The Stages of Learning: How You Slowly Become More Competent at New Skills

The Stages of Learning: How You Slowly Become More Competent at New Skills

When you learn a new skill, the beginning tends to be the most frustrating part. Often, you’re not sure what you should be doing exactly, or how you should be doing it. This applies to everything from starting a new sport, to trying to speak a foreign language.

Luckily, the process of becoming better at new skills is relatively predictable, and can be broken down into different stages. Once you understand how it works, you will understand why the beginning is hard, and you will be able to identify your ‘position’ in the learning process. Overall, this will make you more aware of your abilities and more conscious of your learning, which will help you learn new skills better and with more motivation.

The levels of competence

  • Unconscious incompetence- in the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re not entirely aware of what the new skill entails or what your goals should be. You make mistakes without realizing that you’re making them.
  • Conscious incompetence- at this stage, you know you’re still making a lot of mistakes, but you’re now at least aware that you’re making them. You still don’t know a lot, but you can recognize what you need to learn in order to improve.
  • Conscious competence- if you’re at this level, it means that you’re relatively proficient in the skill, so that you have a good understanding of it, and you make only a small amount of mistakes. However, performing at a high level still requires a significant effort on your part.
  • Unconscious competence- at this point, you are so well-practiced in the skill that you can perform at a high level with relatively little effort. For you, the necessary actions are now mostly instinctual and automatic.

These stages are often mentioned in discussions of learning theorySome researchers also propose a fifth stage, called “unconscious supercompetence”, which is similar to “unconscious competence”, but at a higher and more effortless level. However, because this stage is less clearly defined, it is less commonly referenced in literature. In reality, whether or not this distinction exists isn’t truly crucial, since it only matters if you’re at the highest level of proficiency anyway.

Historical note: this theory is often attributed to Abraham Maslow, who also developed the hierarchy of needs. However, it’s not clear whether the theory actually originated with him, and there are disputes regarding who came up with it first. It’s entirely possible that this is because several people came up with similar conceptualizations of the model independently from one another. In any case, this doesn’t matter too much, as it doesn’t have any effect on how the theory is applied today.


Applying this in your learning

This framework is not intended as an absolute, 100% accurate psychological model. Instead,  it’s meant to give you a rough idea of the stages of competence that you will go through as you learn new skills. Use it to recognize where you are in the learning process, and how you’re advancing.

Keep in mind that you are likely going to fluctuate between the different levels, or have certain subsets of the skill at one level, while other subsets will be at different level. For example, if you’re learning a new language, it’s possible that your reading will be at a higher level than your writing, or that you’ll be better at understanding what other people say than at speaking yourself.

The main takeaway is this: feeling that you have no idea what you’re doing in the beginning is perfectly fine. When you eventually start realizing that you’re making tons of mistakes, that’s not a bad thing either. Instead, these are both predictable and necessary stages of learning, that you go through as you slowly improve.


Summary and conclusions

  • When learning a new skill, you advance through several stages of competence.
  • You will start at unconscious incompetence, advance to conscious incompetence, followed by conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence.
  • Your abilities might fluctuate a bit as you learn, and it’s natural for different subskills to be at different levels.
  • If you’re feeling helpless when you start learning a new skills, don’t worry; it’s a natural part of the learning process.



Carefully planned pre-service learning and then truncated, contrived professional learning?

Carefully planned pre-service learning and then truncated, contrived professional learning?

Learning is learning. At its core, learning is about identifying a gap in knowledge, skills or abilities and devising a plan to fill that gap. This usually involves a combination of reading, writing, listening, and practical application. Learning something new at age five is similar to learning something new at age fifty-five. The context may be vastly different, but the process of acquiring new skills, knowledge, and abilities is the same.

So why do learning opportunities for adult professionals appear truncated and contrived? Why does learning within corporations and organizations look so different than learning within post-secondary institutions?

Most professions define a set of standards for new entrants and work closely with post-secondary institutions to ensure graduates meet these standards. Learning outcomes within courses are aligned with professional standards and post-secondary institutions are accredited in order to deliver training. But, once a graduate enters a profession, learning appears to become an afterthought.

