Competency-based education and mastery learning are often used interchangeably, but there is a fundamental difference when you consider the needs of the students.
In competency-based education, a student, who may be an adult returning student, may have skills that can help her accelerate in a degree program. If that same student needs to slow down to learn new material, mastery learning principles–and the software that supports it–will help justify that necessary extra time for her learning.
In “Moving Ahead with Competency” by Paul Fein, he writes the following about the CBE pilot degree program in Washington State (source).
A key reason for the degree’s creation was research showing that there are 1 million people in the state with some college credits and no degree. Broughton said many of those people need a flexible form of higher education to go back and earn their degree. “We saw that we need to serve learners who are not with us now,” she said. “The goal is, eventually, every college can do this.”
Both competency-based education and mastery learning raise questions about traditional perspectives concerning “seat-time” for students.