Changing the System from Within: Using Competency-Based Education to Transform Teaching

September 6, 2017 by

by Mary Tkatchov, Assessment Manager; Erin Hugus, Instructional Designer; Jon Scoresby, Program Dean; and Haley Marshall, Editor

Many educators can relate to the uncomfortable feeling of “passing” students while knowing that they are not ready to advance to whatever comes next: a higher-level course, college, or a career. Many have also had to “fail” students and make them repeat an entire course when perhaps those students might have learned and succeeded had they had more time and individualized support. These educators might come across literature about competency-based education (CBE) and find the ideas interesting, but since their districts or institutions have not formally adopted a CBE system, they feel unable to make a transformation within their own practice. Although educators cannot control the policies of their districts or institutions, they can control, to varying degrees, their instructional design and practice.

While academic freedom varies from school to school, for the most part, it is within the power of the educator to articulate why students need to take a course, what life functions it will help them to fulfill, and therefore, what important learning outcomes must be achieved. It is also within their power to determine what learning activities and supports will help each student to learn the important skills and knowledge, and what constitutes appropriate evidence that the students have, in fact, learned. So those who are interested in competency-based education can actually implement, if not a whole new learning environment and credentialing system, at least the instructional design and teaching practices that are at the heart of CBE.

What is competency-based education (CBE)?

Competency-based education (CBE) refers to a movement to transform education to a system that focuses on demonstrated mastery of skills rather than seat time. Students can advance in their learning once they have demonstrated that they have achieved course outcomes and need not wait until the end of a unit or semester; however, they also cannot “pass” the course unless they demonstrate competence (usually a B or higher) in all course outcomes or competencies.

This definition of high quality competency education, developed by iNACOL and CompetencyWorks, can apply to K-12 as well as higher education since the concepts can be universally applied:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

So how does an educator working within the traditional, time-based education system apply these concepts in practice? There are many philosophies and frameworks that support today’s CBE movement, and here we synthesize concepts from two of the most well-known, William Spady’s outcome-based education (OBE) philosophy and framework and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework, as well as the Competency-Based Education Network’s Quality Principles and Standards for Competency-Based Education Programs.

Although you will notice different terminology in each model or framework (such as outcome-based or standards-based education), they are consistent with and related to competency-based education, as all are focused on the competencies (or outcomes, or standards) that represent important life, academic, or career skills that students must demonstrate, rather than seat time, textbooks, or activities without purpose.

Four main elements of CBE

Below are the four main elements of competency-based education that educators can begin implementing today to make teaching and learning more focused on essential outcomes, and while they mirror Spady’s four essential principles (Spady, 1994), they are compilations of insights from all of the above referenced sources.

  1. Starting with the why and defining meaningful outcomes
  2. Designing to meaningful outcomes with intentionality and transparency
  3. Expecting all students to demonstrate competence
  4. Providing strategic and differentiated support to help all students demonstrate competence

1. Starting with the why and defining meaningful outcomes

Before defining the essential outcomes of a course, first determine why the course itself is important for students to take. How might the course prepare students for significant life roles or careers? Once you have determined the “why,” you can begin the process of defining learning outcomes, or competencies, by answering the question, “What should students be able to do when they complete the course?” Also, for outcomes to be significant, they must focus on the application or creation of knowledge (higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) as authentically as possible.

According to the C-BEN standards for quality CBE design, input from industry/content area experts who are current in the field is essential in the process of determining competencies. If access to experts is impractical, doing some research about current practices in the field/content area will be necessary here (books, blogs, professional organization websites, etc.).

2. Designing learning experiences to meaningful outcomes with intentionality and transparency

William Spady summarized designing to meaningful outcomes as “starting with a clear picture of what is important for students to be able to do, then organizing curriculum, instruction, and assessment to make sure this learning ultimately happens” (Spady, 1994, p.12). Once outcomes or competencies are determined, all of the other instructional decisions will be guided by those competencies.

To contrast “backward design” with traditional design, Wiggins & McTighe refer to the “twin sins of traditional design,” which are 1. the focus on “coverage” of content and 2. activity without a clear purpose. Intentionally aligning all learning objectives, activities, course materials, and assessments with the purpose of achieving the competencies ensures not only that competencies remain the focus of learning but also that the purpose of activities and assessments are transparent to the students. Knowing why they are completing a task is essential to students’ motivation to learn. Remember, too, that learning activities and assessments should be as authentic to real-world application as possible and focused on the application or creation of knowledge.

According to the C-BEN standards, the purpose of learning activities and assessments and their alignment with significant outcomes or competencies must be transparent to the learner. Take every opportunity, whether in the syllabus, assessment instructions, individual interactions with student to clearly communicate the purpose of learning activities in meeting the targeted competency or the purpose of assessments in measuring performance of the competency.

3. Establishing high expectations and expecting all students to meet them

High expectations for all students means that we want them to leave school prepared to deal with the life roles that are or will be important to them. It also means that we educators know, given time and support, that they can meet the challenges that we present to them. In competency-based education, having high expectations means that students pass only when they can demonstrate proficiency (80% or above) in every course competency. Unlike in the traditional system, students cannot fail some units but pass the course with a C or D after averaging their failures and their successes because that means that they are moving on to the next learning experience with major gaps in their learning.

In a competency-based system, standards are criterion-based, so student learning is assessed according to set and clearly communicated criteria and not according to the students’ performance in comparison with other students (i.e., the bell curve). Everyone who is willing to put in the work to meet the highest standard of quality performance can earn an A. Grading rubrics are essential tools for communicating expectations for performance-based and constructed-response assessments.

Grading is a tricky issue for teachers working in a traditional system. Does the fact that C’s and D’s (the marks of substandard work) are accepted by the school as passing grades mean that you are obligated to award them? Rather than hand back assignments with grades of C, D, and F and expect the student to keep moving forward, can an educator choose instead to return work to a student that does not meet high expectations, provide feedback, and allow him or her to resubmit it with corrections? If so, this opportunity to learn from mistakes and achieve proficiency must be offered equitably to all students. (For more information about equity strategies, see In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education.)

4. Providing strategic and differentiated support to help all students demonstrate competence

Removing opportunities to pass through a course with lower grades means that educators need to provide students with, in Spady’s terms, “expanded opportunity” to meet high expectations. Some essential ways to expand opportunities for all students to succeed academically include the following:

  • Proactive interaction with students based on student need and desire for assistance
  • Selection of course materials that represent a variety of modalities and that are accessible to all students while they are within and beyond the walls the school
  • Regular formative assessment and thorough feedback
  • Flexibility in due dates and opportunity for multiple submissions until competence is demonstrated
  • Support for students who need assistance developing the mindset and habits that will help them to become more independent in their learning

(For more information on supporting student success, see Meeting Students Where They Are.)

Innovation in education begins with you

Educators do not need to wait for the system to change around them before making changes to their own practice that prioritize learning and competence over keeping everyone on an arbitrary schedule of completion. Implementing competency-based principles in curriculum design, assessment, and instructional practices can help ensure that students have equitable opportunity to realize their potential.

References

Competency-Based Education Network. (May 2017). Quality principles and standards for competency-based education programs. Retrieved from http://www.cbenetwork.org

CompetencyWorks. (2014). What is competency-based education? Retrieved from https://www.competencyworks.org

Spady, W. (1994). Outcome-based education: Critical issues and answers. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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