The Difference Between Competency-Based and Personalized Learning

When you consider that a mere one-quarter of public high school graduates in the United States possess the necessary skills to do well academically during post-secondary studies, it becomes more apparent that different learning models are needed to meet the needs of different students.

A hybrid of hands-on instruction plus technology works better than leaving kids alone to learn from computers.
A hybrid of hands-on instruction plus technology works better than leaving kids alone to learn from computers.

Competency-based and personalized learning are two popular models that can be used in the classroom, and both can facilitate learning. While an obsession with standards can potentially snuff out the love of learning, competency-based and personalized learning can have a positive impact when teachers use them to customize programs to meet the specific needs of students.

What follows is an overview of competency-based and personalized learning, a comparison and contrast of these two popular learning models, and a look at what these two models mean for teachers and administrators.

Competency-Based Learning

The traditional school format usually requires students to complete course requirements within a set time frame, and their grades are supposed to reflect their performance during the semester or course. However, with competency-based training, students, rather than being graded for how much actual time they spend in the classroom, are rewarded for the skills they obtain. The key thing is that it focuses on ensuring that all students gain a thorough understanding of the subject matter. Students who do not usually do well in a more structured learning environment, may thrive as they get to learn at their own pace. In fact, the set-you-own pace nature of competency-based learning lends itself to students who choose to study online rather than in an actual classroom.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is very much student-centric in that it is tailored to meet the specific needs of students’ strengths, personal interests, and requirements. The curriculum in such a learning model factors into the equation things like the students’ existing knowledge base, abilities, and skills as well as establishes high expectations and encourages students to achieve their personal objectives. With personalized learning, the goal is to have students advance once they’ve shown an extensive knowledge and understanding of the subject matter.


Compare & Contrast

There are numerous points to look at when comparing and contrasting competency-based and personalized learning. Some of the more notable points are as follows:

Transition: Both models provide a way to help students move away from a curriculum that places emphasis on time spent in a class to a curriculum that favors the sort of flexibility that helps students to move forward either by showing mastery of the subject matter or by selecting a learning path most conducive to their needs.
Academic Focus: With competency-based learning, the focus is on allowing students to progress only after they’ve demonstrated thorough understanding of the subject matter. With personalized learning, the focus is on using students’ learning style to create personalized learning programs using specifically selected assignments, material, and projects.
Technology: Both of these learning models are most effective when used in combination with technology solutions that permit teachers to augment their curriculum. In this digital age, classrooms can be equipped with mobile devices, broadband Internet access, smartboards, and more, and these tools can both facilitate students’ learning experience and permit teachers to meet the varied needs of students.

What it Means for Teachers and Administrators

Teachers can employ competency-based and personalized learning methods to accomplish their mandate to instruct students. The following Q&A will shed light on how teachers and administrators can benefit:

Q: Han can teachers use either competency-based or personalized learning in existing classrooms?

A: One of the benefits for teachers who want to make use of competency-based and personalized learning for their students is that the process does not necessarily require an overhaul of what they already have in place. Rather, they can use competency-based and personalized learning strategies in order to customize their existing curriculum or program after reflecting on the various needs of the students in their class. As was mentioned previously, technology available during his digital age — mobile devices, smartboards, and high-speed Internet — are tools that teachers can use to meet the various needs of the students in their classrooms.
Q: What’s the incentive for overworked teachers or administrators to implement something new?
The incentive for teachers or administrators to implement something new is that going this route will help them to achieve positive student outcomes — and it will help teachers and administrators to accomplish this objective more ably than would be the case with an inflexible curriculum. Put another way, even though an investment in technology may be required, the effort to implement something new would give teachers better opportunities to meet the needs of students, which would likely lead to better academic outcomes for students.

Q: If a teacher wanted to do this, how would he or she go about it?

A: There are various steps that can be taken to implement competency-based and personalized learning. The following are some of the general steps that should be taken:

1. Administrators and teachers need to be on board and to take responsibility for the program in terms of development and rollout.

2. Teachers should conduct assessments to determine which students need competency-based or personalized learning options.

3. Teachers need to figure out how to implement these models into their existing curriculums so that the students who need competency-based or personalized learning options can get it.

4. Administrators and teachers need to explain to students and their parents about the different learning models and about how they will help students to do better academically.

5. Assessments need to be performed post-rollout to ensure that the desired student outcomes are being achieved and that the curriculums are meeting the needs of those being taught.

The traditional curriculum has proven to be insufficient at helping many students to acquire the skills they need going forward after high school. Competency-based and personalized learning are useful learning models that be used to customize programs to facilitate the education process.

Author Bio: Amy Williams is a free-lance journalist based in Southern California and mother of two. As a parent, she enjoys spreading the word on positive parenting techniques in the digital age and raising awareness on issues like cyberbullying and online safety.

Amy Williams