3 Key Characteristics of Competency-Based Learning



Competency-based learning empowers learners to focus on mastery of valuable skills and knowledge and learn at their own pace. This seems like a straightforward statement, but what does it mean in practice? Our competency-based education lexicon, developed in collaboration with the American Council on Education, helps chart the landscape of terms and concepts. How do we apply these concepts?

First, why do stakeholders in our educational ecosystems care about changing their practices to incorporate competency based learning? Part of the impetus comes from learner-centric shifts in education driven by social and economic pressures. There is also a growing realization that educational practices need to change to effectively focus on learning. And there are also potential benefits fundamental to the long-term success of our educational institutions.

Practical Benefits of Competency-Based Education:

  • Efficient and potentially lower-cost degree/credential options for students
  • Greater understanding of learning outcomes throughout the academic institution
  • Courses, learning resources, and assessments aligned to well-defined goals
  • Motivated and engaged students
  • Increased student retention and completion rates, particularly when prior learning can be applied to degree progress
  • Learners’ improved ability to recognize, manage, and continuously build upon their own competencies and evidence of learning
  • Employers’ improved ability to understand graduates’ competencies and learning achievements
  • Outcomes-based frameworks for continuous improvement at course, program, and institutional levels

How do we achieve these benefits? Blackboard has been analyzing competency-based education models, practices, policies, and trends through independent research and now in joint competency-based education research with the American Council on Education. One obvious point verified by this research is that competency-based education approaches are already diverse and are continuing to evolve through the work of initiatives defining effective models. But another clear finding is that different approaches share the common characteristics of being learner-centric, outcomes-based, and differentiated. These characteristics help us understand competency based education in practice.

We also found that competency-based education practices do not need to be dramatic or disruptive. Many effective approaches incorporate competency-based learning processes into existing course and curriculum structures (see the American Council on Education’s infographic). In fact, one of the reasons why there are so many different approaches is because educational institutions adapt competency-based learning to achieve their own goals. Competency-based learning does not happen in a vacuum. Nor does it need to be viewed as something outside or counter to our educational traditions and values.

Competency-based learning can be valuable for all of the stakeholders in our learning communities: learners have more opportunities to take ownership of their learning and expand their lifelong learning pathways; faculty grow professionally as they articulate the learning outcomes in their areas of expertise and embed them in rich learning experiences; academic leaders provide engaging curricula that advance knowledge and produce graduates who can demonstrate what they’ve learned; and institutional leaders focus on new ways of identifying barriers to success and achieving improved outcomes.

The key characteristics of learner-centric, outcomes-based, and differentiated help us visualize what competency-based learning means to these stakeholders.

Key Characteristic: Learner-Centric

First and foremost, competency-based learning focuses on the learner as an individual. It provides opportunities for each individual to develop skills at their own pace, collaborate with others, collect evidence of learning, and become successful lifelong learners. Competency-based learning empowers learners to:

  • Understand the competencies they need to master to achieve their goals
  • Progress through learning processes without time constraints
  • Explore diverse learning opportunities
  • Collaborate in learning activities with communities of peers and mentors
  • Create learning artifacts that represent their competencies
  • Reflect on their own learning achievements
  • See what they’ve mastered, what they still need to accomplish, and where to improve
  • Develop an online academic identity, including the ability to manage competencies and portable evidence of learning from multiple sources

Key Characteristic: Outcomes-Based

Competency-based learning starts with well-defined learning outcomes. The structure for competency-based learning comes from creating, managing, and aligning sets of competencies to learning resources, assessments, and rubrics, with analytics to track performance. Focusing on outcomes empowers faculty and academic leaders to:

  • Develop robust sets of learning outcomes and competencies
  • Reorient curricular design to start with learning outcomes rather than starting with time/term structures
  • Build high-quality sharable resources, assessments, and rubrics designed to support learning outcomes
  • Foster authentic assessment that includes demonstrated mastery of competencies
  • Effectively identify risk in students’ progress toward learning achievements and provide appropriate interventions
  • Support transparent analysis of learning outcomes at every level of the institution
  • Achieve short-term and long-term academic performance improvements focused on outcomes rather than inputs

Key Characteristic: Differentiated

Differentiation refers to competency-based learning practices that recognize and adjust to meet the needs of individual learners. Differentiation is multi-faceted and applies to learner support, communications and interventions, as well as learning processes.

  • Prescriptive/Diagnostic: providing different learning materials or assessments to learners based on what they’ve already mastered.
  • Affiliation: learners receive different materials or delivery based on their relationship to the curriculum or program in cohorts or groups.
  • Adaptive: content that is designed with learning alternatives and branching closely tied to the learner’s specific interactions with the content.
  • Choice: learners select from among different learning resources and pathways based on their own choices and preferences.
  • Personalized messages & notifications: relevant, timely communications tailored to learners’ individual activities and needs.
  • Appropriate interventions: feedback, guidance, activities, or tasks designed to help individuals progress along their learning paths.

Most of these practices are already familiar and valued. This gives us many opportunities to be “now-ists” and foster bottom-up innovations that weave in more of the benefits of competency-based learning while building on the investments we’ve already made in well-designed learning opportunities.

Benefits to Innovating Competency-Based Learning Within Existing Workflows:

  • Leverage existing investments and valuable resources
  • Lower barriers to entry and time to implementation
  • Avoid costly retrofitting of deeply embedded processes
  • Encounter fewer regulatory and accreditation complications
  • Achieve faculty buy-in and engagement by focusing on learning outcomes rather than on disruption
  • Meet existing faculty, student, and employer expectations because courses and credits are well understood
  • Continue to transfer courses and credit hours for students moving among institutions
  • Add new paths to employment rather than disrupting existing paths

We can take a variety of approaches to focus on learning outcomes throughout our learning ecosystems. Check back here to learn more about learning and assessment processes, evidence of learning, open badges, and validation and quality.

Competency-based education ebook