In the workforce learning is highly valued but poorly maintained. Many professionals have a “continuing education requirement” for licence. They have to attend x-number of seminars each year or a number of carefully crafted pro-d retreats. The trouble is: these professionals are never asked to defend their learning or demonstrate how they are integrating their learning into everyday practice. The demonstration of learning that was once required in post-secondary is no longer required in profession. Millions of dollars are invested every year and people are rarely asked to demonstrate how they are using the outcomes of their courses to advance the organization.

Employees on an obligatory learning journey end up going through the motions. They register in courses, submit receipts, put on a nametag and call it done. Professional learning becomes a box to check or an annoying requirement to complete. There is no link between corporate goals, the learning activity, and how the employee is being measured. In education, we call this misalignment.

Corporations and organizations who approach learning in this way will quickly become obsolete. The nature of work and the knowledge economy requires continuous learning in order to stay competitive. Luckily there is an inexpensive, scalable way to align learning and engage the most valuable asset of an organization. The solution is portfolio driven professional development using

Continuous Performance Review

Continuous Performance Review

In a recent Leadership Lab article, Bill Howatt (chief research and development officer of workforce productivity at Morneau Shepell in Toronto) describes a new approach to performance management that he calls “Performance 2.0”. The pillars of Performance 2.0 are the pillars of

Performance facilitation vs. performance management

Facilitation implies teamwork and collaboration. Performance management, on the other hand, implies that there are behaviours and outcomes that need to be managed. Facilitation sends a message to employees that achieving results is a collective, collaborative endeavour. The term “facilitation” positions the manager as a mentor and describes the process of achieving results as a journey. Performance management inadvertently puts a negative spin on the model from the outset. Performance management leads the employee to desperately assemble evidence of merit regardless of authenticity in order to pass in a pass-fail situation. Performance facilitation moves towards collaborative and ongoing results. enables performance facilitation by driving employees to post evidence of performance as it happens and to share strategically curated portfolios monthly or quarterly.

Continuous improvement vs. static evaluation

A fault of most annual performance review processes is that they require an employee to defend merit once per year. In advance of this once/year meeting, the employee scrambles to remember all that they’ve done through the year. This is time consuming and not always effective. Can you quickly recall all that you’ve done over the past year? The result of a once/year evaluation is one constructive, forward-thinking conversation. Surely, organizations are better off to have employees and leaders engaged in regular constructive and forward-thinking conversations? For employees in large departments or large organizations, a once/year conversation is not enough to ensure a person is growing, thriving, learning, and performing to full-potential the other 364 days of the year. Continuous improvement provides for regular checks and balances, and builds growth and development into culture and mindset. A culture of growth and development is far more likely to withstand the winds of change and adversity.

Growth mindset vs. pass/fail

Carole S. Dweck brought the concept of growth mindset to life. (Read her books, they’re fantastic!) At the core of the growth mindset idea is that people have a tendency to label themselves as “can or cannot” or “do and don’t” early in their experience and these psychological boundaries have a profound effect on capabilities and outcomes. People who say “I am not an artist” will never become an artist. People who say, “I could be an artist” are more likely to become an artist by demonstrating a willingness to stretch and grow in the direction of this goal. People with a growth mindset understand that they can work hard to change their performance and achieve new or different outcomes. enables a growth mindset by helping users achieve goals and reflect on outcomes. By adopting a new competency profile set by a leading organization users can set new goals and a path to achieving these goals. Then, by curating content in their professional portfolios, they will self-assess and recognize how far they’ve come and the areas they’ve yet to grow.

Increase the number of employee-manager interactions

It is impossible for managers to keep up with the daily performance of each of their employees. Daily conversations might be unachievable, but once/year reviews are also unacceptable. The goal, as Bill Howatt identifies, is to increase the number of employee-manager interactions in a meaningful and constructive way. An increase in interactions will improve mentorship and facilitation of performance. Technology affords this increase in interactions because it is asynchronous and evidence-based. allows an increase in interactions because employees can share artefacts or full portfolios once per month, once per quarter, or weekly as situations arise. Portfolios are designed to be viewed in under three minutes and employees and managers can access the content anywhere and anytime. The result is an increase in meaningful employee-manager interactions that are evidence-based and data-informed.

