Compentancy-based Learning

Competency-based learning or competency-based education (CBE) and training is an approach to teaching and learning more often used in learning concrete skills than abstract learning. It differs from other non-related approaches in that the unit of learning is usually quite focused. Rather than a course or a module every individual skill/learning outcome, known as a competency, is one single unit. Learners work on one competency at a time, which is likely a small component of a larger learning goal.

The student is then evaluated on the individual competency, and only once they have mastered it do they move on to others. After that, higher or more complex competencies are learned to a degree of mastery and isolated from other topics. Another common component of competency-based learning is the ability to skip learning modules entirely if the learner can demonstrate they already have mastery. That can be done either through prior learning assessment or formative testing.

For example, people learning to drive manual transmission might first have to demonstrate their mastery of “rules of the road”, safety, defensive driving, parallel parking etc. Then they may focus on two independent competencies: “using the clutch, brake with right foot” and “shifting up and down through the gears.” Once the learners have demonstrated they are comfortable with those two skills the next, overarching skill might be “finding first: from full stop to a slow roll” followed by “sudden stops,” “shifting up” and “down shifting.” Because this is kinetic learning the instructor likely would demonstrate the individual skill a few times then the student would perform guided practice followed by independent practice until they can demonstrate their mastery.

Competency-based learning is learner‑focused and works naturally with independent study and with the instructor in the role of facilitator. Learners often find different individual skills more difficult than others. This learning method allows a student to learn those individual skills they find challenging at their own pace, practicing and refining as much as they like. Then, they can move rapidly through other skills to which they are more adept.


Nothing New

As Larry Cuban (2017)  observed in an Education Week article Larry Cuban on Personalized Learning, Silicon Valley, and K-12: Q&A, By Benjamin Herold:

The last major effort to try to transform teaching occurred in the early part of the 20th century, with the progressive education movement. There were two wings of the movement. One was focused on pedagogy, with John Dewey’s idea of learning-through-doing and the whole child. The other wing was focused on efficiency: measuring everything, testing, and making sure that schools are efficient mechanisms for preparing students for adult society. Both of those wings continue today.

When it comes to personalized learning, at one end, you have competency based-education, or the behaviorist approach of a Teach to One. That’s the efficiency driven wing of the progressive movement. At the other end of the spectrum are the pedagogical progressives, who believe in more student decision-making and more project-based, independent learning where kids are following their passions.


Mastery Learning Pedagogy

Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery (see: Mastery Learning) of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities.

Student progress is determined by mastery of each competency. Because CBE focuses on whether students have mastered these competencies, there is a focus on learning outcomes rather than time spent in a classroom. The Department of Education encourages innovation in this experiment. It intends to take an expansive view in considering whether a program constitutes CBE and to minimize existing limitations on how programs must be provided to the extent possible.

These strategies include virtual learning, blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.

The DOE, which has a CBE grant program to foster the development of competency-based learning programs, stated that by enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money. Depending on the strategy pursued, competency-based systems also create multiple pathways to graduation, make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently, take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school hours and walls, and help identify opportunities to target interventions to meet the specific learning needs of students. Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity. DOE


CBE Assessment

In competency-based learning students are graded and receive credit for the of “mastery of material” rather than the certain number of hours completed in the classroom. Students earn credit for skills learned through internships, community service, independent study, performing arts groups and on-line courses. This platform is also known as Extended Opportunity-based Learning (EOL) (see: Innovative Authentic Learning).

While most other learning methods use summative testing, as stated competency-based learning requires mastery of every individual learning outcome, making it very well suited to learning credentials in which safety is an issue. With summative testing a student who has 80% in an evaluation may have an 80% mastery of all learning outcomes or may have no mastery what-so-ever of 20% of the learning outcomes.

Further, this student may be permitted to move on to higher learning and still be missing some abilities that are crucial to that higher learning. For example, a student who knows most traffic laws and has mostly mastered controlling a vehicle could be treated equally to a student who has a very high mastery of vehicle control but no understanding of traffic laws, but only one of those students should be permitted to drive.

What it means to have mastered a competency depends on the learning domain subject matter. In subject matter that could affect safety, it would be usual to expect complete learning that can be repeated every time. In abstract learning, such as algebra, the learner may only have to demonstrate that they identify an appropriate formula, for example, 4 of 5 times since when using that skill in the next competency, resolving a formula, will usually allow opportunity the learner to discover and correct their mistakes (1) (2).

