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Detailed Definition of Competency Education

Page history last edited by Eliot Levine 4 years, 7 months ago

In this document you can find the ten distinguishing features of competency-based education from CompetencyWorks (2018) and a detailed explanation of the five-part working definition of competency-based education (2011). Please see the Overview of Definitions of Competency-Based Education for how other organizations define it.


Ten Distinguishing Features of Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks developed 10 distinguishing features of competency-based education in 2018 through a collaborative process with leading educators and experts. (See the paper Levers and Logic Models.) This was to provide a clearer explanation of competency-based education than the five-part working definition developed in 2011. Please feel free to use the distinguishing features and the icons in your own communities. Just give credit based on Creative Commons attribution. These ten features can be easily converted into a self-assessment tool for you to use to use with your colleagues in your district and schools.


Purpose and Culture


1. Student success outcomes are designed around preparation for college, career and lifelong learning. Traditional systems narrowly prioritize and measure academic skills, often at the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Competency-based systems emphasize ensuring that students can apply academic knowledge and skills to new contexts and become adept problem-solvers and independent learners. Thus, competency-based districts and schools align around academic knowledge, transferable skills and the ability of students to become lifelong learners. Culture, pedagogy, and structures are designed to develop student agency, build foundational academic knowledge and engage students in deeper learning that provide opportunities to engage in real-world problems.


2. Districts and school make a commitment to be responsible for all students mastering learning expectations. While many traditional districts and schools have missions that purport to achieve “success for all,” many of these same districts and schools maintain systemic practices that contribute directly to gaps in opportunity and inequitable academic outcomes. For example, when schools use grading practices that obscure and conceal students’ actual learning levels, students do not have the information they need to improve. When schools fail to support students in addressing critical gaps in knowledge and skill, students become increasingly burdened by learning gaps that accumulate and widen over time. By contrast, competency-based districts and schools proactively challenge these practices and put in place alternative systems and structures that promote success for all. They portray student learning authentically and transparently. They meet students where they are and ensure they have mastered key content. Importantly, they become flexible in using time, resources and student supports to ensure that students continue progressing toward success. Commitment to mastery for all requires districts, schools and educators to challenge and “unlearn” part of traditional education as we know it, and embrace collective accountability, continuous improvement and personalization instead.


3. Districts and schools nurture empowering, inclusive cultures of learning. It is well-known that school culture is important to creating high-performing schools. The traditional system tends to emphasize order, safety and high achievement. Although high achievement is a shared value between competency-based and traditional systems, the interpretation of achievement is different. Traditional schools privilege students that are already at grade level by ranking and sorting students based on grade point average or other similar mechanisms. Traditional systems often emphasize order and compliance, manifesting in school disciplinary policies that exclude students, disproportionately impact students of color and contribute to students feeling that they do not belong. Competency-based schools create cultures that emphasize growth, inclusion and empowerment for students and adults. The culture of competency-based systems is rooted in the learning sciences, which emphasize maximizing safety and belonging, promoting active learning, developing skills to manage learning, and intrinsic motivation and cultivating intrinsic motivation. Districts and schools foster a growth mindset in students and adults. Students are empowered to take ownership of their learning. Distributed leadership structures empower educators to make decisions in the best interests of students. Equity lies at the heart of competency-based education to ensure that all students benefit, not just some.




4. Students receive timely and differentiated instruction and support. In traditional schools, students often have to fail before they receive support. Many times, these “supports” come in the form of remedial learning opportunities that are long delayed. In competency-based systems, schools develop schedules and mechanisms for students to receive additional support while they are struggling with new concepts so that they can continue to learn and build knowledge and skills. Formative assessment and effective feedback based on the learning task are essential to supporting students to learn, make progress and advance at a meaningful pace.


5. Research-informed pedagogical principles emphasize meeting students where they are and building intrinsic motivation. Many traditional systems seek to create aligned systems of learning and integrate the learning sciences into instruction. However, these systems sort and teach students based on their age, not on their actual learning needs and goals. Without falling into the trap of tracking, educators in competency-based schools begin with the concept of “meeting students where they are” and design instructional strategies for students based on their development, social emotional skills and academic foundations. They use these assessments of student learning and development to determine the supports that will be most effective in helping them learn and progress. Pedagogy and learning design for students and adults are grounded in the learning sciences and seek to embed equity strategies such as culturally responsive approaches and Universal Design for Learning into the core of instruction. Helping students to build the lifelong learning skills often referred to as student agency is rooted in science of learning and one of the student success outcomes.