Real-time learning

It is now possible to learn anything on the internet. If an employee needs to learn how to use an MS Excel pivot table, it needs to be unacceptable that they wait for a $595 1-day MS Excel course. Conversely, employees who take initiative to source their own learning opportunities should be recognized for this initiative. enables real time learning by defining outcomes using performance and behavioural expectations and then, identifying ways for the employee to learn the content and demonstrate their learning. In this way, employees learn what they need to know when they need to know it, and this initiative can be captured and recognized.

Get ready for the gig economy.

Get ready for the gig economy.


Start documenting your work. Make sure you have evidence of every project you’ve run, every event you’ve organized, and every meeting you’ve facilitated. Keep this evidence in progress portfolios or journals and secure an endorsement against the very best.

Diversify your evidence so that you can demonstrate your ability to read, write, speak and listen. Use videos, photos, images, documents and sound bytes to demonstrate the skills, knowledge, attitudes and abilities you bring to the table.

Keep all this work in a portfolio. Visit your content regularly and share your portfolio with others. Demonstrate your commitment to continuous learning and hone your skills to defend merit.

When you export your portfolio, curate the artefacts carefully. Post evidence that matters to your audience. Sort, filter, and export strategically. Use various multi-media solutions to demonstrate that you’ve done your research and offer evidence of your competency against the company’s core values.


Define what’s important to you. If you don’t want to spend more than 3 minutes (MIT’s allowance) on portfolio review, be specific about what matters to you. Do you want to see evidence of innovation? Define it. Do you want to see evidence of technical skills? Create that category. Make your definitions specific to your industry and your organization. Identify the values and competencies that are unique to your line of work and challenge individuals to provide evidence in each category.

Then, prepare your processes for filtering talent in this gig economy. Do your managers know how to review a portfolio? Help them understand what they should be looking for. Ensure your managers are no longer looking (only) at work history. Make sure they are measuring what matters and that these metrics align with what’s unique and important about your organization.

What does learning look like at your organization?

What does learning look like at your organization?

Let me guess. You have an LMS, but you struggle to keep the content current. You have a person responsible for learning and development, but they struggle to connect with the masses. You spend thousands of dollars every year on professional development, but you have nothing to show for it. And, although you want everyone in your organization engaged in professional development only a few seem to be taking advantage of the opportunities.

Don’t worry. This is the case for most corporate learning programs.

In most organizations, learning is handled differently across departments and is disjointed throughout the whole organization. One department is focused on safety and compliance while another department focuses on leadership training. Isn’t safety and leadership important for everyone? Furthermore, departments use different platforms to share training materials, branding is inconsistent, and there is no quality assurance.

Give departments autonomy and create a foundation for professional development that will ensure every dollar you spend is aligned with organizational goals. Flip the responsibility for content creation and engage every individual in a personal learning journey. This is all possible with!

Connect your HR leader with the educational team at We will create a foundation for your corporate learning program and empower each one of your employees with an electronic portfolio. You define what matters and challenge your staff to post evidence against these criteria. Add new criteria as your priorities shift. Share and showcase within a secure space to spur further innovation across your organization. The evidence will be indisputable!

The Globe Publishes Two Articles That Point Directly to

The Globe Publishes Two Articles That Point Directly to

The Globe and Mail recently published two articles that provide supportive evidence for portfolios.

In her article, “Employee engagement is a two-way street” (The Globe and Mail, 14/10/17), Eileen Dooley links learning directly to employee engagement. She notes that in cost-constrained times, few employers have the means to send employees off to interesting conferences and seminars. Employees need to identify gaps and seek out learning opportunities in unique ways. This is possible using Using, employers can provide guidance  for alternative learning and recognition of outcomes.

In his article, “How to integrate continuous learning into your job” (The Globe and Mail, 6/10/17), Michael Litt suggests that once an employee self-identifies areas of needs improvement, they should seek out mentorship – leveraging collective, surrounding intelligence. can facilitate this. Employers can use portfolios to help employees self-assess their skills, knowledge and abilities by defining what matters, describing exemplar behaviours, and suggesting growth opportunities. portfolios are strategically framed by corporations and organizations. Each portfolio features carefully curated evidence from individual users. Individuals inside an organization use portfolios to defend merit, understand expectations, identify gaps and define learning pathways. Individuals outside an organization use portfolios to demonstrate fit and to differentiate themselves from the next applicant.

