Competency-based education (CBE) is an impactful and relatively new approach to education. It forms a paradigm shift from a time-based to performance-based education. The shift to CBE is a big change that requires commitment, collaboration, coordination, and resources at different levels (Walton & Ryerse, 2021). In this article, I discuss the requirements for a successful CBE implementation. The discussion proceeds as follows:
- Establish a CBE ecosystem
- Determine level competencies
- Know your students
- Provide customized/ personalized instruction
- Assess for mastery
Establish a CBE ecosystem
Establishing equity and providing training are essential requirements to a successful transition to CBE. Having everyone committed to and being able to establish equity is the foundation of CBE implementation. This commitment must be established at different levels, including school systems (e.g., local education authorities), school leadership, and teachers. It is not possible to successfully implement CBE without a firm commitment from these key players. While equality is to give the same thing to everyone, equity is to provide personalized learning opportunities that enable every single student to reach the same end goals. As a result, CBE requires every education system and school leadership to identify, understand, and remove all kinds of bias from the learning environment. To give every student the same chance for success, schools must identify each student’s weaknesses and customize learning experiences that help address these specific weaknesses. “Thus, the predictability of achievement based on culture, social class, household income, or language is completely removed”. Moreover, equity requires an inclusive context where all students from different backgrounds feel safe and respected (Juraschka, 2021).
Teacher training is a major force behind a successful CBE implementation. Teachers need to develop skills of how to assess students and customize learning experiences accordingly. They need to fully understand the CBE process, methods of personalizing learning experiences, mastery-based assessment, and the important role of technology in customizing learning. Without a high-quality teacher training, the CBE program would not function properly. Since the timing of teacher training is critical, the concerned school system and school leadership should arrange for teacher training before implementing CBE. Teachers need to understand the differences between traditional education (TE) and CBE in defining competency maps, the goal of assessment, learning pace, grading and promotion. They also need to understand the role of assessment in customizing instruction as well as the assessment approaches, strategies and tasks to be used to allow students to demonstrate mastery. It’s essential for every teacher to understand how to assess the interests, learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses of every student (Raudys, 2021). In summary, establishing a CBE ecosystem requires:
- Equity to be embraced and committed by all working in the system
- Training individuals to identify, challenge and remove bias at all levels (self and system)
- Teacher ability to assess every student’s characteristics (e.g., weaknesses, strengths and learning style) to cater for their individual needs
- Commitment to provide personalized learning experiences to each student
Determine level competencies
To align efforts and resources, school leadership, teachers, and subject matter experts (SMEs) must define in advance the competencies for students to achieve at each level, course, or grade. Competency definition must focus on the practical application of knowledge and skills in meaningful real situations rather than just content understanding. Moreover, they need to translate each competency into a set of measurable learning outcomes (LOs). It is these competencies and LOs that give direction to teachers when they assess student weaknesses and strengths in order to customize learning experiences accordingly. Teachers should then share these competencies with students to help them set learning expectations and adjust study plans and effort accordingly (Juraschka, 2021; Shawer, 2022; Shawer, 2018; Shawer, 2017; Walton & Ryerse, 2021). In summary, the process of defining competencies should involve:
- A list of competencies at the target level
- Competencies to be formulated by all concerned stakeholders (e.g., school leadership, teachers, graduates, employers, SMEs, community representatives) rather than a single person or party
- Competencies must target knowledge and skills application in real-life situations rather than content understanding
- Each competency must be broken down into a set of measurable LOs
- Competencies must be shared with students before the course starts
Know your students
Having defined target competencies, translated them into measurable learning outcomes and shared them with students, you need to apply a number of diagnostic measures to understand their backgrounds, learning and cognitive styles, interests, weaknesses and strengths. There should be a learning map for each student that highlights every student characteristics. This personalized map acts as a gateway to set learning goals for each student and provide the customized learning experiences that help them address their weaknesses and draw on their strengths (Shawer, 2022).
Provide customized/ personalized instruction
Having known your students, you can now provide learning experiences that address every student’s needs. To customize learning, you need to set up flexible classrooms through, for example, learning stations, playlists of self-guided activities, flipped classrooms, task cards, grouping same learning style students, and peer tutoring (Raudys, 2021; Shawer, 2022). That said, customized instruction requires students to learn a set of skills. For self-study activities, students need to learn when to ask for help to encourage them to engage with the material. This also drives them to think of other ways to address the problem before asking for help. They should also learn to ask for help from a peer, use quiet voice, signal and continue working while waiting for help, revisit task instructions, not to insist for help, and keep seated while waiting for help. Group, team, and solo work skills must be also introduced and practiced to allow customized learning to occur (Gould, 2021; Shawer, 2022).
Personalized instruction also requires multiple ways of representation to address different learning interests and modalities. Various activity types, such as solo, pair, small group, pair groups, and whole group should be used in every class. In particular, active learning strategies, where students carry out the activities should be used. Strategies like debates, KWL (know, what to know, learned), guided practice, fishbowl, snowball, jigsaw, lineup, inner, middle and outer circles, and buzz groups are great ways to customize instruction. For example, in a fishbowl activity, the class could be divided into pair groups where each pair groups work on a different task. The tasks could then be rotated. On the other hand, didactic strategies, such as lectures, are also required on occasions to provide key concepts (Shawer, 2022; Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 2021).
