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Strategic planning and design for competency-based learning processes in eLearning

Strategies for competency-based learning processes in eLearning

Digitalization and the shortage of skilled workers are two factors that are increasingly driving companies to provide in-house training, sometimes on complex competencies. However, leadership skills above all can no longer be developed by means of standard training sessions—it is no longer enough to take the usual approach of delivering content through web-based training. What is needed is a sophisticated learning process, focused on the learning objective and target group, which understands which technologies, methods, and didactic concepts to use. This article provides an overview of all the aspects you will need to consider, including a step-by-step summary at the end, making it easier for you to design your own competency-based learning processes.


Defining your objectives

Every strategy is built on a goal—this is the only way to determine your training requirements. So the more precisely you describe your learning objective, the clearer the path to achieving it becomes. Is it sufficient to be able to reproduce content? Do processes have to be practiced? Or do processes have to be devised, tested, and reflected upon individually? 

Here’s an example: Imagine that a teacher training student group is asked to plan an hour of geography lessons. In general terms, the objective would be: “Plan geography lesson”. But this doesn’t provide them with ideas on how to teach or how to set an examination—there’s simply too little information to go on. However, if the objective were formulated as follows: “Students independently plan/outline a 45-minute learning unit in a geography lesson for Grade 10 learners”, this would automatically prompt them to come up with ideas for teaching and assessment. So it is clear, for example, that trainee teachers need to apply their knowledge and reflect on the principles of education. The assessment task could therefore be: “Independently plan a 45-minute learning session for a Grade 10 geography class on the subject of plate tectonics and justify your choice of learning process.” The description of learning objectives should therefore be of a certain quality.

Anderson and Krathwohl’s learning objectives taxonomy (2001) helps with the formulation of differentiated objectives, depending on the base competencies required:


Anderson & Krathwohl’s learning objectives taxonomy

Anderson & Krathwohl’s learning objectives taxonomy includes six hierarchical levels that can be described with appropriate verbs. Base competency begins at level 3. This taxonomy can be used to determine the different learning levels and assessments that your employees have to go through in order to achieve the relevant learning objective. It is best to use the verbs or synonyms provided for the purpose.


1. Remember:

list, name, describe, reproduce, repeat, know

2. Understand:

explain, demonstrate, sketch, illustrate, clarify, subsume

3. Apply:

show, apply, define, classify, examine, complete

4. Analyze:

contrast, examine, distinguish, compare, differentiate

5. Evaluate:

justify, evaluate, appraise, criticize, assess, evaluate, review, decide

6. Create:

design, prepare, plan, generate, devise, produce


Competency development is about more than just learning

Detailed examination of the learning objectives taxonomy shows that: Competency development goes far beyond simple knowledge and understanding; learning objectives, learning methods and assessments must be constructively aligned so as to ensure that the different competency-based objectives—Apply, Analyze, Evaluate and Create—can be achieved. Let’s clarify this with an example: If learners have to learn how to prepare a classic béchamel sauce, the learning method cannot be solely theoretical and the assessment cannot consist of a simple knowledge test.


Where Anderson & Krathwohl’s learning objectives taxonomy falls down

What Anderson & Krathwohl’s learning objectives taxonomy does not take into account are the different types of learning. Anderson and Krathwohl focus exclusively on knowledge, i.e. the cognitive domain, and not on attitudes and skills. When it comes to building new competencies, affective and psychomotor skills must also be taken into account: So, for example, someone who has learned a piece of music may play it in a certain way because that is what their teacher expects, or because that is the way the person sees it. Skills can also be divided into different levels: For example, whether you are able to imitate a skill after watching a demonstration or whether you need what is known as a process of “naturalization”. Further information on these two issues is available in the taxonomies developed by Kohlberg and Dave.

Nadine Pedro
[Translate to English:] Nadine Pedro, chemmedia AG

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Target group

The next step is to define your target group in order to work out HOW your intervention should be organized and designed. Here, you can be guided by the customary marketing know-how with regard to target group analysis: This groups (potential) customers, i.e. learners, together empirically based on their demographic, socio-economic, and psychographic characteristics, learning behavior, and media use. The most popular criteria: Age, relationship status, place of residence, income… There is also specific information such as learners’ position in the company, the department they work in, etc. The challenge here is to make the groups as heterogeneous as possible—which also happens to be where target group analysis falls short.


Where target group analysis falls short

Depending on the degree of heterogeneity, content may no longer be suitable for certain individuals; individuality can be lost. Sometimes, content can even target people outside of the target group. This is what is known as scatter loss. If we think about eLearning, we know that we cannot afford scatter loss—after all, losing one person means that they won’t achieve learning outcomes and may not be able to complete any further training. In the context of highly complex learning objectives such as these, a simple target group analysis of learners is not sufficient. What is needed is a deeper understanding of learners and their needs to enable the learning process to be adapted not only to the average learner, but to each individual. The solution: A learner persona. 

Unlike target group analysis, which combines the common characteristics of several people to identify the lowest common denominator, the learner persona is a fictitious person created on the basis of real information. Name, image, and further information about their circumstances, preferences, and character traits create the empathy required to build an individual learning experience just for them.


