10 Step Primer for Competency-based Learning Design

By Josie Jordan

As an educator on the design team of the Pathways program at Mt. Abraham Union High School, I got pretty good at designing and scaffolding personalized, competency-based projects for individual students. Back in the regular classroom, it was a challenge to transfer those same, powerful practices to larger groups of learners without falling back into one-size fits all teaching. I needed a breathable structure shaped around essential skills with plenty of opportunity for personalization.  And, I needed to leverage common learning experiences for targeted practice so we were ‘all on the same page’. Eventually, I came up with this “paint-by-numbers” process you can use to confidently frame your competency-based learning curriculum with bold and broad brushstrokes. It’s a simple, powerful process by which you’ll be well on your way to designing competency-based, learner-centered curriculum.


When planning curriculum, many of us were trained to rely on content resources to lead the way: What books will I cover? What textbook will I use? What concepts do I need to address? However, to be competency-based and make more room for personalization, shifting your focus to the skills learners need to build is essential.


Use this “paint-by-numbers” guide to confidently sketch out your competency-based learning curriculum with bold and broad brushstrokes. It’s a simple, powerful process by which you’ll be well on your way to designing competency-based, learner-centered curriculum.


1.  Count the number of weeks you have your group of learners. Doing this in 9-week “Quarter” increments can be effective.

2.  Make a grid of these weeks all stacked on top of each other on paper or electronically. Your goal is to see them all at once.



3. Now list the skills/competencies you want learners to demonstrate by the end of your time together. For example, 9th grade ELA:

      • Think about thinking
      • Listen with understanding and empathy
      • Cite strong and thorough textual evidence
      • Write informative text
      • Determine a theme or central idea of a text
      • Analyze characters (development, interactions, and role in plot or theme)
      • Analyze author’s choices (text structure, event order, and effects)


4.  Create a progression of the selected competencies

–> What skill does it make sense to address first to establish a foundation?

–> Which skills could be taught together? Or taught throughout?

–> How can you put them together like building blocks?

5.  List the performance-based summative assessments learners will do to demonstrate each competency and schedule these on your calendar (be sure to leave room for formative practice!) For example:

  • Socratic Seminar

          (Listen, Think about Thinking, Analyze Characters, Identify Themes, Cite Evidence)

  • Literary Tour Guidebook

          (Analyze Characters, Identify Themes, Analyze Author’s Choice, Write Informative Text)

  • Bookmobile Summaries (1-3)

          (Identify Themes, Analyze Author’s Choice, Cite Evidence, Write Informative Text)

6.  Then list the skills learners must master so they can succeed in rich, performance-based summative assessments. For example:

Socratic Seminar

      • Active Listening
      • Self-reflection
      • Improvisational Speech
      • Character Analysis
      • Metaphor use
      • Symbolism Analysis
      • Theme Identification
      • Use of Details

Literary Tour Guidebook

      • Correct Voice & Choice
      • Organize Ideas
      • Use of Details
      • Grammar, Usage, Mechanics
      • Use of Purpose
      • Theme Identification 

7.  Create formative practice activities for each of the skills you’ve identified

8.  Plug these into your grid to plan how learners will gradually build the muscles required for their summative assessments. For example:

9.  Next, focus on weekly increments and begin to insert the content you will use to practice the formative skills. For example:


10.  Scaffold opportunities to deepen each formative practice, moving from one specific context to transferring the skills to other areas of interest:

Cognitive Challenge
Basic application to one provided, content-related scenario

Next Cognitive Challenge
Application to multiple, self-selected, content-related scenarios

Further Cognitive Challenge
Transfer application to own interests and different content areas

Of Note:

  1. Step 9 is traditionally where educators have begun their learning design-centered around content rather than skills.
  2. Performance-based Summative Assessments (Step 5) are opportunities when students can demonstrate learning and “show what they know”.
  3. Personalization happens more readily when formative tasks are skill-based and learners are able to practice those skills within their own interest areas.