If you’re a regular reader of our blog or you clicked on this particular blog post, then you probably have some relation to the world of credentials / certification / certificates / certificants / CE / credits / accreditation. These terms are confusing – they almost all start with a C, for one thing. And if you use the wrong term at the wrong time, you end up sounding uninformed to those in the know. (I learned this the hard way over my first five years as an LMS product manager, getting many condescending mini-lectures from CE specialists about the difference between, say, certificates and certification.)

So, want to sound smarter? Read this, print it out, make flashcards, and practice at home. I’m going to run through everything you need to know. This mini-guide is arranged in non-alphabetical order because some of the later terms make more sense in reference to earlier terms. It will probably make the most sense if you read it in order, but feel free to jump around if you prefer. Here we go. 

Credential

A credential is a general category that indicates some award or designation that documents a person’s education and/or experience in a particular profession or area of knowledge.

Credentials include:

      • Degrees awarded by universities and colleges – e.g., BA, Ph.D., MD. See degree, below.
      • Certifications awarded by certifying boards and other certifying bodies. These are less well-known than degrees, but examples are CAE (certified association executive), PMP (project management professional), and board-certified pediatrician. See certification, below. 
      • Micro-credentials: e.g., badges and certificates from certificate courses. See micro-credential, below. 
Degree

A degree indicates that a person has engaged in an extensive, formal program of study.

You probably know what a degree is, and you might have one. But have you ever thought about what a degree means? A degree is an award – an actual piece of paper, in most cases – that indicates you have completed a formal program of education in the fundamental knowledge, theory and methodology of some field – chemistry, English, computer science, etc. Classically, degrees do not indicate practical work experience: in the business world, they are understood as preparation for work. Degrees can be awarded by a two-year program (an associate’s degree), four-year program (a bachelor’s degree, like a BA – bachelor of arts – or BS – bachelor of science), or post-graduate work (a master’s degree, typically indicating two years of study after attaining a bachelor’s, a Ph.D. indicating many more years, an MD indicating post-graduate study in medicine, etc.). 

Certification

Certification is probably the term that confuses people the most, so I am going to spend the most time on it.

Certification is super important in our economy!

A certification is like a degree, but for on-the-job experience instead of formal education. Does that make sense? Let me try again. In contrast to degrees, which are awarded for completing formal education, certifications are evidence of work experience and expertise gained on the job in a field or profession. Certifications are conferred by a certifying board or other certifying body. The most prominent certifications have become near-requirements for working for most employers in a field; the next level of certifications are a significant feather in the cap of a job applicant. Examples:

      • Board-certified medical specialists. In the United States, the American Board of Pediatrics verifies that a doctor has completed a residency (on-the-job experience) in pediatrics, and assesses the applicant’s knowledge of the field. The American Board of Internal Medicine does the same for cardiologists and many other specialists. And there are dozens of other certifying boards for all the other established medical specialties. Board certification in medical specialties is standardized and overseen by various quasi-governmental bodies (I don’t want to overload this post with even more terms, so I won’t start listing them out here). Parts of the medical specialty certification process are even written into United States federal law and regulation (e.g., the residency programs are largely funded by Medicare). A physician typically cannot practice in a specialty at an American hospital without the appropriate board certification. 
      • Certified Association Executive (CAE). This certification is conferred by the American Society of Association Executives. It documents experience working for an association. While CAE is much less well known to the general public than board certification in a medical specialty, it is prestigious within the association industry and can help an association professional get a new job or a promotion.
      • Project Management Professional (PMP). The Project Management Institute is the certifying body for this well-known certification that recognizes experience working in project management. 

