What Is Competency-Based Learning?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2014
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Competency-based learning is a method of learning and instruction that is aimed more toward ensuring understanding and competency with different materials and skills, rather than accomplishment guided by time. This means that students in this type of program are notified of the skills they are expected to have by the end of a lesson or unit, and then the lessons are created in a way that ensures they will have the skills and competencies necessary. Evaluation is used not to determine a grade or indicate passing and failing of a course, but to ensure competency-based learning is successful and determine if more training is necessary.

A great deal of learning in schools is time-based learning, which means that a lesson plan is created with the goal that students will know certain things at certain points of time. For example, a plan dealing with sentence structure may indicate one week for parts of speech, one week for grammatical instruction, and one week for punctuation. This means that at the end of three weeks, in a time-based learning environment, the students in the class should know about sentence structure and be able to pass a test on that material. In a competency-based learning environment, however, the unit would be broken down into particular skills and knowledge the students should be competent in, and then evaluate that competency based on the completion of lessons, rather than the passage of time.


Competency-based learning is often used for professional training, and can be more effective in many environments than time-based learning. Someone learning to assemble a computer circuit board, for example, may be better served by a competency-based learning program than one that is time-based. The competency-based learning program would inform the student of what he or she is expected to know, and plainly show how he or she will be evaluated at the end of the program. There are no surprise tests in this type of program, and the student knows what is expected of him or her.

The student in the previous example would then begin to complete lessons and units about circuit board design and assembly. Each lesson would have a particular goal, usually understanding of a certain skill set, and the student’s progress would be based on completion of lessons rather than days or hours spent in a classroom. Competency-based learning can be very individualized and works best for someone who has intrinsic motivation to learn the material. Once the student is finished with the lessons, he or she is then evaluated, often through practical demonstration, in order to ensure that the student is competent with regard to the skills and knowledge expected of him or her. The results of such evaluation are not typically indicative of a grade, but instead indicate areas of improvement or skills that require further training.


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