The Three Key Elements of Competency-based Teaching and Learning

I’ve fallen head over heels in love with a new cookbook and its creators Samin Nosrat (author) and Wendy MacNaughton (illustrator).


Michael Pollan, in his foreword to SALT FAT ACID HEAT: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, calls it not a typical cookbook, but more a wonderful cooking school. I agree, and beyond bolstering my culinary skills, the book has been an inspiration for my work as an instructional designer coaching Global Online Academy faculty on competency-based learning (CBL). To bolster my CBL instructional designer skills, I’m continually observing how teachers and coaches in diverse settings articulate what learning looks like, how they facilitate learning, and, ultimately, how they track and trace learning growth, especially by providing actionable feedback, which opens up crucial conversations with learners.

Samin and Wendy are doing this in magnificent and compelling ways. Samin focuses not on recipes, but rather on four elements — salt, fat, acid, heat — and says that once you master them, “everything you cook will be delicious.” The book is wonderfully transparent about what you need to know and be able to do, the same needs GOA asks teachers to privilege when they design courses, units, and assignments. SALT FAT ACID HEAT is the best of Backward Design and instructional coaching. Grant Wiggins would have loved it.

My colleagues Eric Hudson, Jason Cummings, and Bonnie Lathram have written about why CBL matters, some first steps schools can take towards integrating it, and which organizations are leading this work. Here I’ll focus on how we can emulate what Samin does in our own work with implementing CBL. In other words, what are the salt, fat, acid, heat — the key elements and their attendant skills — that we need as teachers to support students in CBL?

Element One: Transparency

Many teachers build artfully constructed courses that have thematic coherence over the course of the year, aided by essential questions that become threads weaving through the weeks. But, how well do students know and understand what and how they are to learn?

In competency-based learning, it’s essential to be transparent with students about the skills they’re developing and how they’ll know they’ve begun to master them. A key first step to developing transparency is a set of teacher-built and student-facing competencies and outcomes that illuminate from the beginning of the learning process what students are expected to know and be able to do. These skills and measurable outcomes provide coherence over the length of a course and, ideally, over many years.

At GOA we also have GOA Core Competencies that capture the habits and attitudes needed for how we work, how we collaborate, and how we give and receive actionable feedback (life skills, really). They’re actively shared with students, used as the starting place for actionable feedback, and, in general, leaned on at every juncture in the course with an eye to how these skills will transfer to other settings. We use accessible language so students not only understand our language of learning, but also engage with them, root their questions in them, anchor their work to them, and ultimately own them.

Element Two: Intentionality

In order to draft competencies and outcomes, you need to have thoughtful, well-formed goals in mind, another place where Samin and Wendy helped me get concrete. Samin pushes on using all of our senses, and, in a remarkable example of Backwards Design, says the following:

Know what results you seek, so that you can take the steps to achieve them.

Think about your goals in the kitchen in terms of flavors and textures. Do you want your food to be browned? Crisp? Tender? Soft? Chewy? Caramelized? Flaky? Moist?

Next, work backward. Make a clear plan for yourself using sensory landmarks to guide you back to your goal.

Based on Samin's criteria for a grilled cheese sandwich, I’ve drafted a rubric for a “grilled cheese competency” and its observable outcomes:

grilled cheese rubric

Think of intentional competencies and outcomes as a map that helps students understand where they’re heading (within the course and beyond), not just with what will be covered, which the traditional syllabus does, but what they’ll learn.

The potential for helping students make progress given this clarity and consistency is enormous. What’s essential: find active, hands-on ways to have them engage, make meaning with, and ask hard questions about the competencies and outcomes early on. Build the foundation such that it will withstand and serve all that’s coming.

Element Three: Clarity

I’ve taped some basic definitions above my desk next to the question “What does learning look like?” 

What is a competency?

  • a skill or an ability, organized around measurable outcomes
    • examples:
      • communicate with clarity and purpose
      • collaborate with others

What is an outcome?

  • an explicit, measurable means for demonstrating a competency
    • examples:
      • collaborate with others (competency)
        • outcome: actively listen to group members
        • outcome: ask thoughtful questions in response to others’ ideas; respond respectfully
        • outcome: reconsider and revise your own ideas based on the merits of others’ ideas and the ideas in the course content

But how do you create these competencies and outcomes with a student audience in mind?

Here’s my how to write a competency:


While each course’s competencies and outcomes may differ, a clear process or template enables better alignment across a program along with more efficient work drafting them. Clarity and consistency have had a significant impact on my work with teachers at GOA: our conversations have changed, our language has changed, and competencies and outcomes are the currency we’re trading in. Yet, there’s so much more to do and so much more to learn and more elements to explore, including feedback, empathy, and flexibility.

Critically, Samin and Wendy’s transparency, intentionality, and clarity have helped me locate my intrinsic motivation and make a commitment to practice, just as CBL can do for students: I’m off now to refine my grilled cheese competency through hands-on, experiential learning. Yum.

Global Online Academy (GOA) reimagines learning to enable students and teachers to thrive in a globally networked society. Professional learning opportunities are open to any educator. To sign up or to learn more, see our Professional Learning Opportunities for Educators or email with the subject title “Professional Learning.” Follow us on Twitter @GOALearning. To stay up to date on GOA learning opportunities, sign up for our newsletter here.

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