CBC Marketplace exposes the fake credentials industry

CBC Marketplace exposes the fake credentials industry

Earlier this month, CBC Marketplace exposed the fake credentials industry. According to CBC, it’s possible that more than 800 Canadians have purchased phoney degrees and are working with fake credentials in disciplines such as engineering, education, nursing, and counselling. This puts the public immediately at risk.

Employers must start demanding more than a copy of a diploma. It is impossible to follow-up on every academic credential listed on a resume, but it is possible to surf through an organized selection of artefacts posted against claims of competency and qualification.

Imagine an applicant lists a Master’s degree in the education section of his resume. Then, against this claim, he also posts a link to a digital file of his published thesis and a peer-reviewed journal citing this thesis. Then, imagine that this same applicant posts evidence against a set of core competencies defined his profession and linked to his education. This selection of evidence includes photos, documents, videos, testimonials, and reviews that provide indisputable evidence of competency.

Collections of evidence will also help employers differentiate one degree from the next. A student graduating from a local university with a 60% average will posses the same credential as someone graduating from an internationally recognized institution with a GPA of 4-point-0. How can you differentiate between the two? Well, demand a deep and thorough collection of evidence. Observe the difference in ingenuity, communication skills, problem solving skills, and critical thinking skills through evidence posted within carefully constructed online portfolios.

Develop a process to verify and vet academic credentials that puts the additional workload on the applicant. But don’t stop there! Use this process to create next-step learning opportunities that flip the responsibility for professional development. Attract the best. Hire the best. And then help them grow within your company so that they see a future with you. (Accessed Sept. 27, 2017)

Developing a Competency Framework

Developing a Competency Framework

The question is: How do you define the skills, behaviors, and attitudes that workers need to perform their roles effectively? How do you know they’re qualified for the job? In other words, how do you know what to measure?

Some people think formal education is a reliable measure. Others believe more in on-the-job training, and years of experience. Still others might argue that personal characteristics hold the key to effective work behavior.

All of these are important, but none seems sufficient to describe an ideal set of behaviors and traits needed for any particular role. Nor do they guarantee that individuals will perform to the standards and levels required by the organization.

A more complete way of approaching this is to link individual performance to the goals of the business. To do this, many companies use ‘competencies.’ These are the integrated knowledge, skills, judgment, and attributes that people need to perform a job effectively. By having a defined set of competencies for each role in your business, it shows workers the kind of behaviors the organization values, and which it requires to help achieve its objectives. Not only can your team members work more effectively and achieve their potential, but there are many business benefits to be had from linking personal performance with corporate goals and values.

Defining which competencies are necessary for success in your organization can help you do the following:

  • Ensure that your people demonstrate sufficient expertise.
  • Recruit and select new staff more effectively.
  • Evaluate performance more effectively.
  • Identify skill and competency gaps more efficiently.
  • Provide more customized training and professional development.
  • Plan sufficiently for succession.
  • Make change management processes work more efficiently.

How can you define the set of practices needed for effective performance? You can do this by adding a competency framework to your talent management program. By collecting and combining competency information, you can create a standardized approach to performance that’s clear and accessible to everyone in the company. The framework outlines specifically what people need to do to be effective in their roles, and it clearly establishes how their roles relate to organizational goals and success.

Design Principles of a Competency Framework

A competency framework defines the knowledge, skills, and attributes needed for people within an organization. Each individual role will have its own set of competencies needed to perform the job effectively. To develop this framework, you need to have an in-depth understanding of the roles within your business. To do this, you can take a few different approaches:

  • Use a pre-set list of common, standard competencies, and then customize it to the specific needs of your organization.
  • Use outside consultants to develop the framework for you.
  • Create a general organizational framework, and use it as the basis for other frameworks as needed.

Developing a competency framework can take considerable effort. To make sure the framework is actually used as needed, it’s important to make it relevant to the people who’ll be using it – and so they can take ownership of it.