Certifications have a standardized structure – there are actually groups out there that more or less certify certifications to ensure they are legitimate. The components of a typical certification process from an applicant’s perspective are the following:

      • An initial application in which the applicant outlines their work experience and education – often specifying a particular degree (obviously, for example, you must be an MD or a DO to be a board-certified medical specialist). Must be reviewed and approved by qualified reviewers from the certifying body. 
      • Letters of recommendation submitted by professional colleagues on the applicants’ behalf, confirming the work experience and other qualifications claimed by the applicant in their application. Again, tracked, reviewed, and approved by the certifying body. 
      • A certification examination, which is often proctored to ensure the applicant is the person taking the assessment. The assessment is supposed to be designed to assess the knowledge one would gain on the job in this particular profession or field. The applicant must pass the exam to become certified. 
      • One or more fees: e.g., an application fee paid with the application and an assessment fee paid before the assessment
      • A public listing or webpage that lists all the people who currently have the certification, for prospective employers and customers of the certificants to verify that the person really is certified. See certificant, below.
      • Maintenance of certification requirements: continuing education (see below), possible periodic reassessment, and a fee paid periodically (like annually). See maintenance of certification, below.
Certifiant

A person who has a certification. If I have the CAE certification, I am a CAE certificant.

Designation

Designation refers to the name of the certification (almost always an acronym), which, once certified, you are allowed to put after your name.

For example, if you get the TAGME certification for working as an administrator in a graduate medical education program (yes, that is a certification that exists!), you can refer to yourself as Tipsy Agincourt, TAGME (if your name is Tipsy Agincourt). TAGME – those five letters – is the designation. Certifying bodies jealously protect their designations – the National Association of Realtors always puts the little © symbol after its Realtor©
designation (yep, Realtor© is a type of certification). 

People often use “designation” interchangeably with credential to indicate any type of credential. 

Maintenance of Certification (MOC)

Maintenance of certification means actions required of of the certificant to remain certified after they initially get certified.

After you pass the big test and get the right to put that treasured designation in your email signature, your certification won’t just last forever without you doing anything to keep it. You have to do things to maintain your certification to show that you are staying current with the changing knowledge, methods, tools, technology, best practices, etc. in the field. Thus, maintenance of certification. 

Typically, maintenance of certification includes the following components: 

      • Almost always, continuing education (see below) – often a certain amount every year.
      • Commonly, submitting some evidence of continued employment in the field. 
      • Often, continuing professional development, like volunteering on a committee relevant to the profession, speaking at a professional conference, or writing an article on a professional topic. 
      • For some certifications that represent professions that are licensed, you must submit evidence of current licensure in the state in which you practice. See licensure, below. 
      • Often, some type of periodic or longitudinal assessment. For example, many medical specialty boards have traditionally required certificants to pass a re-certification examination every ten years. There is now a trend among boards to move toward a longitudinal assessment model in which the certificant uses an online platform to answer a few examination questions periodically – such as one question a month – rather than the big-exam-every-10-years model, which is seen as encouraging “cramming.” This re-certification exam might just be called the MOC exam.
      • Almost always, of course, payment of a fee to the certifying body – typically annually. These are like your “dues” to maintain the certification, and they sustain the certifying board (often a little too luxuriously, grumble the certificants). 

All of these things are reported periodically (probably annually) to your certifying board or body, who review them to validate that the certificant should remain certified.

(Side note: This is different from a degree, isn’t it? You earn a degree once; you don’t have to go back to school to keep it. But you have to do all this stuff to keep your certification up to date. The theoretical justification for that is that a degree should be based on fundamental knowledge, theory, and methods that don’t change that quickly, like all those 101 level courses you might have taken in college that covered fundamental stuff discovered 400 years ago. On the other hand, the knowledge, theory, and methods learned on the job can change very quickly – so a certification needs continuous refreshment.)

Continuing Education (CE)

Why do people do continuing education? To maintain their certification—and potentially also their licensure (see below).

For nearly every type of certification, there is a corresponding type of continuing education.

Prominent types of continuing education include:

    • Continuing medical education (CME), required for physicians to maintain their state licensure and their board certification. 
    • Continuing legal education (CLE), required of lawyers for state licensure and certification by bar associations (which are often tied at the hip in the case of the legal profession). 
    • Continuing professional education (CPE), required of Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) to maintain their certification and, generally, state licensure. 

Continuing education can take many forms – attendance of a conference, a course, a webinar, an online course, reading a journal article and passing a quiz on it, and many more exotic forms specific to particular certifications, like quality improvement activities for medical specialties.

