Supporting Learners in a Competency-Based Education Classroom

This is the fourth installment in a series of blog posts on the topic of competency-based education. Previous posts included: There IS a Better Way to Teach; What’s Under the Hood; and The Basics of CBE Curriculum Development.

How we teach is just as important as what we teach. In other words, instructional methods are just as vital to the learning process as the content being taught. Very few students learn by simply reading or absorbing material—if they did, we really wouldn’t need teachers.

Just as with traditional learning models, there are many ways P-12 and higher education faculty can instruct students within the competency-based education (CBE) model. However, the key here is to provide academic support in a way that helps learners attain essential content and ultimately demonstrate what they know and are able to do. Facilitation, as opposed to direct instruction, has been proven to be an effective way of providing this type of academic support primarily because by its very nature the CBE model creates a space for flexibility for instructors as well as for learners. Of course, face-to-face and online learning environments may require use of different facilitation models, but some good options to consider include:

 

Regardless of the facilitation model chosen, learning should be constant, and not time-dependent in a competency-based learning environment. In other words, learners should be actively engaged at all times but should not be forced to move in lockstep fashion with all other students. They should have the freedom and flexibility to learn at their own pace and in their own way—which is one reason why CBE is commonly referred to as personalized learning, although the two terms are not completely synonymous.

In the next blog installment, we will dive more deeply into the teacher’s role within a competency-based learning environment.

 

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher preparation, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC.  

 

Looking for Innovation? Think CBE.

Thinking about adopting a competency-based educational (CBE) model? This can be a great, innovative way to teach adult learners at the community college or university level, but it can also be quite appropriate for youngsters at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Here are a few basic tenets of CBE to consider:

Competency-based education is not an easy way to learn or to earn a college degree. Instead, it is a different way to learn. Rather than just sitting in a class and earning attendance points, learners really have to demonstrate what they know and are able to do through a variety of high-quality assessments.

True competency-based education is standards-based education. A house must have a solid foundation in order to stand over time. Likewise, curriculum must be based on standards, and from those standards, competencies, learning objectives, and assessments are developed. As industry standards change, so must a competency-based curriculum evolve to ensure relevancy and currency.

 

Competency-based education is carefully planned and developed. It is not a simple matter to create or switch to a competency-based educational model. It requires a great deal of thought, planning, training, and a commitment to various resources. Simply put, it is not realistic for an institution to believe this can be created by one or two faculty members given extra teaching load pay over a semester or two. It requires systemic commitment and long-range strategic planning.

The curriculum found in a high-quality competency-based educational program comprises both breadth and depth. As previously stated, a solid curriculum must be standards-based. In addition, a CBE curriculum can’t just “cover” certain key concepts and principles—this approach will not lead to deep, sustained learning. Instead, major content must be identified and embedded multiple times within signature learning experiences; they must be scaffolded throughout a program of study at increasing levels of complexity. Learners must be given multiple opportunities to understand and apply what they are learning in various contexts.

Self-paced learning is a cornerstone of the CBE model. Rote memorization has been debunked by many over the years as an ineffective way to learn. Likewise, educators now acknowledge that lockstep teaching and learning does not meet the needs of individuals. An age-old approach known as “Teach to the Middle” is still often the norm in environments where class size is excessive and teachers need to work as efficiently as possible simply to manage their classrooms. However, this approach neglects the needs of students who are struggling, and it neglects the needs of students who have already mastered those skills and are ready to move on. One of the most beautiful aspects of competency-based education is that it is based on a self-paced learner model: Students work at their own pace, taking as much or as little time as they need to understand, apply, and demonstrate their proficiency in the stated competencies and learning objectives. Learners are less frustrated; they feel empowered and more in control of their own progress.

The competency-based model lends itself well to online learning. CBE certainly can work well in traditional face-to-face learning environments. However, it can work equally well in distance learning models. There are different nuances to consider in the planning stage, but CBE is adaptable to all learning environments. What’s important is the strength of the curriculum, the learning resources, the quality of instruction, and the support given to learners. If the curriculum can be seen as the foundation of the house, then the other instructional elements can be viewed as the walls supporting the structure.

The quality of a competency-based program is heavily reliant upon the quality of its assessments. In a competency-based model, learners demonstrate what they know and are able to do relative to specific learning objectives. They demonstrate this through a variety of high-quality assessments, frequently in the form of internally-created objective examinations, performance assessments, field-based assessments, and externally-created proprietary assessments. If the curriculum is the home’s foundation, and the walls are comprised of learning resources, instructional quality, and learner support, assessments represent the roof. There must be direct alignment between what learners are taught and how their knowledge is measured.

Continuous, critical review of assessment data is essential. Many educators throw around the term “data-driven” decision making these days, but few really understand what it means. As with curriculum development, a comprehensive assessment plan is essential to any institution, regardless whether it adheres to a competency-based educational model or not. There are many steps that need to be taken to ensure the quality, integrity, and continual improvement of the ways in which learner proficiency is measured.

The bottom line: It’s all about efficacy. Irrespective of the educational model being implemented, the strength of a program actually can best be determined by the sustained impact on the lives of learners and those they interact with in their chosen profession. For example, do graduates from an educator preparation program demonstrate a positive impact on their P-12 students’ learning and development? Do graduates from a medical school demonstrate a significant impact on improving the quality of their patients’ lives?

Competency-based education is not just about learning in the moment; it’s about learning for a lifetime to serve the greater good.

–rrf

 

 

What’s Under the Hood: Major Components of Competency-Based Educational Programs

This is the second installment in a series of blog posts on the topic of competency-based education. In the first blog, I provided a basic overview of what competency-based education is, why I started using it with my own students, and other terms it’s frequently known by. Feel free to reach out to me if you have additional questions or need support implementing CBE in your school.

Regardless of whether you work in a P-12 school or at a higher education institution, there are six major pillars that anchor a solid competency-based education program:

  • Curriculum
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Faculty Training & Support
  • Parent/Caregiver Orientation & Support (for P-12 Schools)
  • Student Orientation & Support (for all learner levels)

 

A strong, healthy CBE program must be built on these pillars, which makes preparation, planning, and collaboration extremely important. All six should be tied directly to the school’s mission and vision, and they should all be connected to each other to avoid a disjointed program.

I recommend using a backwards design model when developing your own competency-based education program—in other words, create a well-defined “picture” of what you want to accomplish—what is your final goal? What does success look like in your school? How would that be defined? Once you and your team know what you want to accomplish, you can start working backward from there and build out each of those six components.

Installment #3 of this series will focus on developing curriculum in a competency-based education program.

 

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation and academic quality assurance. She currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher licensure, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC.