Competency-Based Learning Key Characteristic: Differentiated


Competency-based learning can provide opportunities for students to progress at their own pace, along variable pathways that are best suited to their individual needs and goals. How do we achieve these benefits? Blackboard has been analyzing competency based education models, practices, policies, and trends through independent research and in joint competency-based education research with the American Council on Education. One clear finding is that even though different competency based education programs take different approaches, they share the common characteristics of being learner-centric, outcomes-based, and differentiated. These characteristics help us understand competency based education in practice.

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. Types of differentiation include:

  • 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 and 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.

Let’s look at a few examples of competency based learning differentiation practices.

Personalized Path & Pace

One foundational aspect of competency based learning is progress at a pace and along a path that is most appropriate for a specific individual. Differentiation can provide different learning materials or assessments to students based on what they’ve already mastered, what topic or focus is most relevant for their learning goals, their affiliation with defined groups or cohorts, and what types of resources are most likely to help them achieve their goals, all within flexible timeframes. For example, when students demonstrate mastery of certain competencies, they can move ahead to competencies they have not yet mastered. And if they are having trouble, they can be given additional or remedial resources to help them approach the topic from different angles until they understand it.

Adaptive release in Blackboard enables faculty and instructional designers to easily direct and change learning pathways for individual students or cohorts, based on specific criteria. For example, when a student demonstrates mastery of a competency in an assessment, adaptive release can direct them efficiently to learning materials for the next competency or set of competencies. When students do not do well on assessments or other performance measures, adaptive release can direct them to learning materials that help them master the concepts before they try again. This methodology and the assessment attempts can be repeated as many times as necessary until the student demonstrates mastery.

Integration of Diverse Adaptive Content Resources

Adaptive learning content is designed with differentiated branching very closely tied to the content. It provides structures for directing students to resources based on their responses to prompts, test questions, or some other indicator of their understanding of a specific concept. (For definitions of this and related terms, see Clarifying Competency-Based Education Terms: A Lexicon.) For example, if a student taking a math test gets a question wrong, there can be different reasons why they selected the wrong answer, indicating that they didn’t understand the operators or that they didn’t understand the decimals. Adaptive content can direct students to the type of help they need to learn very specific concepts.

Because adaptive learning content is so closely tied to specific content, it is often developed and delivered by publishers or open educational resource (OER) providers that produce or curate content. Adaptive content and even stand-alone adaptive learning environments can be inserted into learning pathways as needed to help students master certain concepts and topic areas. Resources from different providers can be included to offer variety, choice, and a selection of the most appropriate adaptive content for different purposes. Blackboard provides robust integration frameworks for including adaptive content from multiple sources. Faculty and instructional designers can easily discover and integrate adaptive content directly into competency based learning pathways, leveraging resources from publishers, OER providers, and xpLor, Blackboard’s global cross-platform learning object repository.

Differentiated Messages, Feedback & Guidance

Differentiation is not just about content and pathways. A simple but important component of differentiation is relevant, timely, individualized feedback and guidance. Some of this can be done by technology, such as automatic “Congratulations!” when the learner achieves a badge. But human guidance is critical for helping learners along their diverse pathways.

An important component of differentiation is providing the right interventions at the right times. Students in competency based education programs have different and more complex needs than traditional students, and they are also harder to manage because they are working at different paces and along different pathways. The Blackboard Retention Center facilitates successful interventions, automatically flagging students based on risk factors.  Faculty can see at a glance who’s at risk and take action with those students, by communicating with them, making notes for follow-up, and using adaptive release to make specific learning resources available to them. They can also encourage students and congratulate them on their progress, based on views of who has recently mastered competencies or achieved other learning goals.

Effective Interventions Based on Analytics

As more and more learning happens in technology environments, the data generated can yield insights for defining effective pathways, individualized guidance, and types of interventions that contribute to student success. Analyzing how students perform in competency based education programs over time can yield risk profiles tailored to learning pathways as well as keyed to student demographic and cohort indicators. Blackboard Analytics for Learn, a data warehouse and intelligence platform for in-depth, longitudinal learning analytics, combines detailed student learning and performance data with comprehensive student information system demographic data to produce highly effective risk alerts. And Blackboard student retention dashboards deliver actionable information to teams of coaches and specialists who can provide real-time human interventions tailored to the needs of specific students.

These examples of differentiation represent approaches to finding the right balance between what people do best and how technology can help people be more effective. There are many opportunities to be “now-ists” and foster innovations that weave in the benefits of competency based learning while building on investments we’ve already made in well-designed learning processes.

Benefits to Innovating Differentiation Within Existing Workflows:

  • Leverage existing investments and valuable resources
  • Lower barriers to entry and time to implementation
  • Avoid costly retrofitting of deeply embedded processes
  • Achieve faculty buy-in and engagement by focusing on learning outcomes rather than on disruption
  • Add new paths to student success rather than disrupting existing paths

Check back here to learn more about quality in competency based education programs.

See also:

Advancing Competency Based Education with the American Council on Education

Clarifying Competency Based Education Terms

Competency Based Learning and Learner-Centric Shifts in Education

Competency Based Learning, with the Focus on Learning

3 Key Characteristics of Competency Based Learning

Competency Based Learning Key Characteristic: Learner-Centric

Competency Based Learning Key Characteristic: Outcomes-Based