The following three principles are critical when designing a competency framework:

  1. Involve the people doing the work – These frameworks should not be developed solely by HR people, who don’t always know what each job actually involves. Nor should they be left to managers, who don’t always understand exactly what each member of their staff does every day. To understand a role fully, you have to go to the source – the person doing the job – as well as getting a variety of other inputs into what makes someone successful in that job.
  2. Communicate – People tend to get nervous about performance issues. Let them know why you’re developing the framework, how it will be created, and how you’ll use it. The more you communicate in advance, the easier your implementation will be.
  3. Use relevant competencies – Ensure that the competencies you include apply to all roles covered by the framework. If you include irrelevant competencies, people will probably have a hard time relating to the framework in general. For example, if you created a framework to cover the whole organization, then financial management would not be included unless every worker had to demonstrate that skill. However, a framework covering management roles would almost certainly involve the financial management competency.

Developing the Framework

There are four main steps in the competency framework development process. Each steps has key actions that will encourage people to accept and use the final product.

Step One: Prepare

  • Define the purpose – Before you start analyzing jobs, and figuring out what each role needs for success, make sure you look at the purpose for creating the framework. How you plan to use it will impact whom you involve in preparing it, and how you determine its scope. For example, a framework for filling a job vacancy will be very specific, whereas a framework for evaluating compensation will need to cover a wide range of roles.
  • Create a competency framework team – Include people from all areas of your business that will use the framework. Where possible, aim to represent the diversity of your organization. It’s also important to think about long-term needs, so that you can keep the framework updated and relevant.

Step Two: Collect Information

This is the main part of the framework. Generally, the better the data you collect, the more accurate your framework will be. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consider which techniques you’ll use to collect information about the roles, and the work involved in each one. You may want to use the following:

  • Observe – Watch people while they’re performing their roles. This is especially useful for jobs that involve hands-on labor that you can physically observe.
  • Interview people – Talk to every person individually, choose a sample of people to interview, or conduct a group interview. You may also want to interview the supervisor of the job you’re assessing. This helps you learn what a wide variety of people believe is needed for the role’s success.
  • Create a questionnaire – A survey is an efficient way to gather data. Spend time making sure you ask the right questions, and consider the issues of reliability and validity. If you prefer, there are standardized job analysis questionnaires you can buy, rather than attempting to create your own.
  • Analyze the work – Which behaviors are used to perform the jobs covered by the framework? You may want to consider the following:
    • Business plans, strategies, and objectives.
    • Organizational principles.
    • Job descriptions.
    • Regulatory or other compliance issues.
    • Predictions for the future of the organization or industry.
    • Customer and supplier requirements.

    Job analysis that includes a variety of techniques and considerations will give you the most comprehensive and accurate results. If you create a framework for the entire organization, make sure you use a sample of roles from across the company. This will help you capture the widest range of competencies that are still relevant to the whole business.

  • As you gather information about each role, record what you learn in separate behavioral statements. For example, if you learn that Paul from accounting is involved in bookkeeping, you might break that down into these behavioral statements: handles petty cash, maintains floats, pays vendors according to policy, and analyzes cash books each month. You might find that other roles also have similar tasks – and therefore bookkeeping will be a competency within that framework.
  • When you move on to Step Three, you’ll be organizing the information into larger competencies, so it helps if you can analyze and group your raw data effectively.

Step Three: Build the Framework

This stage involves grouping all of the behaviors and skill sets into competencies. Follow these steps to help you with this task:

  • Group the statements – Ask your team members to read through the behavior statements, and group them into piles. The goal is to have three or four piles at first – for instance, manual skills, decision-making and judgment skills, and interpersonal skills.
  • Create subgroups – Break down each of the larger piles into subcategories of related behaviors. Typically, there will be three or four subgroupings for each larger category. This provides the basic structure of the competency framework.
  • Refine the subgroups – For each of the larger categories, define the subgroups even further. Ask yourself why and how the behaviors relate, or don’t relate, to one another, and revise your groupings as necessary.
  • Identify and name the competencies – Ask your team to identify a specific competency to represent each of the smaller subgroups of behaviors. Then they can also name the larger category.
  • Here’s an example of groupings and subgroupings for general management competencies:
    • Supervising and leading teams.
      • Provide ongoing direction and support to staff.
      • Take initiative to provide direction.
      • Communicate direction to staff.
      • Monitor performance of staff.
      • Motivate staff.
      • Develop succession plan.
      • Ensure that company standards are met.
    • Recruiting and staffing.
      • Prepare job descriptions and role specifications.
      • Participate in selection interviews.
      • Identify individuals’ training needs.
      • Implement disciplinary and grievance procedures.
      • Ensure that legal obligations are met.
      • Develop staff contracts.
      • Develop salary scales and compensation packages.
      • Develop personnel management procedures.
      • Make sure staff resources meet organizational needs.
    • Training and development.
      • Deliver training to junior staff.
      • Deliver training to senior staff.
      • Identify training needs.
      • Support personal development.
      • Develop training materials and methodology.
    • Managing projects/programs
      • Prepare detailed operational plans.
      • Manage financial and human resources.
      • Monitor overall performance against objectives.
      • Write reports, project proposals, and amendments.
      • Understand external funding environment.
      • Develop project/program strategy.

    You may need to add levels for each competency. This is particularly useful when using the framework for compensation or performance reviews. To do so, take each competency, and divide the related behaviors into measurement scales according to complexity, responsibility, scope, or other relevant criteria. These levels may already exist if you have job grading in place.


  • Validate and revise the competencies as necessary – For each item, ask these questions:
    • Is this behavior demonstrated by people who perform the work most effectively? In other words, are people who don’t demonstrate this behavior ineffective in the role?
    • Is this behavior relevant and necessary for effective work performance?

    These questions are often asked in the form of a survey. It’s important to look for consensus among the people doing the job, as well as areas where there’s little agreement. Also, look for possible issues with language, or the way the competencies are described, and refine those as well.

Step Four: Implement

As you roll out the finalized competency framework, remember the principle of communication that we mentioned earlier. To help get buy-in from members of staff at all levels of the organization, it’s important to explain to them why the framework was developed, and how you’d like it to be used. Discuss how it will be updated, and which procedures you’ve put in place to accommodate changes.

Here are some tips for implementing the framework:

  • Link to business objectives – Make connections between individual competencies and organizational goals and values as much as possible.
  • Reward the competencies – Check that your policies and practices support and reward the competencies identified.
  • Provide coaching and training – Make sure there’s adequate coaching and training available. People need to know that their efforts will be supported.
  • Keep it simple – Make the framework as simple as possible. You want the document to be used, not filed away and forgotten.
  • Communicate – Most importantly, treat the implementation as you would any other change initiative. The more open and honest you are throughout the process, the better the end result – and the better the chances of the project achieving your objectives.

Key Points

Creating a competency framework is an effective method to assess, maintain, and monitor the knowledge, skills, and attributes of people in your organization. The framework allows you to measure current competency levels to make sure your staff members have the expertise needed to add value to the business. It also helps managers make informed decisions about talent recruitment, retention, and succession strategies. And, by identifying the specific behaviors and skills needed for each role, it enables you to budget and plan for the training and development your company really needs.

The process of creating a competency framework is long and complex. To ensure a successful outcome, involve people actually doing carrying out the roles to evaluate real jobs, and describe real behaviors. The increased level of understanding and linkage between individual roles and organizational performance makes the effort well worth it.


Digital Portfolios: The Art of Reflection (K-12)

Digital Portfolios: The Art of Reflection (K-12)

Too often, conversations about digital portfolios center on the tools: how to save, share, and publish student work. Mastering the technical component of digital portfolios is critical, and students do need an opportunity to showcase their work to a broader audience. However, when we let the process of curate > reflect > publish serve as the sole focal point, digital portfolios become summative in nature and are viewed as an add-on at the end of a unit, project, or activity.

For digital portfolios to be truly valuable to both teachers and students, they need to provide insight into not only what students created, but also how and why. If the ultimate goal is to develop students as learners, then they need an opportunity for making connections to content as well as the overarching learning objectives.