6. Assessments are embedded in the personalized learning cycle and aligned to outcomes including the transfer of knowledge and skills. Traditional systems place heavy emphasis on summative assessment, much of which emphasizes the lower portion of Bloom’s taxonomy: memorization, comprehension and application. All students take grade-level assessments at the same point in time. In competency-based education the emphasis is on assessment for Formative assessment is deeply embedded in the cycle of learning to provide feedback that helps students master learning objectives and guides teacher’s professional learning. Students continue to practice or revise when they are “not yet” proficient until they reach the commonly defined performance level that demonstrates mastery of learning expectations. Students are empowered and engaged when the process of assessing learning is transparent, timely, draws upon multiple sources of evidence and communicates progress. In the most developed competency-based schools, summative assessments are used based on the personal pathway of students when they have shown evidence of proficiency, not grade level, as a means of quality control and internal accountability to ensure that students are being held consistently to high standards. Assessment systems in competency-based districts and schools also emphasize deeper learning. Districts and schools build the capacity for performance-based assessments to ensure students know how to transfer knowledge and build the higher order skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.




7. Mechanisms are in place to ensure consistency in expectations of what it means to master knowledge and skills. Variability is a feature of the traditional system: what is to be learned, at what performance level mastery is set, and how student work is graded will vary across districts, within schools, and even within classrooms. The result is that students are held to different expectations. Variability is also problematic because it is highly susceptible to bias: when teachers and leaders who have not addressed their own biases are the final arbiters of student learning, they may intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate inequitable outcomes for students. By contrast, competency-based education asks: How do we know if students have learned? We cannot be confident that students are really developing the desired knowledge and skills if we are not confident that we know how to measure those knowledge and skills, or that educators across the system measure them the same way. Moderation processes ensure teachers share expectations and understandings of standards. Similarly, teachers calibrate to ensure that they assess evidence of learning consistently. Confidence in schools grows and equity is advanced when students, teachers and families receive clear and trustworthy information about exactly where students are on the pathway toward graduation.


8. Schools and districts value transparency with clear and explicit expectations of what is to be learned, the level of performance for mastery, and how students are progressing. A transparent common learning continuum, including standards and competencies that reflect the student success outcomes, establishes shared expectations for what students will know and be able to do at every performance level. Students are more motivated and empowered when learning targets and expectations of mastery are clear, and when they have voice in how they learn and demonstrate proficiency.


9. Strategies for communicating progress support the learning process and student success. In traditional systems students receive periodic report cards with A-F grades based on points for assignments, tests and behavior. Teachers often have their own system of grading, which results in variability in determining achievement. There is little opportunity for revision, a critical part of the cycle of learning, and students are ranked using the status of their performance. The problem is that risk-taking, failure and revision are part of real and authentic learning processes. Traditional grading systems create disincentives to these aspects of learning because they penalize failure. Grades in the traditional system may reflect knowing, but they do not necessarily reflect learning. In competency-based districts and schools, grading systems are rooted in the learning sciences. Failure and mistakes are part of the learning process. The transparent common learning continuum is the backbone for the system of grading. Students are clear on what they need to learn, what proficiency looks like, and the ways they can demonstrate learning. Currently many schools use standards-based grading aligned to grade-level standards. Some schools are beginning to use competency-based grading aligned to personalized learning paths. Grading policies separate behaviors and lifelong learning skills from academics to ensure transparency and objectivity, with students receiving effective feedback and guidance on both. Students are expected and supported to engage in additional practice and revision until they can demonstrate proficiency.


10. Learners advance based on attainment of learning expectations (mastery) through personalized learning pathways. In traditional schools, students advance to the next set of content and the next grade level whether or not they need more time to master the content. Likewise, students are expected to engage with grade-level content whether or not they have already mastered that content. Pacing guides tell teachers to move forward in the curriculum even if students have not learned what they need to. Competency-based systems recognize that students may need more time to learn concepts and skills deeply. If they have gaps in their mastery, scaffolding may be required to attain all the prerequisite knowledge and skills. More instructional support and time are provided if needed and students advance when they are ready. Depending on the domains and learning targets, students may be able to pursue personalized pathways forward rather than linear progressions. Competency-based systems ensure students are truly prepared for future learning by basing progress and credit accrual on demonstration of knowledge and skill, rather than the traditional system’s dependence on proxies for learning, such as attendance or amount of time in class. The following detailed definition provides elements of a high quality competency-based approach.  Please feel free to comment as this is a work in progress. To learn more about competency-based education, go to Understanding Competency-Based Education or visit CompetencyWorks to find Introductory ResourcesAt the bottom of this page you can find other definitions of competency-based education.


Five Part Working Definition: What Competency-Based Education Is and What It Isn't.


The term competency-based education, as defined by CompetencyWorks, refers to a systems model in which (1) teaching and learning are designed to ensure students are becoming proficient by advancing on demonstrated mastery and (2) schools are organized to provide timely and differentiated support to ensure equity. A competency-based structure enables personalized learning to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible. With clear and calibrated understanding of proficiency, learning can be tailored to each student’s strengths, needs, and interests and enable student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn.


The terms competency-based and mastery-based have also recently been used by vendors to describe adaptive software. We take the position that competency-based education empowers teachers to draw upon their professional knowledge in teaching and reaching every student. Digital tools to personalize instruction should be used appropriately based on the overall pedagogical philosophy of the school and the needs of the students. A classroom cannot be deemed competency-based or personalized simply because students are learning with digital content, are using adaptive software, or have flexible pacing.


