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Competency-based learning

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, overarching 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.

While 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.

  • 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
  • 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-degree 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 results 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.
  • 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.
  • Bartram, D. (2005) The Great Eight competencies: A criterion-centric approach to validation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 1185–1203
  • Catano, V., Darr, M., & Campbell, C. (2007). Performance appraisal of behaviour-based competencies: A reliable and valid procedure. Personnel Psychology, 60, 201–230
  • Cheng, M. I., &. Dainty, R. I. J. (2005). Toward a multidimensional competency-based managerial performance framework: A hybrid approach. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 20, 380–396
  • Draganidis, F., & Mentzas, G. (2006). Competency-based management: A review of systems and approaches. Information Management &Computer Security, 14, 51–64
  • Dubois, D., & Rothwell, W. (2004). Competency-Based Human Resource Management. Davies–Black Publishing
  • Dubois, D., & Rothwell, W. (2000). The Competency Toolkit (Volumes 1 & 2). HRD Press
  • Homer, M. (2001). Skills and competency management. Industrial and Commercial training, 33/2, 59–62
  • Horton, S. (2000). Introduction- the competency-based movement: Its origins and impact on the public sector. The International Journal of Public Sector Management, 13, 306–318
  • Lucia, A., & Lepsinger, R. (1999). The Art and Science of Competency Models: Pinpointing Critical Success Factors in Organizations. Pfeiffer
  • Kochanski, J. T.,& Ruse, D. H. (1996). Designing a competency-based human resources organization. Human Resource Management, 35, 19–34
  • McEvoy, G., Hayton, J., Wrnick, A., Mumford, T., Hanks, S., & Blahna, M. (2005). A competency-based model for developing human resource professionals. Journal of Management Education, 29, 383–402
  • Rausch, E., Sherman, H., & Washbush, J. B. (2002). Defining and assessing competencies for competency-based, outcome-focused management development. The Journal of Management Development, 21, 184–200
  • Sanchez, J. I., &. Levine, E. L. (2009). What is (or should be) the difference between competency modeling and traditional job analysis? Human Resource Management Review, 19, 53–63
  • Schmidt, F.L., & Hunter, J.E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practice and theoretical implications of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 262–274
  • Shandler, D. (2000). Competency and the Learning Organization. Crisp Learning.
  • Shippmann, J. S., Ash, R. A., Battista, M., Carr, L., Eyde, L. D., Hesketh, B., Kehoe, J., Pearlman, K., & Sanchez, J. I. (2000). The practice of competency modeling, Personnel Psychology, 53, 703–740.
  • Spencer, L M. in Cherniss, C. and D. Goleman, eds. (2001) “The economic value of emotional intelligence competencies and EIC-based HR programs”, in The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace: How to Select for, Measure, and Improve Emotional Intelligence in Individuals, Groups and Organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey–Bass/Wiley
  • Spencer, L. M. (2004). Competency Model Statistical Validation and Business Case Development, HR Technologies White Paper
  • Spencer, L., & Spencer, S. (1993). Competence at Work: Models for Superior Performance. Wiley
  • Ulrich, D. and Brockbank, W. (2005) The HR Value Proposition. Boston: Harvard Business School Press
  • Wood. R., & Payne, T. (1998). Competency-Based Recruitment and Selection. Wiley


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