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Competency-based learning or Competency Based Education and Training is an approach to teaching and learning more often used in learning concrete skills than abstract learning. It differs from other non-related approaches in that the unit of learning is extremely fine grained. Rather than a course or a module every individual skill/learning outcome, known as a competency, is one single unit. Learners work on one competency at a time, which is likely a small component of a larger learning goal. The student is evaluated on the individual competency, and only once they have mastered it do they move on to others. After that, higher or more complex competencies are learned to a degree of mastery and isolated from other topics. Another common component of Competency-based learning is the ability to skip learning modules entirely if the learner can demonstrate they already have mastery. That can be done either through prior learning assessment or formative testing.
For example, people learning to drive manual transmission might first have to demonstrate their mastery of "rules of the road", safety, defensive driving, parallel parking etc. Then they may focus on two independent competencies: "using the clutch, brake with right foot" and "shifting up and down through the gears". Once the learners have demonstrated they are comfortable with those two skills the next, over-arching skill might be "finding first: from full stop to a slow roll" followed by "sudden stops", "shifting up" and "down shifting". Because this is kinetic learning the instructor likely would demonstrate the individual skill a few times then the student would perform guided practice followed by independent practice until they can demonstrate their mastery.
Competency-based learning is learner‑focused and works naturally with independent study and with the instructor in the role of facilitator. Learners often find different individual skills more difficult than others. This learning method allows a student to learn those individual skills they find challenging at their own pace, practising and refining as much as they like. Then, they can move rapidly through other skills to which they are more adept.
Most other learning methods use summative testing, competency-based learning requires mastery of every individual learning outcome making it very well suited to learning credentials in which safety is an issue. With summative testing a student who has 80% in an evaluation may have an 80% mastery of all learning outcomes or may have no mastery what-so-ever of 20% of the learning outcomes. Further this student may be permitted to move on to higher learning and still be missing some abilities that are crucial to that higher learning. For example a student who knows most traffic laws and has mostly mastered controlling a vehicle could be treated equally to a student who has a very high mastery of vehicle control but no understanding of traffic laws, but only one of those students should be permitted to drive.
What it means to have mastered a competency depends on the learning domain (subject matter). In subject matter that could effect safety, it would be usual to expect complete learning that can be repeated every time. In abstract learning, such as algebra, the learner may only have to demonstrate that they identify an appropriate formula, for example, 4 of 5 times since when using that skill in the next competency, resolving a formula, will usually allow opportunity the learner to discover and correct their mistakes.
It is important to understand that this learning methodology is common in many kinetic and/or skills based learning, but is also sometime applied to abstract and/or academic learning for students who find themselves out-of-step with their grade, course or program of study.
Competency based learning is an educational technique that can be applied in many fields and learning environments. It is an area of pedagogical research and is not adequately understood in one, single learning domain, such as that which follows in this article.
The rest of this article focuses one application of competency-based learning in corporate environments and is heavily weighted to a Human Resources perspective.
Once organizations have used a competency dictionary to define the competency requirements for groups, areas, or the whole organization, it becomes possible to develop learning strategies targeted to close major gaps in organizational competencies and to focus learning plans on the business goals and strategic direction for the organization.
Competency profiles assist in effective learning and development by identifying the behaviours, knowledge, skills and abilities that are necessary for successful performance in a job. Employees can assess their competencies against those required for their own job, or for another job in which they are interested, and then take steps to acquire or improve any necessary competencies.
Competencies support learning by:
- Focusing learning on the critical competencies needed for success in the job and organization
- Providing standards for measuring employee performance and capabilities
- Providing the framework for identifying learning options/curriculum/programs to meet employee and organizational needs
- Supporting effective forecasting of organizational, as well as project-related learning requirements
- Providing standards for determining how well learning has occurred, both at the individual and organizational level
Some of the common benchmark competency-based practices in learning and development are:
- Assessments against competencies – Once the competencies have been defined for particular job / roles, it becomes possible for employees and others to assess the employee’s competencies against those required for current or future roles within the organization. This assessment can occur in the following ways:
- Self-assessment – Typically, the behavioral indicators for the competencies and proficiency levels needed within the target role / job are used as the standard for assessing the performance of the employee using a common rating scale (e.g., five-point scales from Never to Always) for assessing each indicator. The results are compiled and a report is provided that includes the results for all competencies, highlighting both employee strengths as well as competencies requiring improvement. This information can then be used to support the development of an individual learning plan (see below).