A Note on Language


The issue of language is always a challenge when new concepts or paradigms are introduced. As you learn about competency-based education you will encounter multiple phrases used to capture the practice of students advancing upon mastery: standards-based, mastery-based performance-based, or proficiency-based.


CompetencyWorks uses the phrase competency-based education. Why? When we started states were already using different terms. So we decided to use the term that the U.S. Department of Education was using at the time. What we call it isn’t important. What is important is that we share a working definition that drives policy and practice towards a learner-centered system in which success is the only option.

Design Principle 1: Students Advance upon Demonstrated Mastery

The core element of a competency-based approach is that students progress to more advanced work upon demonstration of learning by applying specific skills and content. The most important implications of this design principle include:

  • Students work at levels that are appropriately challenging. Schools are able to meet students where they are at in their learning. This means students will be successful in learning the skills and knowledge that they will need for more advanced work.
  • Students are advanced to higher-level work upon demonstration of mastery, not age. Schools monitor and are responsible for ensuring students are making progress.
  • Students are assessed on performance or the application of the skills. 
  • Some students may complete courses more rapidly than others. Students can be at different performance levels -- such as 7th level reading and 6th level math.
  • Teachers guide students to produce sufficient evidence to determine proficiency.

Design Principle 2: Explicit and Measurable Learning Objectives Empower Students

In competency-based practices, a course is organized into measurable learning objectives that are shared with students. Students take responsibility for their learning, thereby increasing their engagement and motivation. The implications of this design principle include:

  • The relationship between student and teacher is fundamentally changed when there is transparency. Students are able to take on more responsibility in monitoring their learning, seeking help when they need it and advancing after demonstrating mastery.
  • The unit of learning becomes modular.  It works best when teachers have the units available for the course or semester so that students there is flexibility for students to spend more time and receive more instructional support when they need it. 
  • Learning expands beyond the classroom.  The transparent structure allows much greater flexibility and creativity in how students learn and how they are able to demonstrate their learning. 

Design Principle 3: Assessment Is Meaningful and a Positive Learning Experience for Students

In a competency-based model, the traditional approach to assessment and accountability “of learning” is turned on its head with assessments “for learning.” Formative assessments are aligned with learning objectives. Students receive immediate feedback when assessment occurs. This is used to encourage students to return to difficult concepts and skills until they achieve mastery. It is essential that assessments are student-centered in which students are assessed on material with which they are familiar. In order for competency-based pathways to offer high-quality education, the following must be put into place:

  • Schools embrace a strong emphasis on formative assessment
  • Teachers collaborate to develop understanding of what is an adequate demonstration of proficiency. This is often called calibration or tuning.
  • Teachers assess skills or concepts in multiple contexts and multiple ways
  • Attention on student learning, not student grades. New systems of providing feedback are developed so that students and their parents can be confident that students are becoming proficient and know how much progress a student is making.
  • Summative assessments are timely based soon after students demonstrate that they have learned the material. Students participate in summative assessments based on performance levels, not age-based curriculum.

Design Principle 4: Students Receive Rapid, Differentiated Support

See the issue brief The Learning Edge: Supporting Student Success in a Competency-Based Learning Environment and its companion resources for more information.

The core idea of a competency-based model is that all students will master the desired competencies. This requires a rapid response capacity on the part of educators to support students when they are stuck or begin to disengage in frustration. Educator capacity, and students’ own capacity to seek out help, can be enhanced by technology-enabled solutions that incorporate predictive analytic tools. Providing timely and differentiated support is essential to a competency-based system. Without it there is risk that the current inequities will be reproduced.

  • Pacing matters.  Although students will progress at their own speeds, students that are proceeding more slowly will need more help
  • Learning plans capture knowledge on learning styles, context, and interventions that are most effective for individuals students
  • New specialist roles may develop in educator  and instructional support roles, providing high quality interventions when students are begin to slip behind
  • Online learning can play an invaluable role in providing feedback to teachers on how students are proceeding

Design Principle 5: Learning Outcomes Emphasize Include Application and Creation of Knowledge 

Competencies emphasize the application of learning. A high quality competency-based approach will require students to apply skills and knowledge to new situations to demonstrate mastery and to create knowledge. Competencies will include academic standards as well as lifelong learning skills and dispositions.

  • Competencies and learning objectives are designed so that demonstration of mastery includes application of skills and knowledge
  • Assessment rubrics are explicit in what students must be able to know and do to progress to the next level of study

  • Examples of student work that demonstrate skills development throughout a learning continuum will help students understand their own progress

  •  Lifelong learning skills designed around students needs, life experiences, and the skills needed for them to be college and career ready

  • Expanded learning opportunities are developed as opportunities for students to develop and apply skills as they are earning credit





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