Competency-based Learning

Ann M. Pearson

Flexibility is the new black, or so it seems. We want products and services when we want them—no matter when that is. Online shopping is a 24/7 endeavor. Instructions, forms, explanations, and often the ability to pay electronically are the norm for everything from federal taxes to hotel reservations. Higher education institutions are joining this limber game to make going to college as barrier free as possible.

One concept that is gaining much national attention is competency-based or personalized learning. Anyone who engaged in what used to be called an independent study course knows the joy of working one-on-one with a like-minded scholar to explore and master a topic that fascinates you. The challenge is invigorating, and the learning is authentic and tailored specifically to your own needs. Why can’t all learning be like that? Well, for one thing, one-on-one instruction doesn’t scale too well. On the other hand, we can get closer to this ideal than we have done historically.

The factory model of education—where everyone begins at the same point and essentially is kept at the group’s pace based on a somewhat arbitrary, non-educational marker (age)—has been around for a really long time. With a few notable exceptions, American education supports this model from kindergarten through graduate school. To be fair, the model isn’t a total disaster for all students—many thrive; most survive. But could it be better? Sir Ken Robinson’s entertaining TED Talks about the current state of education certainly imply it could be. Does a happy medium exist between un-scalable independent study and the (to some students) mind-numbingly slow and expensive process of corralling herds of students through crowded lecture halls for years on end? Especially in college, wouldn’t another viable alternative be for students to master skills and content at their own pace instead of lagging behind more advanced students or wasting time and effort waiting for others to catch up without the ability to progress independently?

People prefer individualized attention. We may enjoy group interaction and recognize the enormous benefits of collaboration with others, but most students crave more autonomy and embrace learning that allows them to determine their own pace. Competency-based learning takes many forms, including online, project-based, and community-based learning experiences. Often developed in rural school districts grappling with extremely limited resources to staff and fund traditional classrooms, competency-based learning requires a great deal of work on both sides of the desk. Translating grade levels and seat time into thematic units, lessons, labs, and appropriate assessments forces students to master increasingly sophisticated performance/learning levels before moving on. Faculty are integral to the creation of the mastery levels, evaluations, and support of students in this model.

Students still write, study, work problems, read texts, and take exams—it just may not be at 2:20 PM on a Tuesday afternoon. Students are more in control of their learning using faculty, tutoring, the library, and other college resources as just-in-time tools to help them achieve their personalized goals. This model may not be appropriate or effective for all students or for all disciplines, but providing the option of this flexibility for some students to prove mastery of academic content and skills on their own schedule through competency-based learning is another way many colleges are trying to remove barriers to student success.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on July 13, 2017.