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Design Principle 1: Students Advance upon Demonstrated Proficiency/Mastery

The core element of a competency-based approach is that students, progress to more advanced work upon demonstration of learning by applying specific skills and content. The most important implications of this design principle include:

  • Students work at levels that are appropriately challenging. Schools are able to meet students where they are at in their learning. This means students will be successful in learning the skills and knowledge that they will need for more advanced work.
  • Students are advanced to higher-level work upon demonstration of mastery, not age. Schools monitor and are responsible for ensuring students are making progress.
  • Students are assessed on performance or the application of the skills. 
  • Some students may complete courses more rapidly than others. Students can be at different performance levels -- such as 7th level reading and 6th level math.
  • Teachers guide students to produce sufficient evidence to determine proficiency.

Design Principle 2: Explicit and Measurable Learning Objectives Empower Students

In competency-based practices, a course is organized into measurable learning objectives that are shared with students. Students take responsibility for their learning, thereby increasing their engagement and motivation. The implications of this design principle include:

  • The relationship between student and teacher is fundamentally changed when there is transparency. Students are able to take on more responsibility in monitoring their learning, seeking help when they need it and advancing after demonstrating mastery.
  • The unit of learning becomes modular.  It works best when teachers have the units available for the course or semester so that students there is flexibility for students to spend more time and receive more instructional support when they need it. 
  • Learning expands beyond the classroom.  The transparent structure allows much greater flexibility and creativity in how students learn and how they are able to demonstrate their learning. 

Design Principle 3: Assessment Is Meaningful and a Positive Learning Experience for Students

In a competency-based model, the traditional approach to assessment and accountability “of learning” is turned on its head with assessments “for learning.” Formative assessments are aligned with learning objectives. Students receive immediate feedback when assessment occurs. This is used to encourage students to return to difficult concepts and skills until they achieve mastery. It is essential that assessments are student-centered in which students are assessed on material with which they are familiar. In order for competency-based pathways to offer high-quality education, the following must be put into place:

  • Schools embrace a strong emphasis on formative assessment
  • Teachers collaborate to develop understanding of what is an adequate demonstration of proficiency. This is often called calibration or tuning.
  • Teachers assess skills or concepts in multiple contexts and multiple ways
  • Attention on student learning, not student grades. New systems of providing feedback are developed so that students and their parents can be confident that students are becoming proficient and know how much progress a student is making.
  • Summative assessments are timely based soon after students demonstrate that they have learned the material. Students participate in summative assessments based on performance levels, not age-based curriculum.

Design Principle 4: Students Receive Rapid, Differentiated Support 

See the issue brief The Learning Edge: Supporting Student Success in a Competency-Based Learning Environment and its companion resources for more information. 

The core idea of a competency-based model is that all students will master the desired competencies. This requires a rapid response capacity on the part of educators to support students when they are stuck or begin to disengage in frustration. Educator capacity, and students’ own capacity to seek out help, can be enhanced by technology-enabled solutions that incorporate predictive analytic tools. Providing timely and differentiated support is essential to a competency-based system. Without it there is risk that the current inequities will be reproduced.

  • Pacing matters.  Although students will progress at their own speeds, students that are proceeding more slowly will need more help
  • Learning plans capture knowledge on learning styles, context, and interventions that are most effective for individuals students
  • New specialist roles may develop in educator and instructional support roles, providing high quality interventions when students are beginning to slip behind
  • Online learning can play an invaluable role in providing feedback to teachers on how students are proceeding

Design Principle 5: Learning Outcomes Emphasize Include Application and Creation of Knowledge  

Competencies emphasize the application of learning. A high-quality competency-based approach will require students to apply skills and knowledge to new situations to demonstrate mastery and to create knowledge. Competencies will include academic standards as well as lifelong learning skills and dispositions.

  • Competencies and learning objectives are designed so that demonstration of mastery includes application of skills and knowledge
  • Assessment rubrics are explicit in what students must be able to know and do to progress to the next level of study

  • Examples of student work that demonstrate skills development throughout a learning continuum will help students understand their own progress

  •  Lifelong learning skills designed around student's needs, life experiences, and the skills needed for them to be college and career ready

  • Expanded learning opportunities are developed as opportunities for students to develop and apply skills as they are earning credit


Grant Wiggins

Definition of transfer. Let’s begin with a simple overview of transfer from the first paragraph of the most helpful summary on the subject: Chapter 3 on ‘Learning and Transfer’ from the book How People Learn from the National Academy of Sciences (available for free here). Here is how transfer is defined and justified as a goal:

[Transfer is] the ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts. Educators hope that students will transfer learning from one problem to another within a course, from one year in school to another, between school and home, and from school to workplace. Assumptions about transfer accompany the belief that it is better to broadly “educate” people than simply “train” them to perform particular tasks.

Note, then, a key term in the definition: context. And what this really means is contexts. You have not really learned something well unless you can extend or apply in a new context (framing of the task, audience, purpose, setting, etc.) what you learned in one context. You cannot just give me back what I taught you in a task that is framed just like the teaching tasks and the way I taught it and you practiced it. In the famous phrase in math, it can’t just be a ‘plug and chug’ prompt. There is a further implication in the definition that needs to be explicit: I can only be said to have transferred my learning if i did it autonomously, without much teacher reminders and guidance.