Communication and Collaboration

There’s ample evidence linking interprofessional collaboration and communication within healthcare teams to better patient and provider outcomes. But equally important is the ability to communicate across cultures.

By focusing on the mastery of competencies, CBE fosters a more collaborative learning environment across cultures and healthcare professions. This approach doesn’t just prepare individuals to excel in their respective roles; it also equips them to thrive in the settings nurses will experience in healthcare.

Interprofessional education within the framework of CBE offers students from varied healthcare disciplines the opportunity to learn with, from, and about each other, encouraging mutual respect and a deeper understanding of how interdisciplinary teams operate. Such an environment is crucial for preparing students to navigate the complexities of real-world healthcare settings, where successful patient outcomes depend on strong collaboration and communication.

When healthcare professionals understand each other’s strengths and how to combine them effectively, the result is a more coordinated, efficient, and patient-centered care delivery system. Similarly, when practitioners are exposed to a greater diversity of cultures, they become more adept at providing care that is inclusive of and empathetic toward different cultures.

3. Requiring Greater Use of Simulation in Education

As mentioned, unlike traditional education models, competency-based education is dynamic. Rather than sticking to a strict curriculum, CBE is free to shift with the needs of learners. This could mean, for example, spending additional clinical training time focused on a particular competency in which students are struggling.

However, making arrangements to add clinicals related to a particular clinical area on short notice is easier said than done, if not outright impossible. This poses a major logistical challenge in administrating competency-based nursing education.

Simulation training offers a solution to this hurdle. Not only is it easier to schedule additional simulation hours for your class than it is to, say, arrange for additional clinical time in a maternity ward. 

Thanks to technological advances in simulation training — as well as flexible training solutions that can be deployed anywhere at any time — healthcare educators have more options than ever to address learner needs. Simulation training affords learners the opportunity to make and learn from mistakes via a safe, controlled environment and detailed debrief sessions.

In conjunction with didactic and clinical practicum, hyper-realistic simulation training can further enhance patient outcomes by yielding graduates who are better prepared for the challenges of real-world practice.

4. Transforming the Role of Nurse Educators

The shift to competency in education is undoubtedly a change for learners whose past experiences were largely time- and curriculum-based. For students, this new learning model can initially feel unstructured, and educators should anticipate students needing help settling into it.

But it also represents a major shift for educators. In this new model, educators are not just transmitters of information but observers, coaches, and guides. This role evolution transforms the educational landscape, making learning more interactive, personalized, and reflective of real-world practice.

As observers, educators closely monitor students’ progress, identifying strengths and areas for improvement. This enables them to offer targeted interventions that effectively guide each student’s development. As coaches, they provide the support and encouragement students need to take ownership of their learning, fostering independence and resilience. As guides, educators help navigate the complexities of the curriculum, ensuring that students engage with the material in beneficial ways.

The importance of providing personalized feedback also cannot be overstated. In a competency-based model, feedback is the cornerstone of the learning process, helping students to:

  • Understand where they are in their competency development.
  • Assess what gaps they need to address.
  • Determine how they can improve.
  • Grow confident as capable, competent nurses.

This translates to an experience that is not only more supportive, responsive, and tailored to the individual’s needs but also immensely fulfilling for nurse educators.

The Future of Nursing Education Is Competency-Based

The increasing prominence of CBE in nursing education is a direct response to the evolving demands of healthcare delivery. This educational approach aligns with the needs of patients, healthcare institutions, and the broader healthcare system, focusing on producing graduates ready to deliver high-quality, competent care from day one.

Despite the clear march toward this new paradigm in nursing education, many institutions are understandably concerned about making the transition as seamless as possible. Others find the tracking and management of competencies unfamiliar territory.

At Education Management Solutions, we’ve worked with educators across the healthcare space to develop customizable, powerful, yet easy-to-use tools for tracking and managing competencies, EPAs, and other aspects of CBE to meet accreditation and reporting requirements for curricula and learner performance.

Set up a meeting to find out how our healthcare competency management software can help you assess your curriculum, manage clinical training, and track learner progression.

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