In Education What Does It Mean to Be Competent?

“What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.”
Tina Goodyear

While competency-based education (CBE) has been part of US education for 40- or 50-years, interest has been increasing over the last couple of years.  A faculty member I was working with once described a problem they were having at his school.  He worked with a system of schools that used a common course system across all their campuses.  A common course system can solve a lot of issues. The common course system allows students to transfer between schools smoothly.  It also lets the system office negotiate guaranteed transfer agreements with other universities for all the schools in the system rather than each school having to negotiation individual transfer agreements.

However, how the system he worked at maintained their common courses system was causing problems.  The system office maintained a central list of the learning outcomes of the common courses.  When a school taught a class, they only needed to teach 80% of the outcomes that were on the common list.  If the common list had 26 learning outcomes, you only need to teach 21 (20.8). Faculty don’t have to teach five of the learning outcomes on the common course list.

To pass a common course, the student must earn at least a C (70% of the learning outcomes taught).  That means a student can pass while only learning 15 (14.56) learning outcomes.  Therefore, a student can pass without knowing 11 of the 26 learning outcomes on the system’s core list. Taken to the extreme, it means that two students each from a different school that both earned a C and transferred to the same school might only have four learning outcomes in common between them.

The committee my friend was working with suggested the implementation of competency-based education as a solution to the problem with their current common course system.  I asked how they were planning on implementing CBE.  He answered, “well, we already have learning goals all we need to do is turn them into competencies then modify our assessments a little, and we will be doing CBE.”

I remember asking, “are you changing how you assign grades?”  “If you’re not changing the grades, are you going to change how your transcript?”  If you don’t make changes like “grading” differently or list mastered competencies on your transcripts, you will still have the same problem. A lot of people that are trying to jump on the CBE bandwagon are just rephrasing their learning goals into “competencies.”

Implement of CBE requires changes to the whole system.  One of the core ideas behind competency-based education is that given enough time, most people can master any concept.

“Supporters of mastery learning have suggested that the vast majority of students (at least 90%) have the ability to attain mastery of learning tasks (Bloom, 1968; Carroll, 1963). The key variables, rather, are the amount of time required to master the task and the methods and materials used to support the learning process.” (How did we get here? A brief history of competency‐based higher education in the United States)

This one idea turns the current educational system on its head.  In most schools,’ students’ progress is measured by the number of credits earned.  Students earn credits by passing a class.  If a student passes the class, they get the credits whether they get an A or C. Institutions assign the number of credits to a course based on the number of hours the course meets.  This system, the Carnegie Unit, was established over a century ago by the Carnegie Foundation.  Therefor students earn credits based on time.

However, the Carnegie Unit or Credit Hour was initially created as part of a program to determine eligibility in the Carnegie Pension Plan (today is known as TIAA-CREF).

“To qualify for participation in the Carnegie pension system, higher education institutions were required to adopt a set of basic standards around courses of instruction, facilities, staffing, and admissions criteria. The Carnegie Unit, also known as the credit hour, became the basic unit of measurement both for determining students’ readiness for college and their progress through an acceptable program of study.” (The Carnegie Unit A Century­ old Standard In A Changing Education Landscape)

While the Carnegie Unit brought standardizations to a nascent US educational system, it is possible, if not likely, that we have become too focused on the easily measured like the Carnegie unit.  In the CBE system, students earn credits based on mastery of concepts. Therefore, students take as much or little time as they need to master concepts and move forward at a pace that best suits them.  CBE puts the information learned as the central component used to earn credits, not the length of time spent in a course.

Beyond restructuring the educational experience to focus on mastery, there are questions about assessments.  It is not merely a matter of rewording learning goals into competencies.  Course designers build competencies around what students should be able to do, or vice versa.  The assessments must be carefully thought out to match the desired outcome and then ascertain whether the student has mastered the competency.  While the process of assessment creation is involved, the fact that schools like Western Governor’s University and the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option program are using CBE can provide examples and a knowledge pool to develop new programs.

I don’t know if most of the educational system will adopt CBE.  The changes need to the standard system are enormous. After all, if students can learn at their pace, semesters, and time to degree will have to be rethought. However, the thought of competency-based education changing the focus back to learning over sorting is appalling.  The CBE system could also help alleviate student frustrations over a course moving to slow or too fast, leading to higher matriculation rates.  In the long run, I suspect the degree to which CBE is adopted will depend mostly on the success of the institutions currently leading the way.  Regardless of the success or failure of CBE, it will be fun to follow the developments in CBE over the next several years.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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