Competency-based learning or competency-based education and training is an approach to teaching and learning more often used in learning concrete skills than abstract learning. It differs from other non-related approaches in that the unit of learning is extremely fine-grained. Rather than a course or a module, every individual skill or learning outcome (known as a competency) is one single unit. Learners work on one competency at a time, which is likely a small component of a larger learning goal. The student is evaluated on the individual competency and can only move on to other competencies after they have mastered the current skill being learned. After that, higher or more complex competencies are learned to a degree of mastery and are isolated from other topics. Another common component of competency-based learning is the ability to skip learning modules entirely if the learner can demonstrate mastery. This can be determined through prior learning assessment or formative testing.
An explanation using a real-life scenario
People learning to drive manual transmission might first have to demonstrate their mastery on the "rules of the road," safety, defensive driving, parallel parking etc. In this manner, they can focus on two independent competencies – "using the clutch, brake with right foot" and "shifting up and down through the gears." Once the learners have demonstrated that they are comfortable with those two skills, the next overarching skill that needs to be learned might be "finding first: from full stop to a slow roll" followed by "sudden stops," "shifting up" and "down shifting." Because this is kinetic learning, the instructor likely would demonstrate the skill to the learner a few times after which the student can perform guided practice followed by independent practice until mastery is demonstrated.
As a learning method
Competency-based learning is learner‑focused and works naturally with independent study and with the instructor in the role of facilitator. Learners often find different individual skills more difficult than others. This learning method allows a student to learn those individual skills they find challenging at their own pace, practising and refining as much as they like. Then move rapidly to other skills to which they are more adept.
While most other learning methods use summative testing, competency-based learning requires mastery of every individual learning outcome, making it very well suited to learning credentials in which safety is an issue. With summative testing, a student who got 80% in the evaluation may have an 80% mastery of all learning outcomes or may have no mastery what-so-ever of 20% of the learning outcomes. Further, this student may be permitted to move on to higher learning and still be missing some abilities that are crucial to that higher learning. For example, a student who knows most traffic laws and has mostly mastered controlling a vehicle could be treated equally with a student who has mastered vehicle control but no understanding of traffic laws, but only one of these students will be permitted to drive.
What it means to have mastered a competency depends on the learning domain (subject matter). In a subject matter that could affect safety, it would be usual to expect complete learning that can be repeated every time. In abstract learning, such as algebra, the learner may only have to demonstrate that they can identify an appropriate formula, for example, 4 of 5 times since when using that skill in the next competency, resolving a formula, will usually allow an opportunity for the learner to discover and correct his/her mistakes.
It is important to understand that this learning methodology is common in many kinetic and/or skills-based learning and is also sometimes applied to abstract and/or academic learning for students who find themselves out-of-step with their grade, course or program of study. Increasingly, educational institutions are evaluating ways to include competency-based learning methodologies in many different types of programs in order to make learning success a constant while students' pace can vary.
Competency profiles assist in effective learning and development by identifying the behaviors, knowledge, skills and abilities that are necessary for successful performance in a job. Employees can assess their competencies against those required for their own job, or for another job in which they are interested, and then take steps to acquire or improve any necessary competencies.
Competencies support learning by:
- Focusing learning on the critical competencies needed for success in the job and organization
- Providing standards for measuring employee performance and capabilities
- Providing the framework for identifying learning options/curriculum/programs to meet employee and organizational needs
- Supporting effective forecasting of organizational, as well as project-related learning requirements
- Providing standards for determining how well learning has occurred, both at the individual and organizational level
Some of the common benchmark competency-based practices in learning and development are:
- Assessments against competencies – Once the competencies have been defined for particular job / roles, it becomes possible for employees and others to assess the employee's competencies against those required for current or future roles within the organization. This assessment can occur in the following ways:
- Self-assessment – Typically, the behavioral indicators for the competencies and proficiency levels needed within the target role / job are used as the standard for assessing the performance of the employee using a common rating scale (e.g., five-point Likert scale) for assessing each indicator. These behavioral examples ensure people self-assess consistently and accurately. They create self-awareness, which drives intrinsic motivation to improve. The results show employee strengths as well as skill gaps. This information can then be used to support the development of an individual learning plan.
- Multi-source / 360 – Multi-source or 360-degree feedback is similar to the self-assessment process except there is more than one assessor. The process includes at a minimum the employee and their supervisor, and can include others with whom the employee interacts within the workplace (e.g., peers, team members, clients both within and outside the organization, reporting employees; etc.).
The following implementation stages are suggested for organizations implementing competencies in Learning and Development on a corporate-wide basis.
- Determine policy for integrating competencies in Learning and Development.
- Design or acquire tools to support assessment and personalized, competency-based learning.
- Build/buy/curate learning activities to that correspond to each task and behavior in the competency model. Ensure these also include informal learning resources, such as skill practices or activities, job aids, checklists, templates, performance support tutorials, as well as the opportunity to work with others for collaborative learning. This facilitates learning in the flow of work.
- Create a plan for introduction, embedding, and sustaining the program.
- Have people assess, be recommended personalized competency-based learning, and create their development plans. Engage managers or multi-raters to participate if relevant.
- Use aggregated assessment results and development plan selections to identify organizational skill gaps and needs assessment.
- Engage leaders in results regularly so they understand how skill gaps impact their ability to achieve corporate strategy, and how strong organizational capability can be leveraged for competitive advantage.
- Continue emphasis through communication and change management on creating a habit of learning, so development activity continues.
- Identify new learning opportunities, including those that need to be created to support gaps, or activities to replace those with lower than desired user feedback.
- Ensure periodic reassessments occur; measure the impact of competency-based skill development over time.
- Make regular improvements in communication.
- At least annually, revisit the competency model and competency-based learning recommendations to ensure currency.
Schools with this system
Adams county school district 50 and the Chugach School District are a part of the Competency-based learning project but have their own name called Re-Inventing schools coalition (RISC). They have replaced grade levels with 10 learning levels that students work through at their own pace. Western Governors University (WGU), has used this model of learning since it was chartered in 1996 by 19 governors in the Western United States.
Other institutions are also offering competency-based approaches to postsecondary degrees. Capella University's FlexPath bachelor's and master's programs were the second direct assessment degree to be given the go-ahead by the Department of Education. Southern New Hampshire University developed a competency-based pathway to an associate or bachelor's degree through College for America, launched in 2013. Additionally, the University of Wisconsin-Extension's Flex Option provides a competency-based approach to earning a bachelor's degree. Since 1971, the Upper Valley Educator's Institute in Lebanon, NH has offered a teacher certification program that is competency based, and now offers a competency based Master in Arts in Teaching (MAT).
In medical practice
A series of peer reviewed research articles (i.e. Charles; Knox; Nguyen; Nousiainen et al) have been examined that study Canadian based medical residency programs, that have implemented competency based learning as their primary model of education. These articles agree that competency based learning speaks to an iterative approach in that the student (resident) is expected to complete one competence successfully before advancing forward and building their repertoire of skills (Charles et al., 2016). This method of learning is tailored to each student as it allows learning to unfold at an individual's own pace, which has appeared to be a successful model for many residency programs across Canada.
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