  1. Gene E. Hall (1976) Competency-based Education: A Process for the Improvement of Education: Prentice-Hall
  2. John Burke (1989) Competency-Based Education and Training: Routledge

It is important to understand that this learning methodology is common in many kinetic and/or skills-based learning, but is also sometime applied to abstract and/or academic learning for students who find themselves out-of-step with their grade, course or program of study. Increasingly educational institutions are evaluating ways to include competency-based learning methodologies in many different types of programs in order to make learning success a constant while student pace can vary.

Competency-based learning is an educational technique that can be applied in many fields and learning environments. It is an area of pedagogical research and is not adequately understood in one, single learning domain. Once organizations have used a competency dictionary to define the competency requirements for groups, areas, or the whole organization, it becomes possible to develop learning strategies targeted to close major gaps in organizational competencies and to focus learning plans on the business goals and strategic direction for the organization. (see: Competency-based learning, Wikipedia)


Virtual Competency-based Learning

Since virtual learning allows students to advance at their own pace, Competency-based learning has become a hallmark of virtual education. This teaching and learning platform allows students to advance upon mastery of course content. Competency-based education is based on competencies that include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students. Assessment is meaningful. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions. (iNACOL, 2013) (see: K-12 Virtual Education).


Proficiency-based Learning

Chris Sturgis (2014) in an the article 10 Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning, held that Great Schools Partnership continues to produce great resources to support states and districts converting to competency education. They have drawn from what districts are doing in New England and have created Proficiency-based Learning Simplified resources. They are a good resource for states, districts and schools to start the conversation about the new policies and practices that need to be put in place.

We know that we are on a journey, and its a creative one, so don’t be surprised if you find that you want to take these ideas further or that you come up with other ways to address the policy and practice elements. No matter what, these resources will save you time in getting started and structuring the conversations needed to build clarity and consensus.

In practice, proficiency-based learning can take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school -there is no universal approach. To help schools establish a philosophical and pedagogical foundation for their work, the Great Schools Partnership created the following “Ten Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning,” which describe the common features found in the most effective proficiency-based systems:


10 Principles of Proficiency-based Learning

  1. All learning expectations are clearly and consistently communicated to students and families, including long-term expectations (such as graduation requirements and graduation standards), short-term expectations (such as the learning objectives for a course or other learning experience), and general expectations (such as the performance levels used in the school’s grading and reporting system).
  2. Student achievement is evaluated against common learning standards and performance expectations that are consistently applied to all students, regardless of whether they are enrolled in traditional courses, pursuing alternative learning pathways.
  3. All forms of assessment are standards-based and criterion-referenced, and success is defined by the achievement of expected standards, not relative measures of performance or student-to-student comparisons.
  4. Formative assessments evaluate learning progress during the instructional process and are not graded; formative-assessment information is used to inform instructional adjustments, practices, and academic support.
  5. Summative assessments evaluate learning achievement and are graded; summative-assessment scores record a student’s level of proficiency at a specific point in time.
  6. Grades are used to communicate learning progress and achievement to students and families; grades are not used as forms of punishment or control.
  7. Academic progress and achievement is monitored and reported separately from work habits, character traits, and behaviors such as attendance and class participation.
  8. Students are given multiple opportunities to retake assessments or improve their work when they fail to meet expected standards.
  9. Students can demonstrate learning progress and achievement in multiple ways through differentiated assessments, personalized-learning options, or alternative learning pathways.
  10. Students are given opportunities to make important decisions about their learning, which includes contributing to the design of learning experiences and personalized learning pathways.


CBE Issues

The personalized-based learning movement, which includes competency-based learning, is not without its critics. Benjamin Riley who leads Deans for Impact, a nonprofit he founded to improve teacher training, argued that putting students in charge of their learning defies research on how we learn best. According to Riley, the personalized-learning advocates wrongly assume that all students are able to effectively guide their own learning. “Knowledge is cumulative,” he wrote, meaning that our ability to learn is changed by what we already know. Teachers guide students through the foundational knowledge they need to think critically about a topic, to structure their inquiries for learning more and to understand new information when they encounter it.