What Is Competency-Based Learning?
by TeachThought Staff
Competency-based learning is an approach to education that focuses on the student’s demonstration of desired learning outcomes as central to the learning process. It is concerned chiefly with a student’s progression through curriculum at their own pace, depth, etc. As competencies are proven, students continue to progress.
Like most things education-related, there is disagreement of what competency-based learning actually means, what its defining traits are, and how it should ideally be used or function. It is traditionally thought of in terms of skills and vocation, but it can be entirely “academic” as well.
A key characteristic of competency-based learning is its focus on mastery. In other learning models, students are exposed to content–whether skills or concepts–over time, and success is measured summatively. In a competency-based learning system, students are not allowed to continue until they have demonstrated mastery of the identified competencies (i.e., the desired learning outcomes to be demonstrated). In this way, competency-based learning is closely tied to mastery learning.
It is similar to outcomes-based learning in that said outcomes–in this case, called “competencies”–are identified beforehand, and students are frequently assessed. In this way, competency-based learning can be thought of as a form of outcomes-based learning.
How “good” or “bad” it is depends on the ecology it is embedded in. In a system with deep and diverse support systems, robust assessment forms, and clear and manageable learning outcomes that are accessible to all learners, competency-based learning can be an effective model, potentially reducing inefficiency (including time spent learning) and increasing pedagogical precision and student achievement.
Its strengths lie in its flexibility, as learners are able to move at their own pace. This supports students with diverse knowledge backgrounds, literacy levels, and other related aptitudes. Its challenges should sound familiar to most educators, including the difficulty in identifying–and agreeing upon–the most important competencies, how to best assess them, and how to support learners that struggle.
On paper, technology adds a new wrinkle to competency-based learning, as it provides students with access to content to develop said competencies. If every student can access the same content the teacher does, there is less of a need for the class to move together, and students are able to prove their understanding on more personal and authentic terms.
The following infographic focuses on higher ed, but it is a useful primer if you’re new to the concept.
What Is Competency-Based Learning?; Infographic source Rasmussen College