Progress and Performance Portfolios

Through the act of collecting learning artifacts and compiling them into portfolios, students should have an opportunity to reflect upon their experiences and see their own growth. In his book, Matt Renwick discusses the need for both progress and performance portfolios: By capturing student learning progress and performance in the moment, using digital tools, we can bring learning to life. (p.123)

Artists and writers often keep a portfolio to reflect upon their work. Leonardo DaVinci kept hundreds of notebooks documenting his thinking in notes, diagrams, and sketches. John Updike left behind thousands of documents illustrating how he rewrote paragraphs and solved technical challenges. In a similar manner, students could curate a body of work that represents their progress as well as their performance to show their thinking throughout their learning experiences.

In her high school science classes, Jodie Deinhammer has her students keep portfolios so that they have a place to share their learning as well as an opportunity to reflect on how class content directly pertains to their personal lives. (Here are a few examples.) These portfolios provide her with an opportunity to observe her students’ individual growth and how they make connections to previous content. Because reflection and documentation of progress have become part of the class learning culture, Jodie’s students recognize from the outset that they need to capture not only what they learn but also how. Her students’ reflections become a vehicle for formative assessment and deeper exploration. Jodie can see their comprehension and understanding as well as how they connect content to their personal lives and experiences.

Teaching the Art of Reflection

The question remains, though: How do we teach reflection? Paul Solarz, a fifth grade teacher in Illinois, recognizes that students need ongoing support and sees teaching reflection as a year-long endeavor that involves instruction and goal setting. He focuses on explaining larger concepts during lessons and then scaffolds the questions that he provides to his students and guides their thinking until they gain independence.

Answering the Essential Questions

Too often, students struggle with reflection because they don’t understand what they were supposed to learn and why. However, what if students knew from the start of the school year that all of their work would be in support of two or three essential questions? Some examples are:

  • How can other characters be like me?
  • What are the characteristics of good problem solvers?

If students kept these concepts at the forefront of their thinking, imagine the impact as they document their progress and their learning.

At Trinity School in Atlanta, teachers and students have been working toward this outcome with their portfolios. The goal, as articulated by Early Elementary Division Head Rhonda Mitchell, is for students to:

. . . develop the practice of looking for connections between their experiences and their personal characteristics, beliefs, and interests (awareness categories); and capturing them as evidence that can be used in the ongoing development of their learning story.

The Trinity teachers are working through a number of essential questions to guide the pedagogy behind their students’ portfolios:

  • How might we develop a habit of reflection as teachers so that it becomes a regular classroom practice?
  • Will organization of artifacts become increasingly important as our habit of collecting and reflecting develops?
  • How might we make communications a priority in the portfolio process?

Jill Gough, Director of Teaching and Learning, describes in Facilitating Student Reflection how Trinity students, beginning as three-year-olds, document their learning with voice and images. By sixth grade, they can analyze and assess their learning and tell their story through a variety of media. At each grade level, students assume more responsibility for their portfolios and take greater ownership in their development as learners.

The students’ critical thinking and the utilization of the essential questions combine to create a more robust model of digital portfolio creation. Because the emphasis is not simply on publishing and sharing products, learning remains the central focus. As students reflect on each experience, they become more aware of the processes and strategies that make them successful, allowing them to learn from their successes as well as their challenges or failures.

The Challenge

Recently, I’ve found myself wracking my brain to remember concepts from grad school, college, and even high school. At some point, I had access to that knowledge, but now I have no way of retrieving it. Imagine if I had a digital portfolio — not just of my final products but also of my learning progress. As Rhonda Mitchell wrote, “The true power of the portfolio is in the revisiting.” As educators, our challenge is ensuring that students have an opportunity to engage in reflection such that they create a meaningful product to actually visit again and again.

Accessed here:
on Dec. 16, 2016

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age

Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning attempts to break away from the regularly scheduled classroom model, where students study the same subject matter at the same speed in a cohort of fellow students.

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning begins by identifying specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need (for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition), or can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or increasingly a full degree. Learners work individually, rather than in cohorts. If learners can demonstrate that they are already have mastery of a particular competency or skill, through a test or some form of prior learning assessment, they may be allowed to move to the next level of competency without having to repeat a prescribed course of study for the prior competency.

