4 differences between traditional teaching methods and competency-based education


What is competency-based education, and why are so many schools making the switch?

Competency-Based Education (CBE) is a student-centered method that allows students to work asynchronously on their skills and show mastery in many different ways. This method differs from simply passing a summative assessment or exam.

In a competency-based classroom, students have choices and control regarding what and how they learn. Most importantly, they have flexibility as to how they show what they have learned and mastered.

CBE is a flip-flop of the teacher-centered methods that have been used for years and still are frequently used all over the world. In this mode of instruction, the teacher dictates what and how the students learn, as well as curates any content that is presented to them with very little student input.

Many schools have been transitioning away from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered methods, like CBE, to allow students to learn at a pace and with the materials that suit them best. 

When learning is competency-based, students often learn by “doing,” which fosters creativity and curiosity because students are encouraged to show what they have learned in a variety of ways.

Traditional methods are also not akin to how the “real world” works. Once students become adults, the working world expects products to be made, problems to be solved, and skills to be used. 

As adults, they will be expected to apply what they learn successfully, which is similar to what is expected in a competency-based classroom.

For these reasons, student-centered learning is here to stay.

“This is different…I like the way it used to be!”

Some students have difficulty adjusting to competency-based learning, especially if they have spent a considerable amount of time learning in a teacher-centered environment. 

A competency-based classroom may also mean students are learning fully online or have large online components, resulting in a drastic departure from the norm for many students. 

Here are some common differences between a more traditional learning environment and one that is competency-based:

1. Less social interaction
Because CBE is often asynchronous or has asynchronous components, students may interact with their peers and teachers less than normal. 

While lacking a physical space can take some getting used to, it can also allow students who are uncomfortable speaking in front of an entire class to still communicate with others effectively without the pressure and anxiety they may normally feel.

In addition, less face-to-face time also means that students are less likely to be distracted by one another and be more efficient with their time spent learning.

2. Time management

Each student is unique, moves at a different pace, and learns best in a variety of ways.

This means that students in CBE environments will master things at different paces, and students will need to acquire self-discipline and time management skills in order to be successful.

Luckily, these skills are highly desired in the “real world” and valued by employers, so practicing these skills will be fruitful.

3. Overwhelmed by choice

Students are often used to very rigid and structured pacing with completion criteria for getting high marks in their classes.

CBE is highly flexible in regards to time, content, and methods of displaying mastery. 

Students can become overwhelmed with the responsibility of learning that is now thrust upon them.

Ultimately, however, this will allow students to carve out their own processes for how to solve problems, honing their skills with a personal spin.

4. Less explicit instruction

In CBE courses, teachers are a resource for students, not the keeper of knowledge or master of the class.

This means that rather than dispersing all of their knowledge and expecting students to absorb it, teachers offer guidance and assistance while students investigate problems and develop their skills. 

Teachers function more like a facilitator of learning, and the students are the key component of which everything revolves around.

This can be a struggle for students who are uncomfortable with approaching their instructors when in need of assistance.

It does, however, remove the barrier of social anxiety that many students face when asking for help in a traditional setting where their peers may be made aware of their struggles; it can be a great opportunity for students to learn to ask questions without any outside pressure.

How do I make sure that I succeed?

In order to succeed in a CBE environment, consider the following:

Use time management strategies

Just because the due date for a mastery project or assignment is the last day of the class does not mean that students can delay learning until the last two weeks. Students must regularly set aside time to work on assignments, watch videos and read, or discuss struggles with other students and the instructor.

Review instructions and rubrics

Rubrics are created by instructors in order to define the expectations for their courses. These documents will outline how to get display mastery and complete assignments for satisfactory marks in the course. Do not ignore them when completing assignments.

Practice makes perfect

In CBE, as in the real world when learning a skill, it often takes multiple attempts until a student gets it right. This means that revisions are a critical and normal component of learning; students will work until they have a product that shows they have mastered the skill or content.

Become comfortable with asking for help

Instructors are an invaluable resource and are dedicated to helping students succeed. However, they can’t help anyone if they don’t know that they are struggling. Students should not be afraid to ask for help, such as if they don’t know what step to take next.

Become familiar with the online components

Because CBE courses are largely asynchronous, most of the course materials may be online. Students should familiarize themselves with the platform that their course is on, locate important materials and pages, and understand how to navigate through all the content. This will allow them to quickly find resources, submit assignments, or connect with instructors. 

Resources and Tools for Students 

The number one resource in any course should be the instructor. 

They can provide students with invaluable feedback and help point them in the right direction. However, sometimes even instructors may not be aware of some resources that exist to help students complete assignments and master skills. Here are a few general resources:

  • Portfolium: (An online portfolio to keep track of assignments and projects, great for college applications/résumés) 

Final Thoughts

While CBE certainly has some differences from the traditional methods of teaching and learning, its impact on helping students gain valuable skills and knowledge cannot be contested. 

As our technological society advances, so must our teaching and learning so that the students of tomorrow can be successful. 

Although adjusting can be a struggle, nothing worthwhile is ever easy!

For more information on CBE check out our previous blogs about classroom challenges and CBE and how CBE is designed for student success.

Competency-Based Education blog series

In our CBE blog series, we explore CBE in terms of tools for parents, teachers, and students. Next month’s topic will be student resources for success in math CBE courses. 

Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

Picture of Nikolas McGehee

Nikolas McGehee

Dr. Nikolas McGehee received his doctorate in Exceptional Learning and STEM Education from Tennessee Technological University. He has worked as a high school science teacher, university researcher, analyst, and project manager, as well as a STEM Education program manager. His professional career is focused upon improving educational processes and products by performing sound research and making data driven decisions.

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