5 Benefits of Competency Based Education
Traditionally, schools, and the students in them, work in a fairly homogeneous way. Students in a classroom are taught, practiced, reviewed, and assessed on a given skill for the same amount of time, with the same kind of work. However, as educators, we know that students are anything but homogeneous. They are diverse in many ways, including the pace at which they learn.
Enter competency based education, which aims to recognize and accommodate this diversity in learners. Instead of the conventional model of all students working on the same skill for the same amount of time throughout a lesson or unit, competency based education allows students to progress to new skills as soon as they have demonstrated mastery of the skill at hand.
In the same vein, students take as much time as they need to learn, practice, and review a skill until they have shown complete competency with it, without moving on to new ones that they might not be ready to learn. To demonstrate mastery, competency based education asks students to show their understanding of skill through authentic assessment.
Authentic assessments typically require higher order thinking skills, and allow for more creativity and critical thinking, than a standard paper-and-pencil assessment. These types of tasks also show that students can apply the skill(s) they have learned in a “real world” context, such as with a student-led project based learning.
As with anything new and different, embedding a competency based approach into your teaching practice can be overwhelming, challenging, and time-consuming, so it is important to understand the “why” behind it.
Here are five reasons to consider incorporating competency based learning in your schools or classroom.
1. Students learn for mastery
The first benefit of competency based education may seem like a simple one: students demonstrate complete competency, or mastery, of the skill they are working on before moving on to the next one. This is, in theory, quite straightforward, but the effects of this benefit are significant.
When students master a skill, they often have a long-lasting understanding of it and are able to apply the skill in multiple contexts, situations, and other problems. On the flip side, when students don’t learn for mastery, they might be able to perform a skill in isolation (during a lesson or assignment that targets that skill) but are unable to apply it “in the real world,” or even to other problems that they encounter in class.
For many students, this can snowball, leading to “skill gaps.” Skill gaps cause students to have difficulty learning new material that requires an understanding of previous material, which they might not have in a non-competency based education setting. In traditional teaching, educators spend a set amount of time teaching, practicing, and reviewing a specific skill, and regardless of whether or not students show mastery of the skill in summative and/or formative assessment, the whole class moves on to the next one based on the timing of their curriculum.
With competency based learning experience, students continue to work on the skill until they demonstrate mastery over it through an authentic assessment, proving that they have a deep understanding of it and are able to perform the skill in a “real world” context.
2. Time and resources spent on learning and learning outcomes are more effective and efficient
As pointed out above, when teachers follow a traditional teaching “schedule,” there are often students who are unable to access the material because they lack an understanding of previous skills. On the other hand, some students may understand new concepts quickly and not need as much time as is given on a specific skill. Whether one or both of these ends of the spectrum are happening in the classroom, there is a waste of time and resources for both students and teachers.
For students, the waste is mainly their time, as the real need is for time spent learning different skills that will either enable them to progress to more skills, or that are “beyond” the skill at hand.
For teachers, the waste is of time and resources, as it takes both to plan, prepare, and deliver instruction.
Wasted time and resources can lead to complacency, frustration, and ultimately burnout for both teachers and students.
With competency based education, teachers are tailoring their instruction to respond to exactly where students are at in their learning. While this may actually require more time and resources, especially initially, the benefit is that the time and resources teachers spend on curriculum planning, prepping, and delivering will be much more effective for students’ individual learning.
Similarly, once teachers have systems in place to support many different needs, such as using naturally differentiated curriculums and learning platforms, their planning, preparation, and instructional time will be not only efficient and effective for their students, but also more efficient for them.
Plus, the effectiveness of their students truly getting what they need for their learning to ultimately progress is rewarding for teachers. In an extremely demanding profession, making time and resources spent on teaching and learning efficient and effective for both teachers and students is vital.
3. There is a more equitable learning environment
In this day and age, most of us are aware that there is a difference between equality and equity, and one huge plus of competency based education is that it allows all learners to get what they need on an individual basis. With the traditional way of teaching, students are taught equally, meaning everyone gets the same thing at the same pace, regardless of whether they “get it” or not. This clearly leads to some children being unable to access material due to needing more practice with previous skills, while some might feel bored or frustrated by not being able to move on to learning new skills once they have a solid understanding of the one being taught.
Naturally, when students get what they need as learners, the environment is a more equitable, and hopefully more harmonious one, instead of just getting what everybody gets.
With competency based learning, this can look like students working on different skills with different materials in the same classroom at the same time. A more equitable learning environment is an important benefit of competency based education, and one that could potentially support closing the opportunity gap that exists in the education system, which both contributes to and is influenced by inequities in the larger society.
When students receive equitable instruction that is tailored to their pacing as a learner, they are able to master and build upon skills, rather than having a shallow understanding of skills that they are unable to apply independently, or feeling bored, frustrated, and potentially acting out due to being “beyond” the skill at hand. When students have an equitable learning environment, everyone can thrive.
4. There is more room for authentic learning and assessment
We all know that assessing student learning is an extremely important part of teaching. Without both summative and formative assessments, teachers do not fully know their students’ understanding of the skills being taught. With competency based education, teachers facilitate authentic tasks and authentic assessments for students rather than conventional “seat work” or paper-and-pencil tests.
When students show their understanding of a skill in an authentic way rather than with a traditional test, it can demonstrate a deeper understanding of a concept, and will almost certainly result in longer-lasting learning.
For an example of authentic assessment, think about a student that has been reading a novel and focusing on understanding the themes of the novel. Their summative assessment work might look like notetaking about themes with examples from the text.
For a formative assessment, rather than a multiple-choice test on which themes showed up in the novel with examples of them, or even writing a paragraph about a theme from the book with examples to show that theme, they could write an epilogue extending one of the main themes of the novel. This is an authentic assessment because it mimics something that one might do in the “real world”-- write books!
As educators, we could assess an authentic assessment such as this one with a rubric that the student follows as they create their writing. Rubrics usually assess students on a number scale– 1 would be a low score for each rubric category, and 4 would be a high score for each category, for example. This shift to authentic assessment allows students to display more creativity and critical thinking than traditional assessments do, which are both important 21st century skills. They can also give students more feeling of ownership over their work, especially if there is a choice in the summative and/or formative assessments involved. Authentic tasks and authentic assessments are also almost always more engaging for the student and more interesting for the teacher to assess, too!
5. Students have autonomy over their learning
In a traditional classroom, learning is typically teacher-led. Teachers, or administration, decide on the curriculum, the pace at which it is taught, and the way in which students demonstrate their understanding. An important benefit of competency based learning is that it is much more student-centred, and allows students to take leadership over their own learning. When students have transparency about what they have and haven’t mastered yet in a competency based education classroom, they can become advocates for themselves and what they need to work on.
Self-advocacy is an important skill, and competency based education is an organic way to teach students about themselves and what they need to thrive as learners. Understanding themselves as a learner– their strengths, as well as their challenges– is beneficial for all children, regardless of age or grade level. Furthermore, when students have more autonomy over what they are learning and how much time they spend on learning it, as well as choice in how they show their understanding of it, they will most always care more about what they are learning, reviewing, and practicing than when it is solely teacher-directed. This usually leads to students being more focused, determined, and productive, which can allow them to show mastery and progress to new skills more quickly than with traditional curriculum pacing.
A more autonomous classroom can also encourage student independence and resilience, as children may be working on skills without as much teacher or peer support. With its differentiation and natural tendency towards authentic assessment, equity-based approach, and ability to foster student agency, competency based education is a natural way to instill innate perseverance and love for learning in students as drivers of their own education.