Regardless of What It’s Called, Empowering Students to Take Charge of their Own Learning is a Good Thing.

“A student who understands what it means to own their learning has an internal drive to get things done.” This comes from the administrator of a rural school in Idaho who’s unlocked the key to powerful learning. This approach is often referred to by many different names, such as:

  • personalized learning
  • proficiency learning
  • demonstration learning
  • individualized instruction
  • competency-based learning


However, while these terms are often used interchangeably, they are not all one and the same. Here’s an at-a-glance chart that may help:


Questions to Ask

Sample Classroom Applications

Personalized Learning

Individualized Instruction


What do my students need to know?

What are my students intrigued by? What sparks their curiosity? How do each of my students prefer to learn?

How can I provide each of my students with the kind of experiences they need to learn and thrive?

–Curriculum could be based on specific learning standards for each content area, but in its purest form it could be based on the mission of the school or even each student’s learning goals.

–With guidance, students actively participate in setting their own learning goals.

–Project-based, theme-based or interest-based learning

–Experience-based learning opportunities (including internships & apprenticeships)

–Pairing students with a mentor who has expertise in a given area

–Small group or individualized meetings with learning coach, advisor, or mentor

–Work products can take many forms (portfolio, blog, video, book, music, event, etc.)

Proficiency Learning

Competency-Based Learning




What do my students need to know?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?

What should I do if I have an advanced learner who breezes through the material?

What should I do for learners who are struggling with specific concepts or skills?

–Curriculum is typically based on district-adopted learning standards for each content area.

–A specific level of proficiency (or competency) is identified for key learning goals and objectives.

–Student learning is measured through carefully constructed formative and summative assessments.

–Proficiency/Competency is determined by performance on those assessments.

–Students can progress onward after demonstrating proficiency/competence.

–Struggling students are provided additional instructional support, and then are reassessed. Cycle is continued until proficiency/competency is demonstrated.

Demonstration Learning What do my students need to know?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?


–Curriculum is typically based on district-adopted learning standards for each content area.

–A specific level of performance is identified for key learning goals and objectives.

–Student learning is measured through a combination of formative and summative assessments.

–In many instances, students can select from a menu of assessment choices.

–Depending on age and grade level, examples of culminating demonstrations of learning could include: portfolio, blog, video, poem, art show, recital, podcast, write a letter to the editor, etc.

Mastery Learning

Mastery learning was purposely left off the chart. This approach is often used interchangeably with proficiency and competency-based learning, and while it does share many attributes to those approaches, it is not the same. There is a difference between demonstrating one’s proficiency or competency in a given skill and mastering that skill. For example:

  • I am proficient in using Microsoft Excel, but I have not mastered it.
  • As evidenced by my harvest this year, I am a competent gardener but most certainly not a master gardener.

Mastery learning represents a much higher bar of expectation—it goes above and beyond that of proficiency or competency. To master something means you have become an expert in a given skill, and that approach doesn’t seem to fit within an empowerment-based learning model.

While terms can be confusing, here’s the bottom line:

Students should be empowered to take an active role in their own learning. As a result, they achieve success not because someone is forcing them to move at a certain pace or memorize a set of dates for a test the next day–they learn because they want to, and they learn in a way that feels comfortable. Furthermore, teachers can provide richer, more meaningful feedback to their students because they can customize learning experiences as needed. School leaders are able to make more thoughtful decisions about schools and school systems, and parents/caregivers are elated because they see their children enjoying school in a way they never did before.

Regardless of what it’s called, an empowerment-based approach can lay the foundation for all students to stretch their minds in a rich and meaningful way, experience success, and develop a lifelong love for learning.

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site ( 


Looking for Innovation? Think CBE.

Thinking about adopting a competency-based educational (CBE) model? This can be a great, innovative way to teach adult learners at the community college or university level, but it can also be quite appropriate for youngsters at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Here are a few basic tenets of CBE to consider:

Competency-based education is not an easy way to learn or to earn a college degree. Instead, it is a different way to learn. Rather than just sitting in a class and earning attendance points, learners really have to demonstrate what they know and are able to do through a variety of high-quality assessments.

True competency-based education is standards-based education. A house must have a solid foundation in order to stand over time. Likewise, curriculum must be based on standards, and from those standards, competencies, learning objectives, and assessments are developed. As industry standards change, so must a competency-based curriculum evolve to ensure relevancy and currency.


Competency-based education is carefully planned and developed. It is not a simple matter to create or switch to a competency-based educational model. It requires a great deal of thought, planning, training, and a commitment to various resources. Simply put, it is not realistic for an institution to believe this can be created by one or two faculty members given extra teaching load pay over a semester or two. It requires systemic commitment and long-range strategic planning.

The curriculum found in a high-quality competency-based educational program comprises both breadth and depth. As previously stated, a solid curriculum must be standards-based. In addition, a CBE curriculum can’t just “cover” certain key concepts and principles—this approach will not lead to deep, sustained learning. Instead, major content must be identified and embedded multiple times within signature learning experiences; they must be scaffolded throughout a program of study at increasing levels of complexity. Learners must be given multiple opportunities to understand and apply what they are learning in various contexts.

Self-paced learning is a cornerstone of the CBE model. Rote memorization has been debunked by many over the years as an ineffective way to learn. Likewise, educators now acknowledge that lockstep teaching and learning does not meet the needs of individuals. An age-old approach known as “Teach to the Middle” is still often the norm in environments where class size is excessive and teachers need to work as efficiently as possible simply to manage their classrooms. However, this approach neglects the needs of students who are struggling, and it neglects the needs of students who have already mastered those skills and are ready to move on. One of the most beautiful aspects of competency-based education is that it is based on a self-paced learner model: Students work at their own pace, taking as much or as little time as they need to understand, apply, and demonstrate their proficiency in the stated competencies and learning objectives. Learners are less frustrated; they feel empowered and more in control of their own progress.

The competency-based model lends itself well to online learning. CBE certainly can work well in traditional face-to-face learning environments. However, it can work equally well in distance learning models. There are different nuances to consider in the planning stage, but CBE is adaptable to all learning environments. What’s important is the strength of the curriculum, the learning resources, the quality of instruction, and the support given to learners. If the curriculum can be seen as the foundation of the house, then the other instructional elements can be viewed as the walls supporting the structure.

The quality of a competency-based program is heavily reliant upon the quality of its assessments. In a competency-based model, learners demonstrate what they know and are able to do relative to specific learning objectives. They demonstrate this through a variety of high-quality assessments, frequently in the form of internally-created objective examinations, performance assessments, field-based assessments, and externally-created proprietary assessments. If the curriculum is the home’s foundation, and the walls are comprised of learning resources, instructional quality, and learner support, assessments represent the roof. There must be direct alignment between what learners are taught and how their knowledge is measured.

Continuous, critical review of assessment data is essential. Many educators throw around the term “data-driven” decision making these days, but few really understand what it means. As with curriculum development, a comprehensive assessment plan is essential to any institution, regardless whether it adheres to a competency-based educational model or not. There are many steps that need to be taken to ensure the quality, integrity, and continual improvement of the ways in which learner proficiency is measured.

The bottom line: It’s all about efficacy. Irrespective of the educational model being implemented, the strength of a program actually can best be determined by the sustained impact on the lives of learners and those they interact with in their chosen profession. For example, do graduates from an educator preparation program demonstrate a positive impact on their P-12 students’ learning and development? Do graduates from a medical school demonstrate a significant impact on improving the quality of their patients’ lives?

Competency-based education is not just about learning in the moment; it’s about learning for a lifetime to serve the greater good.