Competency-Based Education and Me.

This image originally appeared on the Mommy Diaries. Click the image to visit the site.

This image originally appeared on the Mommy Diaries. Click the image to visit the site.

I’m kind of liking this competency-based education thing.

I think I’ve been behind the curve on this, because it’s only really come to my attention recently. And when I did a little more reading for this post, I could see that it’s been around for a little while now. It looks like it started primarily in higher education and has been making its way into K12.

So the first question is, what is a competency? On the CompetencyWorks website it’s defined this way: A competency is a statement of the knowledge, skills and/or behaviors students must master in a specific content or performance area. They explicitly explain the expectation for what a learner should be able to know and do.  A competency statement represents essential, enduring, transferable concepts that are at the upper end of knowledge taxonomies such as Webb’s strategic thinking or Blooms’ analyze, evaluate and create.

I like it so far. Now, what is competency-based education? Again, here’s what CompetencyWorks has to say:

In 2011, 100 innovators in competency education came together for the first time. At that meeting, participants fine-tuned a working definition of high quality competency education:

  • 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 timely, 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.

To me it sounds a lot like what we espouse in mastery-based learning, but hey, I’m open to calling it something different if that makes it more acceptable to the masses. And competency-based education seems to be catching on. In fact, just last month the U.S. Department of Education made this suggestion to institutes of higher education: Financial aid may be awarded based on students’ mastery of “competencies” rather than their accumulation of credits.  That would really mean a fundamental shift in how universities run, wouldn’t it? 

Already, right here in my own backyard, Southern New Hampshire University is the first university to decouple student work from the credit hour. Instead, “students make progress toward an associate degree by demonstrating mastery of 120 competencies. Competencies are phrased as “can do” statements, such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem” or “can analyze works of art in terms of their historical and cultural contexts.” I find that absolutely fascinating. And as a side note, it turns out that the kind of program that SNHU is administering is also less expensive. In this generation of skyrocketing college costs, that should be of great interest to all of us.

I want to be part of this movement. It’s exciting. I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do, because individualizing instruction never is. But I’m on board with figuring out how to adapt what the higher ed institutions are doing for K12. So sign me up. I’m ready. Who’s with me?

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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4 Responses to Competency-Based Education and Me.

  1. macoldpuppy says:

    As usual – your timing is amazing! Tomorrow I was asked to speak about competency based learning – and how to implement the idea into k12. Specifically, my province has been trying to put through a competency based curriculum framework called, Framework for Student Learning, Competencies for Engaged Thinkers, and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit. It is an a amazing idea – created through the collaboration of voice in Alberta – but we have yet to actually implement it. I thought I would add it as a reference. Thanks again for your post – and I’ll sign up for your team!

    • karen mahon says:

      I guess you and I are both having serendipities, because when I was in the car this afternoon, after posting this, there was a whole story on NPR (the local Boston station, WBUR) about competency-based learning and the program at SNHU! So looks like a bunch of us were on the same wavelength today! Thanks for your note!

  2. Paul Mayes says:


    Your blog post echoes so many of my thoughts here in England. I’ve started a new blog at and would very much welcome any ideas for it
    best wishes

    Paul Mayes

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