Competency-Based Learning: Getting Where You Want to Be, Part 2

by Extension Engine | July 20, 2022

Estimated time to read: minutes

As noted in part 1, competency-based learning is an educational pedagogy that functions like a car’s navigation system. When you’re going on a road trip, you enter your destination into the GPS and see what routes you can take; similarly, in this pedagogy, there are many ways to get where you want to go. Any person can reach the desired point if they’re willing to put in the work and if they’re supported in the right ways.

At Extension Engine, we create our clients’ online learning experiences with these things in mind. We know that our platforms will serve many different learners and must be able to meet various needs. We also know that competency-based learning is an evolving pedagogy. Different schools, institutions, and companies have implemented it in different ways, so the details for following this approach vary from place to place.

What we’ve found is that despite these differences, if you remain focused on your learners and their needs as well as your own, competency-based learning can be used effectively to deliver the desired end results.

A Refresher on Competency-Based Learning

Competency-based learning involves everything from systems of instruction and assessment to grading and grade reporting. If your focus is on building knowledge and skills, we believe competency-based learning is the best approach, because it can work for the widest variety of learners. As we said, the knowledge and skills required in each learning experience will change depending on circumstance and the topic being taught. Fortunately, the principles of competency-based learning make it flexible enough to handle teaching any subject and any student.

The 5 Characteristics of Competency-Based Learning

Extension Engine Learning Experience Designer Mac Crawford breaks down competency-based learning into five characteristics:

  1. The knowledge and skills that the learner must complete are set in advance. Since learners in these types of learning environments need to improve in specific skill and knowledge areas, these things must be clearly defined before any work toward them can begin. As Mac says, “They’re the yardstick by which students measure their accomplishment.”
  2. The set learning objectives are explicit, measurable, and transferable. Since one goal of this pedagogical approach is to empower students, all the chosen learning objectives have to be specifically laid out. Learners need to understand exactly what they’re aiming for.
  3. Assessment is set up to be a meaningful, positive experience. Competency-based learning encourages a number of assessments, and different types of assessments, in order to find options that are beneficial for every learner.
  4. Data about student learning and assessments is used to create differentiated support. This kind of data is gathered and used to create and support equity in learning through identifying and closing knowledge gaps in ways that are tailored to each learner. In other words, everyone gets their own type of support.
  5. Learners get to develop and apply a wide range of skills. Emphasis is placed on transferable skills and how they can be used, and then these skills are practiced before learners move on to the next thing. Transferable skills include social/emotional and professional ones because they focus on competence. Mac says, “Students are often tested in real-world situations. They need to not just know something for a multiple-choice quiz but also be able to put it into action in a real-world situation.”

Together these five characteristics should be present in some form in every learning experience that is based on the competency-based learning pedagogy.

Competency-Based Learning in the Real World

So what does all this mean in a learner’s day-to-day life and experience with your online learning platform? Hang Nguyen, a Lead Product Manager at Extension Engine, explains within the context of a financial leadership program (FLP) that an Extension Engine team created for a client.

“The FLP is focused on an individual learner’s journey, ” Hang says. “In a competency-based learning system, a learner can take their time and go at their own pace, creating a more student-centered approach.”

The learning experience that Extension Engine built for this client was created to organize and define the client’s chosen skills for the learner. Therefore, when each learner goes into a skill to study it, they find a topic they need to work through. Their completion is granted — that is, they can pass along to the next level of study (or not) — based on how they perform in the multiple types of assessments, from knowledge checks (e.g., Can you explain what you learned after reading this paragraph?) and level assessments (e.g., Can you summarize what you learned on this topic?) to business simulation assessments, which are untimed and ungraded case studies that help learners synthesize the skills they’ve learned.

Hang says, “Every task here has intricate feedback for the learner to digest. The student can choose which path and kind of support they get.”

Using Competency-Based Learning for Your Online Learning Experience

Although the benefits of this pedagogy have been studied and discussed for years now, it’s not necessarily an easy choice to switch from traditional to competency-based learning. According to Mac, “There’s not a unified idea of exactly what competency-based learning looks like in practice. A lot of schools and other organizations have trouble implementing the day-to-day of it because it usually does not involve grades and often doesn’t involve regular transcripts, which means it doesn’t work very well with a lot of student information systems.” She notes that some learning management systems provide competency-based learning as an additional option, but because its framework is so different, that doesn’t tend to work.

If you want to truly follow a competency-based learning model, you need to build it into your online learning experience from the start. Extension Engine’s team of product managers and learning experience designers understands this need and has the knowledge to meet it. Your learners will appreciate the benefits you can offer them with a competency-based learning approach.

If you want more information on how to choose a platform for online learning contact us to talk through your strategy and implementation plan.

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