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Competency-Based Learning: An Overview

Formative assessment, personalized learning, critical thinking skills: these trends in education are all fueling the growth of competency-based learning. At the state, district, and local level, educators and students are embracing competency-based learning.

Competency-based learning is a learning system that focuses on each student’s unique K-12 educational journey, taking into account their skills, mindsets, habits, and interests. Content, pace of learning, and assessment are tailored to the needs of each student. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery of skills, rather than the amount of time they spend working on a task or topic. Students work at their own pace with the support and guidance of teachers.

Competency-Based Learning - competent students


Why Competency-Based Learning?

The goal of K-12 education is to graduate students who are ready to pursue and succeed in the postsecondary pathway of their choice—college, career, or any other opportunities they will encounter in their lives. Competency-based learning provides educators and schools with the tools to achieve this goal and the flexibility to “meet students where they are.” A competency-based system creates multiple pathways to education. It makes better use of technology and utilizes teachers’ skills and interests differently. Competency-based learning also allows students to take advantage of learning opportunities outside school hours and walls.

The Foundation of Competency-Based Learning

The goal of competency-based learning is to empower students to:

  • articulate a vision for their futures.
  • exercise agency in pursuing their education.
  • effectively navigate their own path.

Competency-based learning is built on a foundation of growth mindset, habits of success, and learning skills. These three principles are elaborated below.

Growth Mindset

One view of intelligence is that it is fixed. People are born with a certain level or amount of intelligence, and that’s that. Their basic abilities and talents are traits that won’t change over the course of their lives.

Growth mindset, on the other hand, takes the view that intelligence is malleable and that success is based on learning, perseverance, and hard work. In an educational setting focused on growth mindset, teachers are agents of change, helping students develop their abilities through effort, good teaching, and persistence. According to proponents of growth mindset, everyone can get smarter and better if they work at it.

Habits of Success

Students need more than academic knowledge to succeed in life. They need to develop key habits that will help them both in and beyond the classroom. These include:

  • Asking questions: exhibiting curiosity and searching for problems to solve; gathering evidence in pursuit of answers
  • Applying knowledge to new situations: detecting patterns, making connections, and transferring knowledge to new contexts
  • Empathy: identifying with and relating to others
  • Fascination: gazing in awe at the world; making discoveries and seeking out new experiences
  • Flexibility: viewing a situation from different perspectives; remaining open to change
  • Gathering data through the senses: using all the senses to form a more complete picture of the world
  • Humor: laughing often
  • Listening skills: hearing what others have to say; purposefully taking in information before responding
  • Managing impulsivity: exercising self-control; acting thoughtfully and deliberately
  • Open-mindedness: admitting a lack of knowledge, and taking steps to fill the gaps
  • Persistence: focusing on a task and completing it successfully
  • Taking responsible risks: learning and growing by living on the edge of comfort and competency
  • Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision: framing ideas clearly both orally and in writing; avoiding generalization, dismissiveness, and distortion of ideas

Learning Skills

In addition to key habits, students need to develop learning skills that will help them succeed in school, career, and life. Learning skills fall into four main categories.

1. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is focused and analytical. Objects, events, situations, etc., are studied in order to better understand them. Some critical thinking skills are analyzing, arguing, classifying, comparing and contrasting, defining, describing, evaluating, explaining, problem solving, and determining causes and effects.

2. Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is expansive and open-ended, taking in a wide array of possibilities. Some creative thinking skills are brainstorming, creating, designing, entertaining, imagining, improvising, innovating, and questioning.

3. Communicating

Communicating is the sharing of ideas, opinions, thoughts, information, messages, creations, and discoveries with others. Some communicating skills are choosing an appropriate medium, crafting and evaluating messages, following conventions, listening actively, reading, speaking, turn-taking, and writing.

4. Collaborating

Collaborating is working with others, being part of a team. Some collaborating skills are allocating resources and responsibilities, making decisions, delegating, setting goals, leading, managing time, resolving conflicts, and team-building.

Competency-based learning presents opportunities and challenges. Students will have access to an education system that takes into account their diverse knowledge backgrounds, literacy levels, aptitudes, and interests and allows them to learn at their own pace. Teachers will be able to utilize their skills in new and exciting ways but will have to reach a consensus with members of their education community on the most important competencies to promote and how to best assess them.

Learn more about competency-based learning and assessment in the next blog: Assessing Competency-Based Education.



 “Competency-Based Learning or Personalized Learning.” U.S. Department of Education, n.d.

Deye, Sunny. “A Look at Competency-based Education in K-12 Schools.” Our American States, National Conference of State Legislatures, Aug. 2018.

Edwards, Jenny and Arthur L. Costa. “Habits of Success.” ASCD, Apr. 2012.

Heggart, Keith. “Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff.” Edutopia, 4 Feb. 2015.

Jones, Andrew. “Myths of Proficiency-Based Learning.” The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, 17 Mar. 2018.

Lurve, Sharon. “The Massive Experiment in New Orleans Schools That Few Have Noticed.” Future of Learning, The Hechinger Report, 30 May 2018.

Lopez, Nina, Susan Patrick, and Chris Sturgis. “Competency-Based Education and Personalized Learning Go Hand in Hand.” Competency Works, 30 Nov. 2017.

Lopez, Nina, Susan Patrick, and Chris Sturgis. “Readiness for College, Career and Life: The Purpose of K-12 Public Education Today.” Competency Works, 2 Nov. 2017.

Schwartz, Katrina. “Why Competency-Based Education is Exiting and Where it May Stumble.” Mind Shift, KQED, 14 Jan.

Sturgis, Chris. “How Competency-Based Education Differs from the Traditional System of Education.” iNACOL, 16 Nov. 2017.

Sturgis, Chris. “Six Trends at Lindsay Unified School District.” Competency Works, 2 Mar. 2015.

Sturgis, Chris. “What Will Students Experience in a Competency-Based School?” Competency Works, 27 Mar. 2018.

“What are Learning Skills?” Thoughtful Learning, n.d.

“What is Competency-Based Education?” Competency Works, n.d.

Wolpert-Gawron, Heather. “What is the Purpose of Public Education?” Huffington Post, 27 Oct. 2010.


About Shawn Downes

Shawn lives in Auburn, Massachusetts with his wife, son, dog, and cats. He loves spending time outside hiking, running, surfing, snowboarding, and working on his yard, and also enjoys visiting local restaurants and breweries. He has been on the editorial team at Victory for almost a decade.

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