Do You Know the Difference Between Competency and Mastery?

Higher Ed September 19 / September 23, 2019

 – Thomas Mennella –

When I was a young child, I had a religious epiphany. I’d figured out a fundamental underlying principle of religion all on my own! I proudly walked into the kitchen, went up to my mother and asked: “Mom, is God called ‘God’ because he guards us?” She was initially confused, which I took to be dumbfounded by my obvious brilliance. She then giggled, and said, “No, sweetie. Those are two different words.”

Some background: I was raised in Brooklyn, New York in the US. For those of you unfamiliar with the region, it has a very distinct accent among its residents, and I had that accent even as a young child. Two primary features of this Brooklyn dialect are a ‘dropping’ of your Rs and a subtle mispronunciation of vowel sounds. So, the question that I posed to my mother — the focus of my ingenious revelation — was actually: “Mom, is Gawd called ‘Gawd’ because he gawds us?” Hence, my confusion… and my mother’s giggle.

Dialects can often lead to lots of confusion and misunderstandings, even when we all think that we’re speaking the same language. And make no mistake, though we are all educators, there is definitely a dialect of K12 and another for higher education, and those ‘accents’ are distinctly different. Nowhere, perhaps, does this cause a greater barrier to cross-cultural communication than in mastery-based education (that’s K12 speak) or competency-based instruction (and that’s higher ed). The two are largely the same thing, yet our accents and dialects have stopped us from speaking the same language. So let me serve as a translator.

How they are (largely) similar

Both mastery and competency inherently understand that students come into the classroom with different skills and strengths. Both feature pre-assessments to measure those skills and strengths before the lesson/class/course begins and calibrates it to the student’s level. Both leverage self-pacing so that students can move quickly through content that they easily master (oops, that’s my K12 showing), I mean through content that they exhibit competency in (there you go, higher eddies). And both have a mechanism by which students can repeat content that they find challenging until it is understood.  

How they are (slightly) different

In higher ed, competency-based instruction really began with, and still revolves around, competencies (i.e., skills). And once a skill is mastered, why repeat it? For example, if an accounting major can set up a budget sheet in MS Excel, then they have that skill and do not need to take a unit or course that teaches it. So competency-based instruction is often about accelerating a student’s college education by teaching them what they’re missing and letting them ‘test out’ of what they already know. In K12, mastery-based learning really began with WIN blocks (What I Need) and RTI (Response to Intervention). This was focused on meeting each student where they were and providing instruction at that level. Struggling students could be remediated and advanced students could be challenged at their level. Nowhere in K12 mastery is there the notion of a student starting their summer vacation in April since all of their classes are complete and mastered early. So to distill it down, in higher ed this is all about “What can you do?”, while in K12 it’s focused on “What do you know?” A subtle difference, yes, but a significant one as well.

Implications for all of us — the overlap

 The priority of both K12 and higher ed is the same: education. But after that, our interests diverge. Make no mistake, higher education is a business and it must concern itself with revenue streams and consumer bases to survive. K-12 is a government-provided and -mandated social service and must concern itself with compliance and standards. For these reasons and others, the purpose of mastery/competency differ between K12 and higher ed. But, we can and should leverage our combined brain trust where these initiatives overlap. Both systems seek to pre-assess the learner to generate a comprehensive snapshot of their current level of understanding. And the tools and strategies to do so are tough to develop and, thus, a valuable resource to share. Both systems feature self-pacing but must do so in the confines of seat time (whether it be credit hours for higher ed or a minimum number of attendance days in K12). Allowing students to self-pace through the material but in a finite and mandated time frame is paradoxical and challenging. Navigating through this challenge is something that we can all help each other to do. Finally, the grand goal of both mastery and competency is to achieve a better learner; to yield a student who has learned the material better and more deeply than before. And in this goal, we are a united front. 

Cross-pollinating ideas

In order to improve together, and provide our students with the best mastery/competency-based learning experience possible, we should leverage each other’s strengths and experiences. We should be a single team. So I’ve made the introductions. I’ve printed the name tags. And I’ve given you all a shared vocabulary. Now it’s time for each of you to go to, join the ever-growing online community of dedicated educators and explore beyond your tribe. For those of you already on FLGI’s innovation center, and are already certified in Flipped Learning, reach out to others in a discipline or level other than your own. They can learn from you, but you will also learn from them. Everyone: befriend an educator in the other camp and ask them for tools, tricks, and ideas around mastery/competency. They’ll now know what you mean, and you’ll understand them in kind. It’s going to open new doors for you, and it will be amazing. I give you my waud (oh, that’s Brooklynese for “word”). 

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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