Competency-Based Education Guide: Benefits & Differences To Traditional Education

Competency-Based Education Guide: Benefits & Differences To Traditional Education
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Competency-based education is not a new concept. Introduced in the early 1960s through the 1970s (Nodine, 2016), this teaching strategy is akin to mastery learning which also serves as an alternative to traditional education frameworks. The only difference between the two is that
while mastery learning places emphasis on mastering concepts, competency-based education focuses on the mastery of skills.

In recent years, professionals have observed a slow but steady growth for competency-based education. In fact, as of 2020, 128 institutions in the United States have already adopted 851 undergraduate and 206 graduate competency-based education programs (American Institute of Research, 2021). Moreover, 82% of the educational institutions have either completed implementing competency-based education programs or are currently in the process adopting the curriculum, according to the latest elearning statistics (American Institute of Research, 2021).

To give you a more concrete idea of teaching approach, this guide will outline the competency-based education definition and how it compares to traditional education. It also discusses a number of implementation strategies that can benefit institutions that are seeking to shift to using this framework. Lastly, it enumerates the benefits that come with the program.

Competency-Based Education Table of Contents

  1. What is competency-based education?
  2. Competency-Based Education vs Traditional Education
  3. Benefits of Implementing Competency-Based Education Programs
  4. Strategies for Implementing Competency-Based Education Programs

What is competency-based education?

Competency-based education is the strategy of teaching, assessing, grading, and reporting students based on their ability to demonstrate specific skills set throughout their learning progress. Below are the typical characteristics of competency-based education.

1. Competency-based education allows students to learn at their own pace.

This is perhaps one of the most valuable characteristics of competency-based education. It puts no pressure on students to take in the same amount of information as other students within the same period. At the same time, there is no need for advanced learners to spend any more time studying a subject they already know a lot about.

Competency-based education acknowledges different learning styles. Students will be able to direct their own learning progression. This can be quite beneficial to students who are engaged in e-learning, especially as learning environments in this setup vary greatly.

2. Competency-based education focuses on learning outcomes.

In competency-based education, students will be given a set of competencies they need to master. They will also be informed about how these competencies are expected to be demonstrated for the assessment of the teacher. This kind of transparency will allow students to set learning goals for themselves. They can strategize how they can efficiently manage their time so they can best achieve the learning expectations.

Competency-based education considers mistakes to be part of the learning process. Students are expected to receive feedback from instructors often, which will greatly inform them about their improvement points. At the end of it, what matters is that the student is able to demonstrate the predetermined competencies. Otherwise, one will not be able to progress.

3. Competency-based education targets competencies that relate directly to workplace tasks.

Competencies can serve as a basis for specific skills that are needed in the workplace. Learning institutions that implement a competency-based model take accountability that all their graduates have mastered the competencies they have set. Given students need to demonstrate these competencies through action, employers can be confident that graduates have not only a theoretical understanding of a subject but also a strong grasp of how they can apply theories to real-world situations. 

In a way, competency-based education can provide a smooth transition from school to the workplace. There are even experts who argue that competency-based education is necessary for the future of work.

4. Competency-based education acknowledges learning outside the classroom.

This aspect of competency-based education challenges the notion that learning only happens within the classroom. On the contrary, learning can happen anywhere and the knowledge and skills gained outside the classroom may be just as valuable. As a result, students with prior learning can progress much faster. 

Competency-based education is advantageous to individuals who had to stop their studies, for one reason or another and want to pick up where they left off. This kind of setup also encourages students to take time to learn different skills outside the classroom.

5. Competency-based education promotes equity and empowers students.

Individualized instruction is another key component of competency-based education. Students can get as much support and time they need to master a competency. Students with learning disabilities can very much benefit from this kind of system.

With competency-based education, all students, regardless of their prior learning experience and background, will equitably master all the knowledge and skills in their program’s curriculum. This gives all students a fair chance to succeed in their chosen line of work.

Source: 2020 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency Based Education, American Institute for Research

Competency-Based Education vs Traditional Education

Competency-based education poses a challenge to the structure, instruction method, assessment, and learning outcomes as understood in the traditional framework. This section will elaborate on the differences between the two frameworks in these aspects.


The first big difference between competency-based education vs traditional education is structure. For the latter, learning progression is scheduled. Students accomplish a given number of subjects every semester. They progress on to the higher-level subjects as long as they get passing marks, regardless of their understanding of the more foundational concepts taught in earlier modules. As a result, they may encounter more learning difficulties as they progress toward finishing the curriculum.

Meanwhile, when it comes to competency-based education, learning progression is structured around mastery of competencies, not credit hours. A student will only be allowed to move on to the next subjects after successfully demonstrating mastery of knowledge and skills as defined in the learning objectives of their prerequisites. This ensures that they have the knowledge and skills they need to understand higher-level concepts in a subject matter.

Instruction Method

In traditional education, only students who are falling behind receive individualized instruction. In some cases, the whole class receives undifferentiated instruction, even if some students are having learning difficulties.  

On the other hand, in competency-based education, every student is entitled to receive individualized instruction. They will be thoroughly guided every step of the learning process and will receive feedback from their instructors immediately. This kind of student-teacher exchange can help students develop academic prowess. 


Assessments in traditional education are part of the course schedule, typically given toward the end of each module. Students are expected to have understood the concepts and pass the examinations. After these assessments, students will be categorized based on their performance. 

Competency-based education grading is not as rigid as the traditional approach to learning. In competency-based education programs, formative assessments are an essential component of the learning process. Students receive feedback and are given the chance to achieve mastery of a subject.

Learning Outcome

In traditional education, learning outcomes are typically measured through standards-based grading implemented at the end of each module and toward the end of the semester. If a student fails, he or she will have to repeat the entire course.

In competency-based education, learning outcomes equate to either not yet competent, competent, or highly competent. This means that students only need to re-learn the competencies they have not yet mastered and not the entire course. This allows students to save time and money as well as gain confidence that at the end of the program, they will have mastered all the competencies.

Competency-Based Education

Benefits of Implementing Competency-Based Education Programs

Competency-based education is beneficial for students, learning institutions, and employers. With competency-based education, students can tackle their individual learning difficulties and in the end achieve mastery. Learning institutions can then achieve their goal of producing learned and competent graduates who can then serve companies and organizations in different fields.

1. Competency-based education programs enhance student experiences.

In a study titled “Does implementation of competence-based education mediate the impact of team learning on student satisfaction?” published in the Journal of Vocational Education & Training, Van Griethuijsen and colleagues (2019) concluded that students are more satisfied with how they develop interpersonal skills, such as communicating and collaborating with co-workers, as their education becomes more competency-based in nature.” Further, “the level of CBE implementation was also positively associated with student satisfaction with the quality of education and guidance. Education that is more competence-based in nature is, thus, rated more positively by students in terms of quality and guidance the students receive.”

2. Competency-based education programs welcome nontraditional learners.

The National Survey of the Postsecondary Competency-Based Education revealed that the main motivation of 67% of higher learning institutions to implement competency-based education is to attract nontraditional learners (American Institute for Research, 2020). Competency-based education poses a challenge to many traditional ways of teaching and learning that hinders some individuals from feeling included in learning environments.

3. Competency-based education programs offer time and location flexibility.

With competency-based education, students can study anywhere, anytime. There are also available online platforms through which students can reach out to their instructors regarding any difficulties they may encounter while going through the learning materials.

Different examples of competency-based education programs also offer an ideal setup, especially during the time of the COVID-19 crisis. As long as students dedicate enough time and effort to their studies, they can successfully master competencies and earn their degrees.

