Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Setting up a Competency-Based System: The Authoring Process

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Justin Ballou

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

If and when your institution is ready to move into the next steps of transitioning to competencies from set time, I have compiled a list of things that we have learned over the better part of a decade. I hope that these can assist your stakeholders in the authoring and implementation process.

School wide or Subject-wide:
In creating a competency based system, one of the first decisions to be discussed is the idea of school wide competencies, (the same 3-5 for all classes) or content wide competencies (3-5 for English, 3-5 for Mathematics courses, etc.) Understanding that different content structures are going to assess knowledge and skills differently, there are pros and cons to each. You should just make sure that the buy-in for the shift is there.

Tying to the School’s Mission and Vision:
The mission and vision of an institution is its lifeblood. All actions that are built into the education process should relate back to the mission and vision. There is no difference in competencies. Take a look at what you are trying to create in your student population as they move forward in their journey of being lifelong learners and make sure your competencies line up.

Direct Ties to Assessment Strategies:
Competencies need to be validated. When writing competencies, it is easy to say that each class has 10-12 requirements before we can assert a student knows and is able to do something. As we assess though, we need to understand that we need multiple assessments per competency. This way, we can validate what a student really knows and be sure students are not rewarded or faulted by not enough data being collected.

Using simple math and the “Rule of 4,” (minimum of 4 assessments per competency) we can see that there is the possibility of having 40-48 (or even more) summative assessments throughout a semester! This could possibly be a large roadblock to stakeholders, so you should be conscious of this when designing your competencies.

Conveying Competencies:
Once finished with the broad competency topics, they should carry a one word title and a brief description of the knowledge and skill sets that are covered. In writing these, they should be in both kid friendly and parent friendly language, and should be easy to identify. This will go a long way in reinforcing the lessons and activities done inside and outside of the classroom. Also, if done correctly, the format may help answer the age old question of, “Why do we need to do this!?” When students and parents see, in understandable language, what the expectations are and that they are reachable, students will be motivated to do their best.


If you are interested in seeing how these concepts can be applied, below are the competencies that I use in my Social Studies classrooms. It doesn’t matter what subject is being taught; these competencies can still be used. These are not meant to identify the absolute correct way of writing competencies; rather, I hope to give an example that will help foster discussion in your own institutions!

1. Vocabulary and Concept Comprehension:

This competency deals with the mastery of the basic concepts and terms dealing with the subject matter we are covering in class. Information in this competency includes, but is not limited to, important people; concepts; and vocabulary.

2. Concept Application, Analysis and Evaluation:

This competency deals with taking the basic knowledge learned above and attempting to describe and explain the strengths and weaknesses of the information. It should also attempt to compare this information to other material that is being taught to show progress of knowledge mastery. Examples of assignments in this competency include, but are not limited to, open response questions; diagrams; and visual assignments.

3. Synthesis and Research*: 

This competency is based upon the culmination of the prior two competencies. This competency allows you, as the student, to show your classmates, the teacher and more importantly yourself, that you have an ultimate understanding of course material. Examples of assignments include, but are not limited to, specific research assignment skills;  projects; and creative ways to convey concepts to others.

*(This competency could be split into two and measured/assessed separately.)

What are your thoughts opinions? I would love to hear from you!

Justin Ballou is a high-school social studies teacher in New Hampshire. Besides teaching, he is active building/running an education startup called Socrademy, several business ventures, and enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife. With competency-based systems, edtech, and authentic learning as his go-to topics, you can reach him at [email protected] to ask questions or leave comments, and follow him on twitter (@socrademy).