Competency-based education


As a traditional education (TE) teacher, you would have probably asked yourself similar questions when the bell rang to mark the end of each of your classes. Were there students left with struggles and confusion? Were there students bored as a result of going through what they already know or being lock stepped in the learning pace of slower peers or average group performance? Were special-ed students demoralized as a result of feeling different? The answers would probably be in the positive. Moreover, despite accumulating the required scores on tests, some students might advance without mastering the required competencies.

Fig 1 highlights some of the doubts a time-based/ TE approach might have on learners. Reflecting on the above issues by school systems administrators (e.g., school boards), school leadership as well as teachers could perhaps draw their attention to competency-based education (CBE), a paradigm shift from time-based to performance-based education. In this article, I discuss ways to implement CBE through showing the differences between CBE and TE, as both diverge in why, what, and how to teach as well as in why, what and how to assess. In other words, they are miles apart on how the four curriculum elements planned and implemented. The discussion proceeds as follows:

  • What is competency-based education?
  • Why should CBE students learn?
  • What should CBE students learn?
  • How should we help CBE students learn?
  • Why and how should competencies and learning outcomes be assessed?
Fig 1. Impact of traditional/ time-based pedagogy

What is competency-based education?

CBE (also, competency education, mastery-based learning, performance-based learning, proficiency-based learning) is an approach where learning competencies predetermined, learner characteristics (e.g., weaknesses, strengths, interests, learning styles, and cognitive styles) identified, personalized instruction for every student provided, and mastery of target competencies demonstrated by every student before advancing to the next level, course, or grade. The goal is to provide every student with personalized learning experiences to master necessary skills and become successful adults. CBE is therefore about what students will be able to do with what they know more than simply what they know. As a result, teachers’ role is to help students cross the bridge from what they know to what they will be able to do with what they know. Fig. 2 shows a simple structure of CBE.

Fig 2. Structure of competency-based education (CBE)

Why should CBE students learn?

In this section, I discuss these points:

  • The difference between competencies and learning outcomes (LOs)
  • Collective development of competency maps in advance
  • All students achieve the same standards and competencies

Although both competencies and learning (LOs) outcomes can be written to describe the learning to be achieved at the end of a lesson (lesson LOs), course (course LOs), or program (program LOs), they differ in scope and purpose. While a competency is a general statement to describe the desired skills, knowledge, and behaviors students need to achieve at the end of a lesson, course, or program, a LO is a specific statement to describe in measurable ways the skills, knowledge, and behaviors students need to achieve at the end of a lesson, course, or program (Gosselin, 2021; Shawer, 2018). As Fig 3 shows, a competency must be broken down into a number of LOs in order to be measured and assessed.

Fig 3. Competency versus learning outcome

While LOs are written in TE to measure the extent to which students understood the content, the purpose in CBE is to achieve deep understanding that is demonstrated through knowledge and skills application. This means CBE LOs are not only written to measure understanding, but also to be proven by action so that students demonstrate they have built life and workplace skills. Since competencies are derived from the necessities of industries and realities, they define the applied skills and knowledge that enable individuals to perform successfully in academic study and future careers. Although a competency describes a desired ability in the general sense, competencies are common in professional fields (e.g., dentistry and nursing), whereas LOs are the common term in traditional instruction programs (Gosselin, 2021).

To achieve mastery, CBE requires competencies to be defined in advance by school leadership, teachers and, as possible, in consultations with graduates, community representatives, and employers. The teachers should then share these competencies with students and parents. In CBE, it is necessary that students to understand what they need to learn, how mastery is defined, and how they will be assessed so that they get prepared to and have ownership of and motivation for learning. Although different students might learn different competencies at different points of time, all students must achieve the same set of standards and competencies (Juraschka, 2021). In conclusion, students learn to demonstrate mastery of skills and knowledge.

What should CBE students learn?

In this section, I discuss these points:

  • Tailored Content
  • Multi-sensory content

CBE teachers should have assessed their students in terms of weaknesses, strengths, interests, and learning and cognitive styles. Although two students learn to achieve the same competency and its LOs, the content provided might be conducive to learning for one student but not for the other. As a result, teachers need to introduce the same skills and knowledge in different formats. One way is to introduce the skills and knowledge through different topics. For example, one or more students might be learning better when they read about sports, while others might learn better by reading scientific fiction. Another way is to provide content using multimedia, including graphs, text, audio, and video content (Shawer, 2017).

How should CBE students learn?

In this section, I discuss these points:

  • Personalized instruction/ customized learning/ flexible learning
  • Multiple ways of representation
  • Student grouping
  • Learning pace
  • Formative feedback
  • Classroom assessment techniques (CATs)

CBE teachers do not have a choice but to personalize instruction so that they can provide learning experiences that match every student’s style, ability, and pace. For example, they tailor or customize learning through setting up flexible classrooms. They could make classroom flexible through using and rotating learning stations, playlists of self-guided activities, flipped classrooms, task cards, alongside many others (Raudys, 2021). In this respect, teachers need to teach students social skills, like not asking for help before the time set for that, trying different ways and multiple times before asking for help, asking a peer, using quiet voice, signaling and continuing to work while waiting for help, checking task instructions, not insisting on help, and keeping seated while waiting for help (Gould, 2021). These are like survival skills in CBE classrooms.

