What is competency based learning?

What Is Competency-Based Learning, Why Does It Matter?

Competency-based learning John Martin

New Hampshire and educator John Martin are at the forefront of the competency-based learning movement. In today's show, we’ll give you an overview of competency-based learning including some of the benefits and the problems. Whatever your school situation, by having teachers agree upon standard competencies that students master, schools can be more certain of what students know. Listen Now.

Think about it. As John says in the show, high school teachers say the kids are coming to them unprepared and blame the middle school teachers. Middle school points down to elementary. Elementary points to kindergarten. And kindergarten blames the parents. Who is responsible?

But, wow, are there some challenges! Competencies by nature remove the class rank and the coveted valedictorian's spot. Learners are working at a different pace. Even assessment changes with competency-based learning. And when students master things quickly, in some ways, they need to be pushed to level up past the competency. John has a frank conversation about the pros and cons of competency-based learning and how his district is working through the challenges. This is an important conversation to share with curriculum directors, policy makers, and those looking to level up past standards to competencies.

Essential Questions: What Is Competency-Based Learning, Why Does It Matter?

  • What is competency-based learning?

  • What are some of the challenges teachers experience with moving to competency-based learning?

  • What are some of the parent complaints about competency-based learning?

  • What are some of the challenges for college admissions from students graduating from school that uses competency-based learning?

  • How does teaching change when a school moves to competency-based learning?

Educator Resources from this Episode

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What is competency based learning?

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Tonya January 29, 2016 - 8:21 pm

The idea of competency-based learning is intriguing. I love that students would have to demonstrate full knowledge and mastery of a concept, skill, or standard before moving on in a unit, as opposed to demonstrating a “functional” understanding. I imagine the amount of students that can slip through the cracks or get passed along (like the student mentioned in your podcast) would greatly decrease under this form of assessment. What a relief it would be for the student, teacher, and parent to know that a child truly understands the material studied in class and is well-equipped for the next phase of their education.
Competency-based learning has the additional positives of increased, meaningful use of technology in the classroom, as well as opportunities for differentiated instruction. It reminds me of the iLearn Programs. Our school uses Chromebooks and the iLearn Math Program at least once a week. Students take assessments on basic math competencies such as dividing fractions or finding the area of a shape. The students work somewhat independently with teachers available if needed, but their goal is to demonstrate their mastery of a concept. They can take small quizzes (as many times as needed) and if they miss a problem they can watch lessons or work with a teacher on how to successfully solve the problem. They don’t receive a grade for the work they do this day. It’s simply an opportunity for them to practice skills previously taught in class. It makes me think of competency-based learning because each student will achieve mastery of concepts at different times, which is fine as long as they actually achieve mastery.
I am concerned with how parents and colleges will view the transition from a traditional grading scale to competency-based “grades.” Isn’t there a chance to combine the two. Can the students be assessed on competency and then have a correlating grade given at the end of a quarter or semester? For instance, if the demonstrate competency of 80% of the material covered in the chapter then they receive a B on a report card. That may limit the amount of time a child has to master content but that is going to happen anyway if they are in a traditional school system (maybe not in a homeschool environment).

Vicki Davis January 31, 2016 - 5:15 pm

There are schools combining them and I think there is a place for both. Sounds like there may need to be a show on the combination of them. Will dig around to see who is a leader in this area.

Sherwood Institute of Australia February 2, 2016 - 3:26 am

I think it would be great if this kind of learning will be pushed through its because every students will know their capacities

Divya Vasantham February 2, 2016 - 6:04 am

The idea of competency based learning is interesting. It allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.

Mary Hulfachor March 29, 2017 - 3:52 pm

I think competency based education is detrimental to student’s confidence and it discriminates on individual’s learning style. Not everyone is the same!!

Vicki Davis March 29, 2017 - 4:36 pm

I don’t see your justification. No, they don’t learn alike, so the idea of competency based is that it personalizes things so when someone is competent Ina skill they move on and if not, they work longer. I don’t understand your reasoning, perhaps a specific example or research could clarify?

Nasrin Nowrouz July 14, 2020 - 11:09 am

It agree it is about time to change the way we think of learning-nd competency based learning will help our students to learn on their own and in a practical way and learning is not done or forced to them but they are in charge of their learning.


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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere