What's the difference between Certification, a Certificate Program, or a Certificate of Completion?

Created by Faye Team, Modified on Mon, 04 Dec 2023 at 08:04 PM by Stephanie Perez

According to the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (I.C.E.), credentialing is an overarching term that includes licensing, registration, certification, qualification, and assessment-based certificate programs. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the unique differences between these different types of recognition programs. Specifically, different providers may inaccurately label their offering as a certification programCertifications, certificate programs, and are different types of recognition offered by ONCC and ONS.


Certification programs grant formal recognition to individuals that meet predetermined, standardized eligibility criteria, successfully pass an assessment of knowledge and competence (exam), and regularly meet requirements for recertification. Certification is a higher-level achievement intended to recognize specialized knowledge, experience, and education; and typically permits practitioners to use a credential following their name (e.g., OCN). It requires passing an examination based on a body of knowledge. The requirement to renew certification to maintain the credential ensures that practitioners stay current in their field through ongoing practice, continuing education, and/or retesting. High-quality certification programs are accredited by independent agencies that recognize programs that meet national standards (e.g., NCCA).


Assessment-based certificate programs provide instruction and training so the participant can acquire specific knowledge/skills associated with specific intended learning outcomes and assess the learner’s achievement of those outcomes before awarding a certificate only to those candidates successful in meeting the passing standard. This distinguishes assessment-based certificate programs from programs that only require attendance and/or participation (which typically award a certificate of completion or attendance).


Certificates of attendance or completion are provided to individuals who have attended or participated in classes, courses, or other events. They signify only that the person was “there” and do NOT require or signify demonstration of accomplishment of the intended learning outcomes or other validation of knowledge/skill gained through the learning activity. This is the key distinction between a certificate of completion/attendance and an assessment-based certificate program.


Each program type represents a different level of achievement and/or knowledge validation. Only those who meet all criteria for and earn a certification may call themselves “certified” -- such as nurses who have passed a comprehensive, broad-based certification examination such as the OCN® test. Individuals that have completed an assessment-based certificate program may refer to themselves as a “certificate holder” or, in the case of the ONS/ONCC Chemotherapy / Immunotherapy Certificate Course, a “Provider Cardholder”. Certifications encompass an entire body of knowledge for a role or profession, while a certificate course is focused on a specific, smaller “chunk” of knowledge and skills. Nurses and employers need to understand what each type of program represents and avoid misrepresenting themselves or those they employ as "certified" when they are not. Read full article.


The Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) recognizes the benefits of certification to patients and the public. ONS encourages oncology nurses to become certified. Read the ONS position on oncology certification of nurses.

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