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competency-based education

Why competency-based education is challenging centuries of tradition

Competency-based education offers a way for students to learn better, faster, and more comfortably in their own style

It’s been nearly four centuries since the first formal classrooms appeared in what would eventually become the United States. The earliest example of a public school was the Boston Latin School, founded in 1635, the first to relieve families of having to educate their kids at home in the “three R’s”—reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Despite massive changes in society and technology since colonial times, one thing hasn’t changed much: the way we teach, test, and pass our students along to the next level—or into their adult working lives.

Most students today still take the same lessons from the same teachers in the same format—and they must pass the same tests to graduate. Of course, higher education allows for variations in courses of study, but within each classroom or curriculum, the content, delivery, and assessment are fixed. Over the course of their 12-year education (plus two, four, or eight more in university), students ingest, memorize, and practice the materials presented, then take tests to receive a certificate to prove they “learned” it.

Today, however, there’s a challenge to the centuries-old “binge-and-purge” approach—so-called because students stuff their brains full of facts, then regurgitate them on tests (often to be summarily forgotten). Competency-based education is starting to take hold.

What is competency-based education, and why is it so different?

Traditional time- or credits-based education is like a transaction, almost as though the student is purchasing the right to be educated within a specific time frame. It tends to promote memorization rather than the application of knowledge. Students hope to obtain something valuable from the transaction, of course, but when assessing the knowledge they’ve gained, it’s just a matter of meeting an often arbitrary 70-percent threshold. The bestowed certification often doesn’t translate to actual applied knowledge.

Competency-based education (CBE) turns the traditional approach on its head. First, instead of everyone getting the same lecture, CBE is about adapting the delivery of knowledge to the learner’s own style. In CBE, how a learner demonstrates their mastery of a skill is up to them, not a one-size-fits-all test. Finally, CBE uses the results of each assessment to provide personalized goals (meeting minimum professional standards, of course) to help each student have directed, meaningful focus on what they need to do to complete the course.

Adapting to each student’s preferred learning style

At the core of CBE is the need to facilitate the learning of knowledge (and the assessment of a student’s mastery of said knowledge) in a manner that matches the learner’s preferred style — how they best absorb, retain, and apply what they learn. A VARK assessment is one method to determine this for each student.

First introduced by Neil Fleming in 1987, VARK is a questionnaire designed to help students and educators identify with one or more of the following groups:

  • Visual – These learners best absorb knowledge by observing or watching someone apply facts, skills, or a physical craft.
  • Aural – An audio learner prefers to listen, having someone explain the material, whether it is in a lecture format or a one-on-one conversation.
  • Read/Write – As you might guess, readers benefit most from the classic “studious” vision such as reading a textbook or writing notes or prose in their own words.
  • Kinesthetic – The final group learns best by doing — they need to get out there, be involved, and immerse themselves in the experience or application of the knowledge.

To facilitate and speed the learning process, each group needs information presented differently. That also applies to assessing their competency or mastery of the subject — how well they have absorbed, processed, and retained the information. For example, in a medical curriculum, some students will best display their medical knowledge via a traditional written exam, whereas others will perform better in an oral exam. Still others — the kinesthetics — might best be assessed by observing them in a doctor’s office or how they perform as an intern (with appropriate supervision, of course).

The benefits of competency-based education aren’t limited to students

A competency-based approach can also allow learners to display their subject mastery in their own timeframe. By absorbing and retaining the material better and faster, they might graduate sooner and even lower the overall cost of their education. Suppose they demonstrate a sufficient level of competency in only two years. Why require them to stay on for another two years before receiving their certificate, as a traditional time- or credits-based education would require?

Perhaps the most significant student benefit is allowing them to take more ownership of their educational goals. Instead of looking only as far as the next exam, they can instead strive for the larger objective of learning this skill, mastering this content, and demonstrating true competence in their chosen career. In addition, as educators hone their CBE method, they can use data gathered from students’ assessments to provide personalized, focused feedback and goals to support their efforts to learn and succeed.

Educators themselves benefit from CBE, too. When presented appropriately, the information will just “click” with students, meaning instructors will spend far less time trying the same thing over and over again in a frustrating effort to get each student to understand the basic concepts. Instead, educators can spend more of their time helping students reach their individual goals, ensuring that no student is left behind.

Finally, educational institutions and the employers who eventually hire the students benefit as well. For the schools, CBE translates into higher pass rates, better board scores, and better rankings within the curricula themselves. Plus, more of their graduates are true professionals when they enter the field, something every hiring organization will appreciate. By hiring grads from schools that apply CBE, employers can feel more confident that candidates have demonstrated their mastery of knowledge or skill, not just memorized and tested out of it.

With a bit of upfront work, we can reap the benefits of a CBE approach

Of course, this plethora of benefits doesn’t mean adopting a CBE approach is quick or easy. After all, we have almost 400 years of inertia to overcome. For many educators, it’s second nature to stand up at the front of the class, deliver a lecture, send a PowerPoint and a bulleted summary, and assign homework. That’s the traditional delivery model; it is comfortable, familiar, and often requires little explanation to create.

Instead, CBE requires designing learning experiences appropriate for different learning styles. You might transform a lecture into an interactive online module where students can click to open a section of a textbook, an audio file, an infographic, or an animated game-like experience depending on the individual learner. Adapting the traditional lecture to these new formats can be daunting for even the most dedicated educator. The good news is that once the front-end foundational work is done, the rest is just maintenance. As mentioned earlier, the result is less work because educators will have fewer individual explanatory meetings — students will just get it.

There are other challenges in adopting a competency-based approach. Schools will need to assess candidates for their learning styles applying VARK-centered concepts or other models and coordinate the results with instructors. Because CBE curricula is often most easily accomplished with technology including laptops, tablets, software, and connectivity, schools must also ensure all students have equal access to leveraged technology. However, these types of issues aren’t particularly surprising nor uncommon in today’s education.

In summary, compared to the traditional binge-and-purge approach, competency-based education delivers far more than a badge, a certificate, or a diploma. It provides an environment where students can learn better, faster, and more comfortably to their own style, but where they must demonstrate that they truly have mastered the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. That’s good for everyone—the students, educators and institutions, employers, and society.

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