Regardless of the format, the reason certifications require continuing education is because professional practice is constantly changing. Doing CE is one way the certificant shows they are making an effort to stay up to date. CE is also a little bit of formal or semi-formal education that helps update you on changes to your field’s fundamental knowledge, theory, and methods that might have happened since you got your degree back in the ’90s when you wrote your term papers in WordPerfect and saved them on a floppy disk.

Continuing education activities are typically designated for a type and number of credits. For example, a webinar might be worth 1.0 CME, or a legal conference that lasts 2.5 days might be worth 20 CLEs. When you complete a continuing education activity, you get a certificate that shows you completed that activity for the designated number of credits. 

credits

As a certificant, your maintenance of certification requirements typically say you need to get x hours of continuing education every year in topics relevant to your certification, so the convention of referring to those hours as “credits” has developed in the industry.

So 3.0 hours of CME = 3.0 CME “credits.” This is analogous to university “credits” toward a degree. However, university credits represent a different, larger amount of time: you might get 4 “credits” for an entire semester-long course at a university, and need 120 credits or something like that to graduate with your degree. The same amount of “time in seat” in a CE activity would probably be worth something like 40 credits (or “credit hours,” same thing).

Recently, the outcome-based or objective-based education movement has productively criticized the convention of measuring CE by “time in seat” (amount of time spent engaging with the educational content, whether as a listener, viewer, or reader). Is that really the best way to measure education? Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to whether people are actually learning things? This criticism  has reached medical specialty boards, many of which have implemented a new system called MOC points. MOC (that’s Maintenance of Certification, if you skipped that section) points are supposed to represent different measurements of educational impact that are not strictly time-based – 10 MOC points might not exactly line up with 10 hours of seat time. For example, if I complete a “performance improvement activity” in which I measure my own performance, implement a plan to improve it, and re-measure to look at whether the plan was effective, that might be worth 40 MOC points, regardless of the amount of time I put into it.

However, in practice, most CE is still measured by “time in seat,” with one hour equaling one credit.

Certificates

So, see, if you’ve been reading in order, you now know why a certificate is different from (but connected to!) a certification.

The certificate is the evidence that you did a piece of continuing education, which you then turn over to your certifying and/or licensing body so that you can maintain your certification.

 

One ends with -ate and the other ends with -ation, it’s obvious! Just kidding, it’s super easy to confuse, I get it. 

Remember, the certificate is a piece of paper – just like the Certificate of Participation you got for track and field day in third grade. OK, more commonly these days, it’s a PDF. Anyway, it looks like a piece of paper (usually landscape orientation!) with your name, the name of the certifying body, the date or dates on which you did the activity, and the number and type of credits earned. The certificate is like the paper currency you get in return for doing the educational activity, which allows you to “buy” your maintenance of certification.

Traditionally, it’s incumbent on the certificant (that’s the person who is certified, remember? They’re like little…ants?) to keep track of their certificates and submit them (usually electronically these days) to their certifying boards and state licensors, usually once a year. This is a pretty awful system when you step back and think about it. So we’re going to make our board-certified brain surgeons keep track of a bunch of PDFs instead of doing, you know, brain surgery? Luckily, there are some forward-looking professions that have started to automate this process so their certificants can concentrate on learning and practicing. For example, Continuing Pharmaceutical Education (CPE) is, these days, almost always reported to the certifying board for pharmacists via API integration. The ACCME (Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education) is working on making this a reality for physicians as well via their PARS (Program Activity Reporting System) database.

Certificate Courses

So this must be any course that confers a certificate, right? WRONG.

In a final twist to the unfortunate certification/certificate/certificant confusion, a certificate course is not just any course that confers a certificate. That would be far too simple. Rather, the term certificate course has come to represent a special type of course that indicates something more than a typical continuing education activity, and something less than a full degree program – something like a 12-to-40-hour course (I’m estimating here) on a specific topic that is too much to handle in a regular, short CE activity but also too specialized to warrant a university degree program. You do get a certificate at the end of a certificate course, but it’s a special certificate that is more than your standard “coin of the realm” CE certificate. Earning this certificate is almost like a mini-degree—perhaps a micro-credential (see below)—which you could put on your CV or LinkedIn page to indicate that you have an extra special amount of education in a particular area. 

