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Understanding Competency-based Approaches

A Note on Language

Several terms are used to describe competency-based learning, including performance-based, proficiency-based, and standards-based. Competency-based will be used in this paper because federal policy has incorporated the term in Race to the Top and other programs. However, in describing reform efforts, the terms used by the state or district will be used. The hope is that as long as a shared working definition is used to drive policy, the variations in the descriptive term will not be a barrier.


Competency-based learning is not simply the elimination of seat-time. In fact, eliminating it without replacing it may increase inequities. The time-based system must be replaced with a learning-based or competency-based system, fully aligned with students and what they need to educationally progress.

In “When Success Is the Only Option: Designing Competency-Based Pathways for Next Generation Learning,” a working definition was proposed to guide the development of policies and practice. This is particularly important as the language varies among states, districts, and schools and includes “proficiency-” and “performance-based learning.” Summit participants strengthened the working definition to describe a high-quality competency-based system. The following is the revised working definition of competency-based learning approaches:

  •  Students advance upon mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.
For a deeper understanding of these design principles go to Detailed Definition of Competency-based Pathways.

Competency-based innovators design two sets of competencies: academic and skills that students need for college and career preparation. Using different terms, innovators all include forms of applied learning competencies such as creativity, problem solving, and communication. Many include personal skills such as perseverance, cultural competency, and study skills. Those serving vulnerable students include social-emotional literacy and navigational skills that are particularly important for students from low-income communities. 

Competency-based learning is highly related to many of the elements of Next Generation Learning. For example, once you implement a competency-based approach it quickly makes sense to expand to any time, everywhere learning through expanded learning opportunities and online learning. Another element that is highly related is personalization as every student has a learning plan. 

Ready for more, go to Recommended Reading, Introduction to Competency Education (under construction), FAQ, Key Issues or Policy Frameworks.