By Ben Jones

The advocacy for competency-based education (CBE) has grown considerably in mainstream education over the last few years. Out from the shadows of alternative education, the idea that skills based mastery leads to achievement has come of age. Universities, colleges, and K12 education now consider competency-based education a viable option for improving the quality and effectiveness of teaching.


Competency-based education has at its core an emphasis on achievement. Operationally, it focuses on incremental progress toward larger more sophisticated outcomes.

Whether you consider it as mastery learning or another moniker like performance-based learning, competency-based education focuses on creating a learner centric teaching environment. In 2011, Patrick and Sturgis presented a five-item working definition of high quality CBE:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

In K12, these five principles don’t seem so new in many respects. They have always been part of a responsive teaching environment where student academic needs receive instructional attention. However, competency based learning formalizes the approach. Plan, teach, assess, and repeat until the student meets the required level of mastery. If you scratch the surface, you’ll quickly realize that each student is held accountable to his or her own progress individually. This idea has a profound impact on instructional management and particularly how classrooms handle progress. Not all students will attain competencies at or near the same time.

Under a competency-based approach, the “class” is not the defining unit for the learner; instead, the individual student is the unit and progresses along the learning path and proceeds only as competencies have been met. This requires planning. Traditional classrooms move forward based on the progress of the majority and some expected schedule. This might be an adopted pacing calendar or simply the urgency to complete the course material in the allotted time. Under CBE, planning needs to account for students who proceed quickly as much as for those who proceed more slowly.

Much of the planning involved lies in the competencies themselves. According to principle two from Patrick and Sturgis, competencies need to be explicit, measurable and transferable. These three requirements are highly interdependent. A competency must be small enough, discreet enough to stand alone as an individual task. The task must be measurable as a whole, not as a sum of its parts. And finally, the transference quality of the competency allows it to become absorbed into broader more complex activities without presenting itself as an obstacle or hurdle. In more traditional terms, the learning objective must include a single clearly defined goal, a single metric to determine success, and an embedded transitional support for future learning objectives.

This is a departure for many educators with regard to daily planning of instruction. Instruction under a competency-based approach lives or dies by how competencies are defined, assessed and forwarded into future learning. Not planning for frequent and formative assessment undermines the learner by stalling their progress. Not incorporating the competency into future learning weakens its value and deprives the learner of their ability to quickly extend skills and knowledge. Creating vague or overly broad competencies simply muddies the learning experience opening gateways for confusion and frustration. While it might be tempting to view competency based education as a list of skills or tasks fitting into the scope of what students need for a particular course or topic, it represents a more thoughtful and integrated approach to linking skills, knowledge, and concepts to achievement at the personal level.

For this reason, assessments take on a much different role. They afford the learner an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a particular competency. Since formative assessment better reflects actual usage of the competency, they provide much more meaningful outcome data while remaining in context to the student activity. Principle three according to Patrick and Sturgis, that assessment be meaningful and positive, applies quite naturally in this case. Building an assessment into the competency as part and parcel to the learning experience creates a unifying context. Students understand the relevance. They feel more connected to the competency through the iterative nature of the learning and demonstration cycle. Outcomes become immediately beneficial. Progress becomes apparent and support needs readily identified.

Each student comes face-to-face with his or her own progress at this point. They undergo a very tight feedback loop between their depth of understanding and the demonstration of that understanding. This opens the way to principle four, that students receive quick and targeted support for their own specific needs. Frequent formative measures of progress provide the needed information in a timely fashion. Fortunately, the very nature of competency based education means students can share the burden of addressing their own needs. Tightly focused competencies and clear metrics make this possible. While learning is fresh, both students and teachers are more capable of asking the pertinent questions needed for clarification. Students begin to self-direct their learning more productively because the needs stand out and the solutions better fit the goal at hand.

In this way, learning outcomes blend not only the competencies but also the ties those have to the creation and application of knowledge in general. This is not a given though. Unless the competency incorporates the embedded transitional support for future learning objectives, the entire process runs aground becoming an endless procession of drill and kill activities. To meet the requirement of principle five, broader outcomes must encapsulate the distinct skills, tasks, and knowledge of competencies in such a way as to leverage a student’s ability to manipulate, extend and create something more than what was provided. Again, this boils down to planning.

Competency-based education has at its core an emphasis on achievement. Operationally, it focuses on incremental progress toward larger more sophisticated outcomes. Implementing this instructional model relies on employing much faster cycles in instruction and assessment. To achieve these faster cycles, learning objectives by necessity become smaller more highly focused chunks coupled directly to their success measures. This places learning and assessment in tight proximity, which in turn allows more timely identification of specific learner needs and successes. Addressing needs becomes more effective at the individual student level with his or her successes fueling further progress.

Without those conditions in place the benefits from competency-based education erode away drastically. The loss of context between the competencies and their upstream learning integration compartmentalizes learning in a negative fashion. Students fail to grasp the significance of their own learning and positive self-direction falters causing achievement to plummet. The net effect becoming more and more apparent as time progresses.

Planning is key to supporting effective competency-based instructional programs. Planning needs to start with what constitutes valid competencies, their success metrics and frequency of use, and how they support and extend future learning. Additional planning needs to consider the time management aspect of competency-based learning. Locking learners in a fixed time progression regardless of their mastery defeats one of the very tenets of competency based learning, namely that students progress at the pace of their mastery. It’s demoralizing to be limited by an artificial time constraint regardless on which side of the mastery fence you sit.

Ben Jones is the founder of Learnerati. For more information and to contact Ben, visit
Comments & Ratings

There is no comment.

Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

Our Mission: to reinvigorate the spirit of American education