What the learning process can look like

The complexity of competency-based learning requires a mix of different learning activities and media, initially building up knowledge, and then requiring it to be applied and reflected upon. Web-based training alone isn’t enough to develop (leadership) skills that can be applied in practice. What is required is a goal-oriented combination of web-based and hybrid training, coaching, scenario-based learning, and social learning. Dare to be creative and try out approaches that seem appropriate, even if they’re not what you’d usually expect from eLearning—for example, role-playing games, team-building events, etc. Below is a brief overview of the eLearning methods mentioned:


Hybrid learning refers to the blending of analog and digital learning processes in order to offset the drawbacks of each and combine their advantages to maximize learning. You can make the balance of face-to-face and online learning even or not, depending on your learning objectives. The so-called “flipped classroom” is a popular approach: students first build their theoretical knowledge, for example through web-based training, before participating in in-depth discussions. Learners regulate their own knowledge acquisition. Face-to-face events consolidate knowledge through collective reflection and discussion. However, because the boundaries between physical and virtual space are becoming ever more blurred, and learning activities can no longer be assigned solely to either the analog or digital sphere, we talk about hybridization—the aim being to break down the boundaries between learning processes (keywords seamless & pervasive learning).

Don’t worry, we’re not talking about lifestyle coaches on big stages. The heart of coaching is direct communication between coach and client. Coaches work over a medium- to long-term period, helping their clients achieve their goals and solve any problems that arise in the process, offering support rather than advice. So they do not offer ready-made solutions, but instead help people to reflect on their actions, strengths, and weaknesses, and to use their findings to optimize outcomes. Ideal, then, when you’re training complex skills. Coaching can be delivered through web meetings and/or chat functions.

When developing (leadership) skills, we almost inevitably encounter situations that require us to display methodological, social, and personal skills—whether we’re dealing with internal discussions requiring sensitivity, requests for advice, or appraisals. Scenario-based learning is a method that uses realistic and dynamic simulations to teach skills. Because the scenario is so close to reality, this method is particularly good for teaching skills that can be transferred into the workplace. At the same time, because learning takes place digitally, there is a strong emphasis on self-directed learning; it is also easy to integrate into existing digital learning processes and platforms.

Psychologist Albert Bandura’s theory of learning states that learning is a cognitive process that occurs in a social context through observation or direct guidance. We learn by watching, listening, and imitating. For example, if we look at a model and see that a certain action leads to a desired result, we will imitate it. When we combine visual, auditory and kinesthetic input, we develop new behaviors and competencies. Social learning is thus essential to the acquisition of (leadership) skills. Taking our cue from the section on hybrid learning, we see that social learning can happen either online and/or offline, depending on time and location, but also it can also be independent. The list of options is long: Social networks, group tasks, role-plays…

The more complex the learning process and the more demanding the learning objective, the greater the role played by learners’ individual needs and prerequisites. What type of learner is the person? When and where do they prefer to learn? What prior knowledge do they have? The answers you have obtained when defining your learner personas should of course be taken into account. Adaptive learning is the term for the adaptation of digital learning processes to the individual based on indicators such as interactions, answers to questions, digital presence and absence, and the learning environment. Here’s an example: If someone passes the pre-test at the beginning of a course, they can skip the foundation courses. Not only does this save learners valuable time, it also ensures they don’t suffer cognitive overload or feel under-challenged. As a result, learners will be significantly more motivated and will achieve their respective learning goals more successfully.

Depending on how professional your chosen eLearning software is, there are numerous adaptation options. In the best-case scenario, you will be able to choose from a selection of tools that allow you to

  • decide the depth of content yourself
  • segment target groups
  • encourage reflection through questions and feedback
  • structure learning on the basis of individuals’ prior knowledge
  • select languages automatically
  • automatically adapt content to the device being used
  • customize the display/selection of content
  • restrict interactions (are contents mandatory or optional? Do they have to be completed in a certain order?)


Strategic planning of a competency-based learning process, step by step

Strategic planning of a competency-based learning process, step by step

1. Step:

Set your objective using Anders & Krathwohl’s taxonomy

2. Step:

Derive your learning methods from your objective(s)

3. Step:

Define your examination task on the basis of your objective(s)

4. Step:

Define your target group, or, better still, your learner personas

5. Step:

Draw on your learner personas, goal(s), and learning methods to decide which approaches, technologies, languages and methods you will use to deliver your content

6. Step:

Integrate adaptation options

7. Step:

Regularly evaluate the learning process by means of analytics, surveys, and feedback meetings


The bottom line.

Every successful learning process requires a clear objective, a good understanding of the target group, and a sensible combination of learning methods and assessments. Despite learning objectives taxonomies and learning theories, this remains an extremely complex undertaking, especially with regard to the development of competencies. chemmedia AG provides Managed Training Services to help businesses with strategic planning and delivery of individualized learning concepts. We look forward to offering you a non-binding consultation.

Magda Lehnert | Blogger
Magda Lehnert

Title image: Koto Amatsukami/shutterstock.com