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What is competency-based learning?

By now you may be familiar with personalized learning, which in a nutshell means changing your instructional approaches (differentiation), pace of instruction (individualization), and choices (student agency) students experience in the classroom.

Competency-based learning means that students progress through a learning pathway by demonstrating what they have mastered rather than time spent in the classroom. This change to the pace at which a student learns falls into individualizing instruction.

Why use a competency-based learning model?

It’s easy (and sometimes required) to follow the routine of moving students forward as a herd, rather than checking for individual mastery. However, by having mastery conversations and adjusting the pace as necessary, you avoid holding back more advanced learners or pushing slower learners forward too quickly.

It’s important to acknowledge that the personalization of learning is not new to teachers—but it may be necessary to plan ahead or remove barriers to allow teachers the freedom to personalize learning further.

How do schools embrace competency-based learning?

Schools can be successful using this method of individualizing instruction if they have some support systems in place ahead of time. Schools must:

  1. Choose a mastery model and a highly effective assessment to measure mastery.
  2. Embrace a flexible schedule and a mechanism to advance students based on individual mastery, not whole-class progress.
  3. Redefine teacher roles and responsibilities—if you used to move everyone together to the next level, adjustment is needed to move individuals based on mastery or lack thereof.

Does competency-based learning help students?

Advancing students based on their own mastery is a critical element of truly personalizing learning. Kids move on when they “get it,” and keep working until they can demonstrate their mastery. After all, as Sal Khan pointed out in his TED talk on mastery, would it make sense to build a house on a foundation that is only 80 percent complete?

What does education policy say?

Although there is support in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for competency-based learning, each individual state has a unique perspective. Currently, approximately one-third of all states have some form of support for this model.

Competency-based learning - Education policy

As previously discussed, the move from a traditional model of student advancement to a competency-based model of advancement requires planning and buy-in at many levels—leading some states to carefully consider if and how they want to make the change.

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