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What is Competency-Based Education?

Image: competency based education

If you stay up to date on the latest learning and teaching practices, you may have heard about competency-based education—but what exactly is this increasingly popular method, and how does it work? Competency-based education is a learning model in which lessons are broken down by individual skills or "competencies," each of which is studied and practiced as a discrete unit. Once a specific competency is mastered, the student can move on to the next one in the larger skill set being learned.

One of the goals of this type of learning is to break down complex tasks and processes into a foundation of smaller, simpler skills that can be learned individually and then utilized together when needed. For this reason, competency based education is often used for teaching more concrete skills such as those used in technical disciplines or math and science.

Benefits of Competency-Based Degree Programs

Competency-based education has several distinct benefits that make it especially well-suited to adult learners who are working while pursuing their degree.

  • Simplifies Complex Material – One advantage of this learning method is that it breaks complicated skills and skill sets into small, manageable chunks (called modules). This not only makes learning some of these more complex subjects less intimidating, but can also be beneficial if you have short, limited amounts of time to invest in studying. Going through one self-contained lesson module after work or on the weekend is often easier to commit to than a whole 10-12 hour-per-week course.

  • Time-Efficient – Thanks to the use of preliminary knowledge assessments and adaptive learning, many competency-based education programs allow students to skip through modules they've already mastered. This is one advantage of competency based education vs. traditional education models for adult learners, who often return to school with a varied base of existing knowledge and experience. Competency-based learning can make for a more efficient use of time by avoiding material the student doesn't need to review—and it can also help you leverage your existing experience to move forward in your career more quickly than a standard degree program.

  • Highly Self-Directed – The highly self-directed nature of competency based learning can make it a more practical choice for students who want to return to school while working and need to make the most of their time. Because it enables students to study when and where they are able, it affords many of the same benefits of online courses without forcing them to spend extra time and effort on material they know and clearly understand.

  • Individually Tailored Progress – Another potential benefit to competency-based education is that progress through a course is based purely on the degree to which one has learned key skills and concepts. This means that for subject areas and exercises a student is able to pick up and master quickly, it's not necessary to spend additional weeks or months in a classroom. On the other hand, one won't be able to move forward to the next module simply because they've spent a set amount of time going through the current unit's lessons—without exhibiting mastery of the material, the student will need to continue studying and reviewing.

Assessment Through Adaptive Learning

One of the things that makes this highly personalized instruction possible is adaptive learning technology. Adaptive learning refers to a process through which students are delivered lessons and course materials based on their specific needs. Depending on how a student completes certain activities and assessments throughout each learning module, adaptive learning programs will alter the following segments. This could mean slowing down and spending more time on certain concepts, or it could enable a student with more advanced knowledge to jump ahead in the lesson plan.

Thanks to the way adaptive learning systems custom-design lessons and course materials at each stage of a student's progress, they can be useful in both competency-based and non-competency based degree programs. At AIU, which offers the latter, we use an adaptive learning platform called intellipath, which you can read more about here.

Ready to learn more? Explore AIU's online degree programs.