What Is Competency-Based Learning (and Why Should We Care)?

Requiring all third graders to read before promotion to fourth grade is a competency-based learning approach. Similarly, credit recovery programs and some charter schools require demonstration of knowledge and specific skill sets before students can move to the next level. This proficiency approach is different from our traditional system of time-based schools and will better prepare students for college and career. According to a new report, The Shift from Cohorts to Competency, “Moving to a competency-based system is the logical evolution from the outdated factory model to one that can personalize learning and serve the needs of each individual student.”

The shift to a competency-based education is already happening. Common Core standards, for example, are based on students demonstrating proficiency on specific skills before moving to the next grade. Adaptive learning engines that personalize content for students who then move at their own pace to skill mastery are becoming more common. Students receive timely and personalized scaffolded support as they move toward competency. Formative assessments are meaningful and positive learning experiences for students. Actionable data provides insight on students’ strengths and weaknesses and help them take responsibility for their own learning.

The report details how competency education helps students develop higher level thinking skills and deeper learning. Some of the hallmarks include:

  • Meeting each student at their level
  • Progress upon mastery
  • Transparency about competency, learning targets, rubrics, progress
  • Unique learning pathways allow students to help shape their learning
  • Continuity and portability – students take their learning with them
  • Technology that facilitates accelerated and differentiated learning


Does it Work for Everyone?

There are multiple districts across the country deeply invested in this approach to education and can lead the way for others. Shifting to a system where student credit is awarded based on success instead of seat time may be a radical departure for schools, but it mirrors the way today’s companies and organizations work. So in theory, it should better prepare students for the real world.

How does competency learning impact students who usually struggle? The report reassures us that “Many students find competency education more motivating and engaging than traditional approaches. The chance to progress at one’s own pace is particularly important to struggling students.”

We know that our current system does not work – applying the same expectations and resources to students in the same grade in the hopes that they will learn everything in the same way at the same pace. However, hundreds of educators and schools are working to find alternatives by focusing on higher standards or learning outcomes and shifting to more formative assessment as a means to guide students to greater success.

The report reminds us that technology is not required for students to establish competency, but it does expand our options for personalizing learning to each student’s needs. Getting students connected to the digital highway broadens the options that students have to learn in their own ways and in their own time. They can move faster or slower; get support when they need it; and forge ahead when they don’t.

The bottom line is that our schools are currently not preparing students adequately for life in our increasingly complex and global world. Competency-based learning requires a shift in our thinking and expectations. It also requires moving away from our traditional classroom-bound organizations to a new model where learning happens anywhere and everywhere.