Its value for developing practical or vocational skills or competencies is more obvious, but increasingly competency-based learning is being used for education requiring more abstract or academic skills development, sometimes combined with other cohort-based courses or programs. The Western Governors University, with nearly 40,000 students, has pioneered competency-based learning, but with the more recent support of the Federal Department of Education it is expanding rapidly in the USA.

Competency-based learning is particularly appropriate for adult learners with life experience who may have developed competencies or skills without formal education or training, for those who started school or college and dropped out and wish to return to formal study, but want their earlier learning to be recognized, or for those learners wanting to develop specific skills but not wanting a full program of studies. Competency-based learning can be delivered through a campus program, but it is increasingly delivered fully online, because many students taking such programs are already working or seeking work.

Designing competency-based learning

There are various approaches, but the Western Governors model illustrates many of the key steps.

Defining competencies

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, at least at a high level. Some of the skills outlined in Chapter 1, such as problem-solving or critical thinking, may be considered high-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down abstract or vague goals into specific, measurable competencies.

For instance, at Western Governors University (WGU), for each degree, a high-level set of competencies is defined by the University Council, and then a working team of contracted subject matter experts takes the ten or so high level competencies for a particular qualification and breaks them down into about 30 more specific competencies, around which are built online courses to develop mastery of each competency. Competencies are based upon what graduates are supposed to know in the workplace and as professionals in a chosen career. Assessments are designed specifically to assess the mastery of each competency; thus students receive either a pass/no pass following assessment. A degree is awarded when all 30 specified competencies are successfully achieved.

Defining competencies that meet the needs of students and employers in ways that are progressive (i.e. one competency builds on earlier competencies and leads to more advanced competencies) and coherent (in that the sum of all the competencies produces a graduate with all the knowledge and skills required within a business or profession) is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Course and program design

At WGU, courses are created by in-house subject matter experts selecting existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers. Increasingly open educational resources are used. WGU does not use an LMS but a specially designed portal for each course. E-textbooks are offered to students without extra cost to the student, through contracts between WGU and the publishers. Courses are pre-determined for the student with no electives. Students are admitted on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace.

Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas (e.g. general education, writing); or by taking exams when they feel they are ready.

Learner support

Again this varies from institution to institution. WGU currently employs approximately 750 faculty who act as mentors. There are two kinds of mentors: ‘student’ mentors and ‘course’ mentors. Student mentors, who have qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level, are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses, and are the main contact for students. A student mentor is responsible for roughly 85 students. Students start with a mentor from their first day and stay with their mentor until graduation. Student mentors assist students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step in with help when students are struggling.

Course mentors are more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provide extra support for students when needed. Course mentors will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement.

Students may contact either student or course mentors at any time (unlimited access) and mentors are expected to deal with student calls within one business day. Student mentors are pro-active, calling students regularly (at least once every two weeks, more if necessary) to maintain contact. Mentors are full-time but work flexible hours, usually from home. Mentors are reasonably well paid, and receive extensive training in mentoring.


WGU uses written papers, portfolios, projects, observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics. Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained by WGU in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide feedback on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit if necessary.

Students will take both formative (pre-assessment) and summative (proctored) exams. WGU is increasingly using online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in situ by professionals (teachers, nurses).

Strengths of a competency-based approach to design

Proponents have identified a number of strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified
  • it enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • for some students, it speeds up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • tuition fees are affordable ($6,000 per annum at WGU) and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, since WGU uses already existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources
  • increasingly, competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

Consequently, institutions such as WGU, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Arizona University, using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, have seen annual enrolment growth in the range of 30-40 per cent per annum.

Weaknesses of a competency-based approach to design

Its main weakness is that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others. In particular:

  • it focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • it does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • it takes an objectivist approach to learning
  • it ignores the importance of social learning
  • it will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students.

In conclusion

Competency-based learning is a relatively new approach to learning design which is proving increasingly popular with employers and suits certain kinds of learners such as adult learners seeking to re-skill or searching for mid-level jobs requiring relatively easily identifiable skills. It does not suit though all kinds of learners and may be limited in developing the higher level, more abstract knowledge and skills requiring creativity, high-level problem-solving and decision-making and critical thinking.