Accreditation

We’ve already mentioned the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education. What does the word accreditation mean?

In many established certifications, there are rules about what form the CE must take, and a system of accrediting providers of CE. Accreditation essentially says that a given group is entrusted to offer CE for that certification or license. “Accredited CE providers” for a given type of CE might be professional associations, university continuing education programs (separate from degree-granting programs), private businesses, or (in the case of CME) academic medical centers. In the case of CME, the ACCME regulates these providers by requiring that they weed out commercial agendas from their CE (this is a response to the historical problem of pharmaceutical companies using CME as an opportunity to advertise their wares), report annually on what CE they offer, and follow certain educational standards (such as offering a course evaluation and using evaluation data to improve the educational effectiveness of their CE). Most established types of CE have some kind of formal accreditation requirements, though they might be much less voluminous than the famously intricate ACCME standards.

It’s worth noting that there is also accreditation for degree-granting colleges and universities. That’s probably the origin of the term. But this is mostly a blog post about certification, so I’m not going to google it (shrugs).

Licensure

In many professions – law, medicine, accounting, realty, even hair-styling – a person must have a license from a state government to practice within the state.

The requirements for licensure vary rather wildly by state, but they often include some continuing education requirements. For example, in many states, a physician needs both a minimum number of annual CME credits and a certain number of CME credits in certain topics, like ethics or (recently) opioid addiction awareness and prevention. Therefore, a physician is often reporting their CME activities annually to both a state licensing board and a medical specialty certifying board.

(Obviously, outside the United States, licensure might be enforced by something other than a “state.” The point is that licensure comes from an actual part of the government, whereas certification comes from a non-governmental certifying body of some sort.)

The penalty for practicing without a license is legal – like maybe paying a fine or going to jail – whereas the penalty for losing your certification is probably something more like losing your job, being shamed by your peers within the industry as someone who didn’t maintain the basic requirements of the profession, or, for a less important certification, just having to delete those letters from your email signature.

Micro-credetials

Micro-credentials are a newer concept in which a learner receives a small credential for a small amount of education or experience.

You might have noticed that degrees and certifications represent giant chunks of education and experience. What if I just want to share that I’ve taken a LinkedIn course on Python or created my first Wikipedia page or something like that? That’s where microcredentials come in. They signify teensy, tiny little bits of education and/or experience. That makes it seem small, but it’s really a good idea, designed to make education more traceable and allow people to more quickly get the education needed to re-skill or take on new job responsibilities. Micro-credentials are often represented as badges. 

Badges

Badges are the most popular form of micro-credential.

You might receive a badge for completing a short CE activity, or even a part of an activity – like completing one quiz. The badge will typically be a digital file (or a database record…not to get too techy) with a name and an image. Ideally, the badge follows the Open Badges standard, which means that it has a name, an image, and (ideally) some metadata about the badge issuer and the requirements met by the recipient to get the badge.

All right! That’s everything I know, I think. If you read this whole thing, you deserve a micro-credential! (That’s a credentialing joke right there.) Please let me know if I’ve forgotten some keyword or (very likely) said something wrong or (almost certainly) imprecise. Now go forth and impress with your new knowledge (by sanctimoniously lecturing someone who refers to a 1.0 CE webinar with a certificate as a certificate course)!

Photo of a white male with glasses

Andy Hicken, Ph.D.

VP Technology Solutions

Web Courseworks

About the Author

Andy Hicken, Ph.D., is the VP of Technology Solutions at Web Courseworks. He is an innovator and creative problem solver with over 15 years of academic teaching and association consulting experience. He brings in a wealth of expertise in developing and designing technology for performance improvement, psychometrics, and lifelong learning. Passionate about professional development, Andy specializes in data analysis and leveraging data to help medical societies and healthcare associations map out the next phase of their continuing education programs with effective and scalable solutions.

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