These days, there are articles everywhere about competency-based learning and how it’s the next big thing in higher education. Obviously, teaching and learning have undergone many transitions over the decades, so it’s no surprise that we are once again attempting to teach and engage learners in a new and different way.

The good news is, once examined, competencies (as opposed to learning objectives) really aren’t that exotic or complicated. Competencies do, however, make learning outcomes more concrete, especially when applied in higher education. So, how can educators trade abstract conceptual learning for concrete, articulated learned tasks?  Continue reading.

First, what is a competency?

A competency is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently, and to show mastery of a specific task, objective or action. Now that we understand what our goal is — exhibiting mastery — we can begin discussing how to create a competency.

1. Articulate the competency

To develop a competency, you need to identify what the student must have learned/attained once they complete the learning experience. Here’s a traditional example: When a student registers for a class in human anatomy, it’s reasonable to assume that one of the course objectives may be for the learner to leave with an understanding of the vascular system. There are many competencies required to exhibit mastery of the vascular system, but for now, let’s choose one: Competency 1:  Identify the Superior Vena Cava

Notice that the competency is concrete — a learner either can or cannot accomplish the task. When developing your competencies, it is important that they are not abstract concepts, but rather concrete tasks. This will make assessment easier and provide clear objectives to the student.

2. Create a threshold for competence

In our competency example, we created a binary assessment threshold — meaning the student can do the task, or they cannot do the task. There are certain learning objectives that fit this method better than others. Normally, the more abstract a learning objective is, the more likely it is composed of multiple competencies. Many times, a traditional learning objective will be translated into many competencies. But in all cases, the learner must cross the threshold of competency — which is the point at which they can show their specific ability.

3. Define assessment boundaries

How to assess the achievement of a competency seems simple enough. If the learner can complete the task, they pass. If they cannot complete the task, they do not. In our example, the assessment is definitive. But, some instances will require a rubric that is mapped to a number of skills-focused activities that allow you to identify a student’s degree of mastery.

In a highly developed competency-based education program, instructors may wish to separate learners based on their competence. In that case, a rubric is a valuable option. Furthermore, a rubric that is categorized by levels of mastery will help the learner articulate how well they know a competency by specific degrees. The ability to complete competencies multiple times in different contexts or with additional challenges is a good example of how a learner can show mastery and confidence in their skill set.

The bottom line

While competency may be the learning tactic du jour, the good news is that it’s not an overly complex concept. Many instructional designers and curriculum developers have been doing some form of competency-based education all along —they may have just called it something else. By clearly articulating what you want the learner to know and creating a concrete assessment, competencies can become valuable assets in the instructor’s toolbox.