The crux of competency-based education is that students advance only upon mastery. This is a deeply logical approach to unlock each individual student’s ability to learn at his own pace. Students who have not yet demonstrated mastery should not advance before they have filled the gaps in their understanding because, left neglected, these gaps only stand to grow as students try to take on more challenging work. Likewise, students who have demonstrated mastery should be able to progress forward to new or more challenging material, rather than being made to wait for the time allotted for a given lesson to elapse. Clear as this may be, however, there is some debate as to what we mean by “advance”: if we imagine this to be linear, do we think advancing means going “rightward,” progressing onto the next unit or eventually onto the next course? Or might advance actually mean going “downward,” deeper into additional applications or more sophisticated concepts?
This is not a new debate in competency-based circles, and it is one that some dismiss as sheer semantics. That’s because usually within a unit or course, “new” topics will often build on the topics that a student has already mastered; in other words, a new skill or content area will be a deeper iteration of the prior one. But the notion that wherever students go next is inherently a “deeper” exploration of material might not apply to every model and might not always achieve the goal at hand. In some settings, we may value moving students through a lot of material more quickly—I think, for example, of how many of my law school classmates studied for the Bar Exam. In that context, there is so much to cover that a strategic use of study time means not necessarily going deep on every topic; still, Bar preparation software programs are often competency-based, in that they require you to pass certain modules to move on to new topic areas. (more…)