What Is Competency-Based Learning?

what-is-competency-based-learning-fiWhat 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. It is similar to mastery-based learning, with the primary difference being that competency-based learning often focuses observable skills or ‘competencies,’ while mastery learning may be academic–as likely to focus on concepts as skills.

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.

The Charateristics Of Competency-Based Learning

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.

See also 21st Century Teacher’s Dictionary

Pros & Cons Of Competency-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.

competency based education

What Is Competency-Based Learning?; Infographic source Rasmussen College



  • During my 21 years in the Army, we did in some degree rely on prior competency; pretest, teach, retest. I already knew basic electronics, and, passing an end-of-section test, was allowed into the six-month Avionics course without having to take that. In fifteen years in the field, I spent four of them teaching soldiers how to repair navigation, stabilization (think autopilots) and communications equipment.

    Prior competencies, both taught and acquired on my own, got me a career in engineering when I retired from the Army. I was able to show an employer I could already do what it needed, which is the reason credentials are now thought necessary; employers don’t know how to measure what applicants bring to the table. Having interviewed more than a few job-seekers over some 30 years, I’ve seen that degrees alone don’t prove competence; if we have a better way to measure that, then by all means let us do so. The STEM shortage is not exactly a myth, but it is made worse by timid souls unwilling to accept that experience is also an education.

    If childhood education had allowed pre-testing, I might have had much better grades than I got; an unknown and undiagnosed autism condition did not prevent me from learning, but I had to find my own ways to do so. That is a related issue educators have yet to deal with; we are all too often unwilling to credit things learnt out of class.

  • Very interesting although I have a couple of questions:

    Firstly, how is the issue of engagement dealt with in an effective competency-based learning program? I would argue that this is particularly important in secondary school contexts where compulsory and limited subject choices amongst other things see students demands in this respect a lot higher than in Higher Education settings. My experiences of a few examples of competency-based learning have led to a more blended approach with some competency mixed with other forms of learning.

    Secondly, does this lead to a lot of testing, drill and practice techniques, individual work and not a lot of deep thinking, collaborative work? The techniques alluded to in the post and as previously mentioned, alert me to what I would term, quite archaic practices. I have concern as to how adaptable competency-based learning is to more contemporary approaches.

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