CBE teachers need to use multiple ways of representation to address different learning interests and modalities. For example, they need to use different kinds of activities, including solo, pairs, small groups, pair groups and whole group. They need to use different instructional active learning strategies where learners are doing the activities, including fishbowl, snowball, jigsaw, lineup, and discussions. However, teacher presentations, demonstrations and lectures are also necessary to provide the key concepts and procedures for students to use in subsequent activities (Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 2021).

Student grouping needs customizing as well. While students are admitted and grouped based on their age into TE, teachers can either use ability grouping or follow individualized instruction in CBE. Although it is true that students may be initially age-grouped in CBE, they are assessed individually and assisted with personalized instruction to address their specific needs (Juraschka, 2021; Walton & Ryerse, 2021).  As for learning pace, students learn at different rates in different areas. A student may advance to a higher level in one area while staying longer in others. CBE pacing is performance-based and individually-driven. In TE, students learn at the average group rate. Once the class time or course calendar ends, students move on with the group regardless of actual performance. TE pacing is time, teacher, and group driven (Juraschka, 2021; Walton & Ryerse, 2021).

Since CBE seeks to enable every single student to achieve mastery, individualized or customized learning must be used. However, customized instruction cannot be achieved without formative feedback to understand where students struggle so that teachers can tailor instruction to individual needs (Walton & Ryerse, 2021). In this respect, classroom assessment techniques (CATs) provide essential formative and immediate feedback teachers need to adjust instruction (Angelo & Cross, 1993). For example, teachers could use background knowledge probe, application cards, concept maps, punctuated lecture, self-assessment, and minute paper for checking understanding of main concepts. For performance CATs, teachers could use fishbowl, snowball, peer assessments, and presentations, alongside many others (Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 2021).

Why and how should competencies and LOs be assessed?

In this section, I discuss these points:

  • Assessment for learning and mastery
  • Ongoing assessment
  • Grading
  • Student promotion

In CBE, teachers assess to help students learn and master competencies. While teachers in TE assess for (formative assessment) and of learning (summative assessment), CBE teachers always assess for learning. They always use formative assessment and feedback to identify learning problems and rates so that they provide personalized learning to help each student achieve mastery. There is no option such as failing. Teachers continue to support students until they achieve the minimum level of performance. They need to give students multiple ways of action and expression of learning. A tool kit of assessment approaches, strategies and tasks must be at their disposal. They need to use data-driven assessment (traditional, outcomes-based and alternative assessment (performance, authentic and portfolio)). They also need to use flexible assessment (Juraschka, 2021), including self and peer assessment alongside allowing students to have a voice on assessment weight as well as on what and how to be assessed (Shawer, 2021). CBE teachers also assess regularly and provide timely and immediate feedback for every student. An important point is that, standards and learning goals are the same for all students despite assessing students for different mastery LOs. To assess for mastery, teachers should use performance assessments to allow students to demonstrate skills and knowledge in action (Juraschka, 2021; Walton & Ryerse, 2021).

Ongoing assessment is another integral part and requirement of CBE. In this respect, technology can help teachers handle a large number of assessments. In particular, eLearning systems help teachers to connect and engage students. They allow them to track and manage the learning needs of all students anywhere, anytime through the automatic feedback provided about student progress. For example, Google Forms help teachers to receive Automatic Response Forms that instantaneously allow them to see how students are self-assessing. Likewise, Google Docs allow easy student collaboration for immediate peer feedback, while helping teachers monitor student works-in-progress (Raudys, 2021). Although TE teachers use similar assessment tasks, they assess and provide learning support to monitor average group performance. Once satisfied with average performance, they apply summative assessments. As a result, some students succeed while others fail. Failing is not an option in CBE (Juraschka, 2021; Walton & Ryerse, 2021).

CBE and TE diverge on grading and student promotion as well. While grades are calculated in TE through cumulative scores on tests and assignments, CBE grading is based on achieving performance levels by each individual student. Since there are acceptable levels of performance from the minimum to the highest level of performance, student mastery levels differ accordingly. In all cases, the minimum level of performance must be achieved by every single student to advance to the next level. CBE students advance to the next level, course, or grade based on demonstration of skills and ability to apply knowledge. If a student or some students fail to achieve a competency, the class does not just simply move on as the case in TE. Teachers support struggling students until they master the competencies. Those who master competencies advance, while those did not achieve mastery work on the competencies until they attain them. Instead of repeating the whole course, students just work on areas of struggle. While students may advance early in areas they have strength, they stay longer in the struggle areas. In contrast, TE students advance at the end of the course or grade (Juraschka, 2021; Walton & Ryerse, 2021). In summary, CBE has the following distinctive characteristics:

  • It is a shift from time-based to mastery-based performance.
  • Competency mapping is established from the outset by school leadership.
  • Competencies must be shared with students to know what to learn.
  • A competency map directs teachers to what to teach.
  • Ongoing assessment is required for personalized instruction and multi supports.
  • Student grading and promotion is mastery-driven.
  • Every student must demonstrate mastery of competencies.
  • Equity must be achieved to achieve competency learning.
  • Learning experience is personalized for every individual student.
  • CBE aligns standards across different levels (e.g., province, local education authorities, and schools).
  • CBE helps programs attain the standards and maintain quality.
  • CBE informs the public about the programs meeting the standards.


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