- Multi-source / 360 – Multi-source or 360 feedback is similar to the self-assessment process except there is more than one evaluator. The process includes at a minimum the employee and their supervisor, and can include others with whom the employee interacts within the workplace (e.g., peers, team members, clients both within and outside the organization, reporting employees; etc.). Once again, a report is prepared on the feedback reults to allow the employee, supervisor and / or others (e.g., coach / mentor; learning advisor; etc.) to target learning and development efforts to the particular employee’s needs.
- Assessment through other methods – Competency assessments can be accomplished through a wide variety of other methods, including those typically used in a selection process (see Recruitment & Selection section), such as: competency-based behavioural interviews; in-baskets; role-plays and simulations; track record / portfolio reviews; etc. As well, formalized assessment is often included as a component of employee development programs for the purpose of assessing the employee’s base skills / competencies going into the program, progress in development at any point, as well as level of success at the end of the program.
- Individual learning plans – Once employee strengths and areas for development have been defined, it becomes possible to develop individual learning plans targeted to particular learning needs. At a minimum, tools to support this process include a set of instructions or guide for completing a learning plan as well as a standard learning plan form.
- Learning resources catalogued by competency – Organizations often support employee learning by providing a catalogue of learning options organized by competencies, often incorporating a variety of learning options, such as: on-the-job assignments / activities; books and written reference material; courses / workshops / conferences; videos / DVDs; e-learning; etc. This information is often delivered via internet or intranet with links to other sites for additional information or course registration.
- Aggregate reports on organizational gaps in competencies – Individual gaps in competency requirements can be consolidated into group reports, and decisions can be made on the best strategies for closing the organizational gaps in the most fiscally prudent and cost-effective manner (e.g., instead of sending several employees on “one off” courses or conferences, offer such a program in-house for less money).
- Program design / development – Having defined the competencies and behaviours required for success in a particular role it becomes possible to target the design of curriculum and development programs to address these requirements. In addition, curriculum can be developed in a modularized fashion by competency, allowing the organization to quickly assemble a program of learning that will be specifically tailored to address organizational gaps (see above).
Finally, many organizations establish comprehensive competency-based employee development programs in high need areas. These programs are staged development initiatives that include: formal in-class learning events; planned work assignments aimed at developing certain skills and competencies; self-study components; and, formal assessment to evaluate progress in development as well as to accredit or certify that the employee has gained required competencies and knowledge. In some cases, the employee is promoted to a higher level once certain performance standards have been met. Organizations are increasingly moving to this model of employee development to address current or looming shortages of staff and to ensure that there is a continuing supply of qualified staff to meet future organizational needs. This approach also demonstrates to employees that the organization is committed to their development and advancement within the organization.
- Learning evaluation / validation – Competencies that have been identified for roles within the organization can serve as the standards or criteria for determining the level of success of learning interventions. This approach is particularly powerful because assessments based on the competencies provide the organization with an indication of the extent to which employee workplace behaviour has improved. For example, pre- and post-learning event assessments (e.g., multi-source assessment – see above) can be conducted to evaluate the extent of development at both the individual and aggregate level (i.e., all employees who have completed the program). Based on this, the organization can determine whether the learning investments are paying off and, as appropriate, what changes need to be made to address performance gaps.
The following implementation stages are suggested for mid to large organizations implementing competencies in Learning and Development on a corporate-wide basis.
- Determine policy for integrating competencies in Learning and Development.
- Design individual learning tools and processes (Learning Plan Form; associated instructions / tools) and / or acquire tools to support individual Learning Planning (e.g., i-SkillSuite Assessment and Learning Plan modules).
- Build or acquire a catalogue of learning resources organized by competencies in the Dictionary and classify organization specific programs and tools in the catalogue. Advertise and make the catalogue widely available to employees and managers (e.g., post the catalogue on an intranet site; acquire and implement web-based software to support employee).
- Develop or acquire self-assessment and multi-source surveys and reporting processes as competency profiles become available for job groups (e.g., i-SkillSuite Assessment and Learning Plan modules). Post self-assessment tools on the organization’s intranet website, and introduce supervisor and multi-source assessments as employees become familiar and comfortable with the competencies and the assessment process.
- Develop and introduce training / communications related to competencies and their use in the learning and development process in the organization.
- Conduct a needs assessment / analysis and design / develop tools and reporting processes to support aggregate analysis and reporting of organizational strengths and gaps in competencies.
- Assess how curriculum / learning program design and development could be improved with the introduction of competency-based management. Implement changes, as required.
- Review current processes for conducting evaluations of learning programs within the organization and integrate competencies, as required, to determine: the extent to which workplace behaviour and outcomes have changed in the desired direction; as well as, the return on investment for the learning / training provided.
- Strategic human resource planning
- Human resource management systems
- Learning management system
- Talent management
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