Competency-based Learning – The Silver bullet for Learning Design?

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Remember your high school days? Just before you got your grades declared, you would think, “If I had one more week to study, I could have aced this exam. Next term, I am going to study rigorously. I promise!”

For most of us, that “next term” never arrived.

Most educators believe that one of the major drawbacks of the seat time-based education system is that it does not allow you enough time to master a skill or knowledge. The prevailing education system, also referred to as an “Assembly Line” education system, is time bound (i.e., to complete training within a given period) and not focussed on building skills and proficiencies or attaining mastery over a subject. It was perhaps ideal for a newly industrialized world that needed a qualified and certified workforce within a short span of time.

The student hour unit or the Carnegie unit defines the time-based references for measuring educational attainment. This unit has been incorporated in the education system globally during the late 19 th century and early 20th centuries. The unit was the result of a series of three events – disjointed yet designed to standardize collegiate education and regularize educational outputs and faculty workloads. Though most educationists and thinkers agree that the current system is imperfect, it is currently one of the best measures to assess student learning and serve as a reference point for the education system.

Competency-based evaluation system may be a better alternative with the varied advantages it offers. But first, what is competency-based learning?

According to the Glossary of Education reforms:

“Competency-based learning refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.”

The meaning can be more complicated than you can imagine, and to complicate it even further, there is no single model or universally adopted approach available to design competency-based learning. Competency-based learning, mastery-based education, and proficiency-based education are often used interchangeably. But do they mean the same thing? Let us take a look at competency-based learning.

Simply put, competency-based learning may be defined as a learning process that focuses more on a learner’s attainment of a competency or mastery. Salient points of this model are:

  • The focus will not be on completing a course within a specific time, but to attain mastery over it.
  • New learning is delivered based on the previous test scores rather than dumping knowledge on the learners.
  • Knowledge delivered is, thus, based on the learners’ prior knowledge. Hence, there will be no skill or knowledge gaps.

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Competency-based courses or education focuses more on the mastery of competency or a skill rather than the time spent on a course or skill. The learners would eventually graduate based on what they know and how much they know, and not on how much time they have spent on acquiring the knowledge. Competency-based learning allows self-motivated and hard-working learners to complete their courses sooner than the learners of traditional learning. It allows learners to balance work and personal time. It also lets learners with various learning styles to attain mastery at their own pace.

Sounds good, right!

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Many educationists opine that competency-based learning is not new and cite examples where you have to face interviews, take tests, and prove certain competencies to be admitted to most schools and colleges. According to them, competency-based learning is the brainchild of a new wave of thinkers who has redesigned the old approach. There are some unanswered questions yet to be answered.

  • How would the competencies be standardized? Different states may have different standards, or different countries may have different standards. Would these standards be acceptable globally?
  • Who would specify the elements to be addressed in determining competency? Professional courses may be determined by professionals, but what about courses such as fine arts and political science?
  • Who would be assessing the competencies? How would the assessor be assessed?
  • Is the process of competency-based learning scalable? Is the assessment of competence scalable?
  • Would competency-based learning be able to promote 20th century skills, such as collaboration, cross-cultural competencies, sense making, critical thinking, and design thinking?

All that is old is not useless and to be discarded, and all that is new is not the best in class and accepted without any analysis. The old system of seat time-based education has given us some of the greatest minds, including, ironically, the proponents of competency-based learning. However, with the advent of the new media, advancement of technology, change in learner profiles, and increase in the demand of new-age skill requirements, competency-based learning is the need of the hour.

Can there be some refining and corrections to the existing seat time-based traditional model? Can there be a better aligned and amalgamated education model that will integrate the features of the competency-based education and the seat time-based model of education? That may be the best shot towards the future.

So, what do you think competency-based learning or education is?

Just another bubble in the making or a comprehensive model towards a better learning experience?

Keep thinking! But wait…is thinking a measurable competency?


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