What is Competency-Based Learning?

Competency-based learning enables students to earn a college degree based on their mastery of a subject rather than a traditional course of study with classroom time and credit hours accrued. Competency-based programs vary from institution to institution, so while some programs might determine a student’s competencies by traditional standards, others may determine subject mastery by assessment tests.

Traditionally, a course of collegiate study may consist of a required number of credits that are earned per class, per semester. But with competency-based learning, a group of experts in a particular industry may determine what skills you need in order to be considered capable in a certain field. Those skills might then define the competencies that are required for you to pursue your degree. A competency-based education program is a vast departure from traditional learning because:

  • Your knowledge of a topic may be assessed by test to prove mastery, whether or not you have completed an accredited course on that topic. This method allows you to use knowledge gained through real-world experience or prior education to quickly prove mastery of a topic and move forward with your education.
  • You may determine how much time to allot for learning each topic, spending more time to learn challenging material and less time on concepts you find easily graspable.
  • Flat-rate tuition may be available for a competency-based education program so you can progress at your own pace instead of according to a pre-determined course schedule and curriculum. This may mean that if you’re a fast-learning student it ultimately costs less money to earn a degree than the traditional semester-based, pay-per-class tuition.

Competency-based learning vs. conventional educational models

There are several reasons why you may or may not choose a competency-based learning program. If your busy schedule or family obligations have been a roadblock preventing you from enrolling in a higher education program, a competency-based learning program may provide the flexibility you need.  If you’re hoping to enhance your career by earning a college degree, but the demands of work make finding time for college difficult, the convenience of competency-based learning may be especially appealing.

Below are some pros and cons to note when considering whether competency-based learning could be a good option.

Pros

  • Customized pace: Even with a full-time job or family responsibilities, you may work as quickly or as slowly as you like within the time constraints of the program you choose.
  • Self-discipline: You are essentially in charge of when education takes place and how quickly you encounter, learn, and are assessed on material.
  • Possibly accelerated program: Rather than credit hours based on a course, some programs may be completed as quickly as the student demonstrates competency in the subjects.
  • Learning workplace skills: According to the competency-based learning students who were interviewed by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, “the competencies [students] have had to demonstrate through the program’s assessments have been directly applicable to their day-to-day work lives.”i
  • Flat-rate tuition: Some institutions, such as Western Governors University, offer flat-rate tuition for a six-month period and a student may learn as much as desired in that time frame.ii

Cons

  • Time management:  The amount of time needed to learn each topic is unique to each student. Therefore, accomplishment is based on the time and effort you put in, so self-discipline and time management are required.
  • Less social interaction: Because competency-based learning students are not sitting in a classroom in the presence of classmates and a professor, you may feel the lack of a physical learning atmosphere. However, many programs will match students to academic mentors, who will make helpful resources available—such as message boards and online learning communities.

Is competency-based learning right for you?

Competency-based learning might be a good method of education for you if you are an independent self-starter with the discipline to begin and complete tasks by your own motivation. Structure may be much different from that of the type of education you’ve known since childhood. Those students who are determined to achieve their goals and are interested in a non-traditional route of learning should look into a competency-based learning program.


[i]americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/CAEL-student-report-corrected.pdf  [ii]wgu.edu/why_WGU/competency_based_approach