Were there ever any Outcome Based Education college programs?

This is partially inspired by this thread :

Outcome Based Education (also called Mastery Based Education) was a popular idea in secondary education in the US in the 1990’s. Basically, I understand that the idea was that, in theory, instead of requiring students to obtain at least X credit hours each of which requires at least Y hours in the classroom, students woud be required to pass defined “outcomes” in order to graduate, and they could take as much time or as little time as they need. e.g. instead of being required to take and pass 4 credits of English, one each year, with each year having defined requirements, they would just be given a heap of requirements on enrollment and work toward them, and they get their credits when they pass all the evaluations, whether that is a month after enrollment, or 1 week before graduation. E.g. one requirement might be “The student shall demonstrate the ability to write a 5 page essay on a current social topic”, and another might be that “The student shall demonstrate an acceptable knowlege of English grammar by obtaining at least an 80% grade on an examination approved by the school system and administered by a certified teacher”. The idea of “failing” a course would be eliminated - you could take an extra week to pound the books and try the final exam again, rather than having to take the entire course again.

In real life, this didn’t work very well. School systems found it difficult to define a sufficient set of outcomes, and many of the outcomes that were defined were social outcomes rather than academic ones, such as requirements that the student appreciate diversity, which cannot be “passed” in any meaningful sense.

I took one college class that seemed to take something from this philosophy. We had graded homework, but we were allowed to resubmit homework for a better grade.

Was this ever tried at the postsecondary level? I’m imagining that this might work better in the college environment, where things are more loosely regulated and almost everyone is an adult who wants to be there. It does seem similar to PhD work, where you are spending a lot of time working on your dissertation with your advisor over time, with less rigid deadlines, rather than passing at least X credit hours. Are there any Bachelor’s programs that did, or do, this?

Marlboro College in Vermont might fit:


There are different variations on this idea but I have never heard of a whole semi-traditional undergraduate program that was structured that way. I did take one college class that used that model. It was a psychometrics class appropriately enough and it was difficult. We studied the whole semester and could take tests up to twice a week based on how far we had progressed in the class. The tests were computer based with random questions and were scored instantly. They also got much harder as you moved up in the class.

The kicker was that you had to take them all again in a marathon session for the final after you passed them the first time to make sure you retained your ‘mastery’. The requirements for each letter grade were stated up front and it was perfectly allowable for the whole class to get an ‘A’ or fail it completely at the end. I was the only one willing to work hard enough at it to get an ‘A’ and my fellow students weren’t slackers by any means. Any program that enforced true mastery for every class would be very hard on the professors and students.

And you could take the tests multiple times, right?


Shagnasty: "Hmm, there are ten exams for this class. I think I’ll try “E-1 Fundamentals of Psychometrics” and “E-2 Notable People in Psychometrics” right now, and see how I do.
Computer : “Shagnasty, you got a B in E-1, and a D in E-2.”
Shagnasty: “Hooray! One exam out of the way. I’d better schedule some time later in the week to study Notable People. I think I’ll try the exam again on Saturday.”

That sounds like OBE.

Sort of. You could take each test as many times as you needed to but you couldn’t move to the next until you passed all the previous ones. Pass level was mastery or an ‘A’ on a traditional test. They got harder as you moved up and you went up as far as you could go and then had to take them all again for the final (with different versions of the questions). You could take the subsections in the final multiple times as well but the only feedback you got was pass or fail and you only had 4 hours to complete them all again or you ended up with the same grade as the person that only completed those in the regular semester and passed the same on tests on the final. That is true mastery testing and it was stressful and hard. I still know a whole lot about that subject to this day however.