Customized learning would further require a shift from time-based to performance-based grouping of students. Based on actual performance and needs, you may need to provide support to a single student on specific skills. In many cases, you provide support to a group of students who share the same needs. However, in most cases, you have to use a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS), where you start with whole group instruction (tier 1), then move on to provide small group support (tier 2) for students still having struggles, and finally provide personalized support (tier 3) to individual students who did not benefit from tier 1 and 2. Tier 2 students still learn within tier 1 but with focus on their struggle. Tier 3 students may still learn within tier 2 by subdividing them into smaller groups. They spend most of their day in general education but they may receive support in a resource center. Support in tier 3 could mean small group work or individual lessons. MTSS plays a vital role in CBE for encouraging teachers to intervene early to help students catch up with their peers (PBIS, 2022; Rosen, 2022). Fig 1 illustrates how an MTSS is implemented.
As for learning pace, students learn at different rates in different areas. A student may progress to the next level in the areas they have mastered while staying longer to master the difficult skills. Since CBE pacing is performance-based and individually-driven, student progress is not hampered by others. Likewise, struggling students do not have to move on until they achieve the competencies. It is clear CBE pacing addresses a huge issue with traditional education where fast students are held back by the average group performance. Likewise, slower students are forced to keep up with the same group. In contrast, CBE students advance to the next level only when they demonstrate mastery and when they are ready (Juraschka, 2021; Shawer, 2022; Walton & Ryerse, 2021).
Customized learning requires teachers to use formative feedback to understand where students struggle so that they customize learning experiences accordingly (Shawer, 2022; Walton & Ryerse, 2021). Classroom assessment techniques (CATs) provide essential formative and immediate feedback on struggle areas, which helps teachers to adjust instruction in real time (Angelo & Cross, 1993). For example, teachers could use application cards, concept maps, punctuated lecture, self-assessment, muddiest point, and minute paper to check understanding of main concepts. On the other hand, performance CATs such as fishbowl, snowball, peer assessments, and presentations enable teachers to assess student ability to apply knowledge and skills in action through task performance (Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 2021). In summary, customizing learning requires:
- Using MTSS
- Flexible classrooms
- Formative feedback techniques
- Personalized classroom skills/ protocols
- Multiple ways of representation
- Active learning strategies
- Various activity types
- Personalized learning pace
Assess for mastery
CBE starts with initial or diagnostic assessments so that teachers can provide customized learning experiences for every student. Since assessment for learning (formative assessment) occurs during instruction and through formative feedback, it helps both teachers and students adjust in real time. This kind of assessment is vital to adjust learning to every student pace during each lesson. This within-lesson assessment is vital towards the end goal of learning mastery. As for assessment of learning (summative assessment), it focuses on advancing student between study units, courses, and grades. We know that, in TE, students can either pass or fail. We also know those who pass can advance to the next level, course, or grade while those who fail stay behind. Moreover, failing students may repeat the whole course, including areas they have already mastered. Fortunately, this is not the case with CBE (Shawer, 2022).
CBE summative assessment is miles apart from TE in various respects. First, failing is not an option. Students can stay as long as they need until they demonstrate mastery of target competencies. While TE assessments aim to measure the extent to which students have understood course content, the goal of CBE assessment is to measure student ability to apply knowledge and skills. While TE assessment measures knowledge understanding, CBE measures the ability to apply knowledge and skills in meaningful real or simulated situations. When students are not ready to move forward, they do not repeat the whole thing, they only receive support to master struggle areas. What is really unique is that the same student might stay longer in some areas, while advancing early to the next level in strength areas (Shawer, 2022).
For example, a 4th grade student has problems with reading. She was not able to identify the main and supporting ideas. Nor was she able to make inferences or locate referents. Because a number of her peers mastered these skills, they moved to the next level, while she stayed to work on these skills. However, that student alongside a couple of peers mastered the first term math one month before the time set to achieve them. For example, she mastered factors, divisibility, and making geometric constructions (e.g., polygons). As result, she moved forward to the second level to study, for example, fractions and decimal numbers. An important part of that assessment was that it was performance based, where students applied their learning in concrete situations. For example, they measured the area and perimeter of a tennis court (rectangular) and the football playground circle.
It is clear CBE assessment focuses on knowledge and skills application. As a result, students continue to learn until they achieve the minimum level of performance. However, CBE assessment should meet a number of criteria. One criterion is to provide multiple ways of action and expression to allow students to demonstrate learning in suitable ways for them as well as in many forms. This in turn requires a data-driven approach that involves multiple assessment tasks. Since the end goal of CBE assessment is the application of knowledge and skills, outcomes-based and alternative assessment (performance, authentic and portfolio) must be used. Moreover, teachers need to use flexible assessment, including self and peer assessment alongside allowing students to have a voice on assessment weights as well as on what and how to be assessed (Shawer, 2021). Although students studying the same unit might have different learning objectives and although they might not advance to the next level together, standards, learning goals, and competencies stay the same for all students (Juraschka, 2021; Walton & Ryerse, 2021).
While TE grades are established by adding up scores on tests and assignments, every individual student has to demonstrate at least the minimum performance levels in CBE. Because performance/ mastery levels range from minimum to high, student grades differ accordingly. In all cases, the minimum level of performance must be achieved by every single student to move forward to the next level, course, or grade. CBE students advance to the next level, course, or grade based on demonstration of skills and ability to apply knowledge. If a student or some students fail to achieve a competency, the class does not just simply move on as the case in TE. Struggling students receive support until they master the competencies, while students who master the competencies advance. Instead of repeating the whole course, students just work on struggle skills (Juraschka, 2021; Walton & Ryerse, 2021). In summary, assessing for mastery requires:
- Students to know the competencies to achieve
- Students advance only when they demonstrate mastery
- Using performance assessment tasks
- Using multiple assessment tasks
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