Overcoming Barriers to Competency-Based Learning

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning (CBL) is a learning system designed to teach and reinforce specific competencies. With this system, students have the opportunity to master complex and transferable skills by employing practical assessment techniques (Evans et al., 2021). 

Competency-based learning in practice:

Professors out of Westminster College in the United States conducted a study to understand the impact of competency-based education as a pedagogical tool for student learning. The study found that competency-based learning led to increased student engagement with course material, cohort collaboration, ownership within assessments, and overall student attendance, compared to the traditional teaching model (Simonds et al., 2017). 

While the benefits of competency-based learning are understood, CBL is a relatively new development in higher education. Introducing new teaching methods is not without its challenges. However, through a staged and pragmatic approach, professors can implement competency-based learning, thus encouraging students to take greater ownership over their academic success. 

Motivation and adoption of competency-based learning

The 2019 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education (NSPCBE), an annual, web-based survey of postsecondary institutions in the United States, provides insights into the motivations and adoption of competency-based learning. Of the 602 institutions included in the study, 51% reported being in the process of adopting CBL, 23% reported being interested in CBL but hadn’t started adopting. Change happens slowly.

Of institutions reported to having a program or being in the process of adopting a program of CBL, the primary motivations for the implementation were: expanding access for nontraditional students (57%), the desire to improve learning outcomes (54%) and responding to workforce needs (53%). 

Despite strong interest by professors and institutions, competency-based education adoption is slower than expected. There was minimal change in adoption levels between 2018 and 2019, with some institutions decreasing their use of CBL. The survey suggests the slow growth of CBL could be due to barriers to implementation (American Institutes for Research, 2019).

By overcoming the following barriers, professors can improve student engagement, help students improve the retention and application of course material, and build transferable skills.

Barriers to competency-based learning 

1. Lack of clarity on how to create competency-based goals

Providing clear targets for skill development and competency-based assessment is one of the best ways to set students up for success with competency-based learning (Vorhees, 2001). Professors should create tangible targets coinciding with skill objectives (Simonds et al., 2017). The targets should be general enough to have applicability in various assessment settings while also reflecting the course material and desired learning outcomes (Evans et al., 2021). One way teachers can achieve this is through rubrics that encourage critical thinking and develop higher-order thinking skills

Customizable rubric layout in Kritik

Students use a rubric to assess the feedback provided by their peers

2. Time and resources  

There is an adjustment period associated with introducing a new method of student assessment. Administrators, instructors and teaching assistants need to work together to incorporate competency-based learning. Professors can communicate transparently with students explaining the strength of CBL and what they hope the students will gain. With practice, consistency and transparency, CBL will become a natural part of the student and professor experience.

3. Shifting from a traditional teaching style

Competency-based learning represents a shift from the traditional, modular education approach. The change may seem daunting to many professors. The traditional education structure is often inflexible and not well suited to meet the diverse needs of students (Voorhees, 2001). Taking a staged approach to competency-based learning, for example, using it for one activity in one class, can be an effective way to get started. One way to incorporate practical assessment techniques as part of CBL is through Active learning. Active learning is the idea that students should actively apply course concepts while in class, rather than just listening to a traditional lecture and taking notes.

How to Effectively Implement Competency-Based Learning

Peer assessment is an effective way to implement competency-based learning for instructors at all levels, course sizes and lengths (Ibarra-Sáiz et al., 2020). Peer assessment enables social learning, where students share their perspectives and learn through the act of teaching. It also means each student can receive numerous points of feedback before the final submission. Each student’s learning journey will take a different path depending on the student’s needs and progress identified through peer assessment. Kritik makes implementing peer evaluation easy

Kritik enables social learning, for example, by spotlighting strong student exemplars

Through the Kritik platform, professors provide clear objective outlines through rubrics, either created from scratch or selected from Kritik’s repository of customizable rubrics. Establishing competency-based rubrics for each task is a measurable and tangible way to present the goals of an activity aligned with curriculum requirements to students, TAs and administrators alike. 

Once the professor sets up the assignment or activity criteria, Kritik enables peer assessment, putting students in the driver’s seat of their learning. Students learn how to provide and receive feedback, working in stages to iterate and improve their work. In addition to the benefits to student learning, peer assessment saves professors’ time while increasing the amount of feedback each student receives. 

Students assess feedback based on how motivational and critical it is

The three-stage assessment schedule in Kritik

“Kritik was a huge time saver. There was just no way I could have, with 2 TAs, been able to give back that kind of feedback to the students” - David Wong, University of Waterloo Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

By embracing competency-based learning through peer assessment, students will play an active role in the learning process while developing transferable skills, beneficial in the classroom and beyond.   

American Institutes for Research. (2019). (rep.). State of the Field Findings From the 2019 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education. Retrieved from https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/National-Survey-of-Postsecondary-CBE-Lumina-October-2019-rev.pdf 

Evans, C., Landl, E., & Thompson, J. (2021). Making sense of K-12 competency-based education: A systematic literature review of implementation and outcomes of research from 2000 to 2019. The Journal of Competency-Based Education, 5(4).  https://doi.org/10.1002/cbe2.1228

Ibarra-Sáiz, M.S., Rodríguez-Gómez, G. & Boud, D. (2020) Developing student competence through peer assessment: the role of feedback, self-regulation and evaluative judgement. Higher Education, 80, 137–156. 


Simonds, J., Behrens, E., & Holzbauer, J. (2017). Competency-based education in a traditional higher education setting: a case study of an introduction to psychology course. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(2), 412-429. 

Voorhees, A. (2001) Creating and implementing competency-based learning models. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2001(110), 83-95. 

Madison Tsoutsoulas
Education Researcher