May 4th, 2021

What is competency-based learning and how does it improve education?

Competency-based learning is a non-traditional, progressive approach to instruction and assessment that places students’ mastery of skills and content at the forefront of their educational path. Whereas a traditional curriculum might be determined by a set number of weeks on each unit, competency-based learning allows students to move through material at their own pace.

There is not one single definition of competency-based learning, and therefore what is considered competency-based learning can vary from district to district and state to state. Competency-based learning at the primary and secondary levels can also differ from competency-based learning as promoted by colleges and universities. However, there are several key characteristics that help to understand both the benefits and the challenges of this educational approach.

The Fundamentals of CBL

  • Learning is highly individualized and puts students and their needs first.
  • The focus of this approach is on the mastery of concepts.
  • Competency-based learning is highly flexible. Learning can happen regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.
  • Competencies are the measure for moving to different skills and eventually graduating. Students move through the curriculum based on what they know and are able to do.

Not only do students and teachers who follow competency-based learning feel more empowered by the flexibility of this approach, but they also are more engaged and more effective. Instead of spending time on skills and content they already know, they can move on to topics that will challenge and interest them.

Essential Tools of CBL

  1. Instruction: Instruction is customized to meet the needs of each student. The teacher provides support and materials that are appropriately challenging.
  2. Pacing: Pacing is determined by the students. Each student moves through material and curriculum at their own pace, so that they don’t waste time going over material they already know. Rather, they can spend more time expanding their skill set and knowledge base.
  3. Mastery: The goal of competency-based learning is mastery. Students advance by meeting clear, measurable learning objectives.

How to Demonstrate Competency

Because defining competency is somewhat subjective, arguably the most challenging aspect of competency-based learning is creating measurable learning objectives that clearly determine students’ understanding.

A more comprehensive approach combines formative assessments (supported by simple assessment tools that enable timely feedback) with performance-based projects and real-life problem-solving, in addition to traditional summative assessments. These assignments may include portfolios, presentations, community service projects, etc. This broader foundation of feedback can provide teachers with a clearer picture of a student’s competency.

Does Competency-Based Learning Work?

While several states and districts have implemented competency-based learning, including New Hampshire, Michigan, and Ohio, understanding the effectiveness of this learning approach is difficult. For example, in the case of New Hampshire, a study by educational researchers revealed “that despite over 6 years of progress at each site, the reform had not been fully implemented due to inertial, technical, normative, and political challenges. Changes to grading and assessment were particularly difficult to implement.” Because competency-based learning can look quite different across different states, studying the effectiveness of this approach can be challenging.

However, proponents of competency-based learning point to this personalized learning approach as particularly effective in eliminating learning or opportunity gaps. Because learning is based on what the student knows and can do, they are not stuck learning information they might already know. In this way, competency-based learning can be more equitable. Conversely, it holds all students accountable so that they are not automatically promoted.


While the highly personalized, competency-based learning approach can profoundly change the way students view education, there are some challenges that still need to be addressed: managing a classroom of 25 kids with 25 different learning paths, defining competency across districts, and transforming a highly bureaucratic and change-resistant education system. As we move toward re-evaluating the best way to prepare students for the 21st century, competency-based learning has tremendous potential to better educate our kids.