We were recently discussing the challenges of implementing competency-based education at a symposium held at the University of North Carolina, and an IT manager was hung up on the sheer amount of testing needed for students to be allowed to redo tasks:

“Won’t you need many, many tests just to cover the possibility a student not succeeding?”

This line of thinking is unconsciously skipping over the very promise of competency-based education—namely that the role of an instructor is changing from Drill Sergeant to Facilitator.

Moving from Failure to Mastery

It’s counterproductive to simply provide more exercises and “drill-and-grill” if the cause for student failure to achieve isn’t identified and addressed. Fortunately, in competency-based education, assessments are tied to fundamental concepts and learning outcomes. When an outcome is missed, the instructor can more accurately pinpoint where a student is experiencing difficulty, and using holistic rubrics, provide individual support needed for student to clear the bar. It might take a learner one or two more attempts, but it runs counter to CBE to expect a system to subject learners to repetitive failure without appropriate supports.

When students face significant learning challenges, it should not merely be a signal to go to the back of the line and try again—it should signal a check for understanding. Competence is not muscle memory that can be built up over simple repetition; we must incorporate techniques for learners to form deeper understanding. Best practice shows that incorporating metacognition techniques like self-reflection and self-assessment are key to engaging learners while also measuring progress in a more transparent way for the educator.

With these simple, repeatable techniques, instructors can identify what remains to be learned and even take a chance to explore why the existing resources did not lead to success the first time. Is it lack of effort and motivation? Or, is the student more receptive to materials that use specific delivery modes (i.e. visual vs. verbal learners as described by Howard Gardner)? If so, do you have alternative resources to help them reach the required level of understanding to complete the task with a more appropriate modality to their learning needs?

This type of just-in-time probing presents a unique opportunity to progressively build a learner profile as students need it, rather than doing exhaustive work-ups of prior learning on all students when time and resources do not permit this (for example, a pilot setting with a shoestring budget). We can create and use this data in a timely manner without front loading the system with data collection that may never even be used. For people creating a competency-based program, it is less important to get hung up on the need to build custom assessments for students that might never appear and more important to provide instructors with the tools to adjust instruction as needed.

Educate Your Team on CBE and Roadblocks will Clear Themselves

In our work with schools developing and implementing competency-based education, it became clear that CBE itself has the answers to most of the “problems” and roadblocks that are typically put up by people who don’t fully understand it.

For example, Michelle Soler, Director of Competency-Based Assessment and Education at the University of North Carolina, worked with other leaders in the University system to design a summit to educate staff members about the benefits and “how-to” of CBE. The summit brought together national experts in competency-based education and was designed to share ideas for implementation and clear away any obstacles that stand between the college’s forward progression to competency-based learning. The summit ultimately cleared the path to competency-based education by getting school policies in place to support campuses across the University system who wish to implement competency-based education.

What CBE allows educators to deliver is a more student-centered and engaging learning experience. This not only provides enhanced opportunity for authentic learning and student success, but it also provides transparency to the instructors and coaches who now get to focus on the most rewarding part of the job: guiding learners to independence in the subject matter they’ve identified as important to their future.

There are diverse and dedicated groups from C-BEN to Teachers Throwing Out Grades that publish guides for philosophical approaches and implementation strategies for CBE.

Competency-Based Technology is Key—and it’s Available Today

Of course, all of the wonderful progress that CBE promises remains elusive without technology designed to support it. Motivis Learning is developing a next-generation learning platform specifically designed around competencies—focusing on what is learned instead of what is taught. Our student-centered Learning Relationship Management system (LRM) provides flexible support for comprehensive, multi-tiered competency programs—and provides built-in supports to keep you on track while you iterate on those programs.

Because it was designed specifically for competency-based education, our LRM enables educators to apply best practices through a system that innately understands what they are trying to do, rather than making them hack their way through it. That’s not to say we are prescriptive “end-to-end” but just where practice has shown results. What you do with the data generated by these practices is up to you. We provide flexibility where it counts, with configuration that analysts can adjust and experiment with instead of needing coders. You can develop your own process by defining the types intervention flags that make sense for your learners and programs and defining the actions you want to occur in response to them.

The ending result is a mix of flexibility where you want it, and guardrails where you need them.

CBE, we have your back!

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