4. Competency-based education programs can help students save time and money.

Students who are mastering competencies fast can save a lot of money by finishing target competencies as soon as they can. The faster they complete a degree program, the more money they will be able to save and the less student debt they will need to acquire. Considering that college in America is so expensive, bringing the competency-based education option to more learning institutions can help a lot of students who are struggling financially but are academically competent.

5. Competency-based education programs can encourage productivity among students.

In light of the above-mentioned benefit of saving time and money, competency-based education can also push students to be more mindful of their productivity levels. More productive students will be able to graduate earlier and advance in their professional lives faster. Students may work to finish their studies faster than the recommended period to gain said benefits.

6. Competency-based education programs aim for mastery.

Mastery is the end goal of competency-based education. Students need not worry that they will have any kind of mediocrity, as such is not tolerated in the implementation of this model. Be it curriculum design or learning materials or instruction, everything is held up to a high standard. Students are also expected to showcase excellence in a subject area where they already got the credit.

7. Competency-based education programs will produce more competent graduates.

Students who have completed a degree program with a competency-based curriculum prove that they are proficient in all areas of their field. This means there is not one subject in their curriculum that they do not thoroughly understand. It also means that they are job-ready. This is important because the fourth industrial revolution comes with quite a competitive labor market, where only the best of the best can be employed, especially in the tech-driven years to come.

8. Competency-based education will give students the confidence that comes with mastery of skills.

Students can be confident that they will be able to perform their tasks well in their jobs because they have mastered the competencies required to do so. This will enable them to progress in their professional lives just as they did during their undergraduate years. Competency-based education will also inculcate in them the idea that mistakes are solvable parts of the learning process. They are not the end and they can only learn and improve from them.

Source: 2020 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency Based Education, American Institute for Research

Strategies for Implementing Competency-Based Education Programs

Change management can be difficult for learning institutions, especially those that have been implementing only traditional education programs since establishment. However, this is no good reason to set aside a perfectly viable new program set on serving students by focusing on their skill development. In this section, some strategies for dealing with change and implementing competency-based education programs will be discussed.

1. Pivot to becoming a tech-driven institution.

Whether you are a teacher, a student, or an administrator, you can use technology to make school tasks easier to perform. There are software platforms like learning management systems that can help you communicate better regarding learning materials, automate repetitive work, manage your schedule more efficiently, and shorten the time you need to tick a task off your to-do list.

Competency-based education programs are rigorous in nature, especially on the side of the educators. If learning institutions can train involved parties with the latest technology that can help ease their work, the implementation of the model will be far more successful.

2. Have an expert in change management on board.

For someone to go through the same process of shifting from traditional to alternative education models is part of an institution’s efforts to implement competency-based education programs. An expert in change management can help identify and manage risks.

Institutional change is a big undertaking and bringing someone who has experience in it and can bring important ideas, suggestions, and solutions to the table is a huge advantage.

3. Consult with the faculty before implementing structural changes.

Faculty members are the key to the success of competency-based implementation. Higher educational institutions must be consulted with them at every turn. Having them take part in the process of designing the curriculum, assessments, and learning environments will also help them have a better gauge of how the education model works and how they can best perform their role as educators. 

Toward a More Equitable Future for Students

Competency-based education is radical in that it gives all students a fair chance to excel at their studies. In this framework, everyone who is willing to dedicate time and effort and continue learning, regardless of one’s personal struggles, can achieve positive educational outcomes. This is important because this academic success can very well translate to professional success, and therefore extends itself to self-efficacy, economic freedom, and good mental and physical health and wellbeing, among others. A college degree in this sense becomes a real ticket to a good life.



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  4. Gervais, J. (2016). The operational definition of competency-based education. The Journal of Competency-based Education 1(2), 98-106. Retrieved from
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  6. Van Griethuijsen, R., Kunst, E., Van Woerkom, M., Wesselink, R. & Poell R. (2019). Does implementation of competence-based education mediate the impact of team learning on student satisfaction? Journal of Vocational Education & Training 72(4), 516-535. Retrieved from

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