My child is taking a competency-based course. What should I expect?

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What is CBE, and what makes it different from how things used to be?

Competency-based education (CBE) is an approach to teaching and learning that focuses on the mastery of skill sets within a subject area rather than the imparting of knowledge over a broad set of topics and content.

This approach is in contrast to students learning an entire curriculum and moving forward at a pre-defined pace regardless of their mastery level. CBE shows progression by encouraging students to work asynchronously on their skills and show mastery in many ways.

Competency-based education is in direct opposition to the teacher-centered transmission teaching paradigm, which has been a traditional teaching method for hundreds of years. 

CBE emphasizes mastery of skills rather than completion of tasks. It often looks very much like the “try until you get it right” approach. 

For more information on CBE, read about classroom challenges and CBE and how CBE is designed for student success.

My child is taking a CBE course. What should I expect?

As a parent, it can sometimes be frustrating to try to help your child adjust to a new approach to learning when it varies significantly from how you were taught when you went to school. Not to mention that advancements in curriculum and instruction often mean that what your child is learning in high school might be what you learned after high school! Here are some highlights about CBE that you can expect to encounter:

Assignments

Traditionally, most courses are split into grading categories of homework, classwork, quizzes, and tests, with varying weights assigned to each category. While some of the elements may certainly exist in a CBE course, you can expect it to vary from the traditional structure quite significantly. 

Many assignments give students opportunities to explore and learn from a variety of sources at their own pace and provide the teacher with indicators of understanding, such as being able to put a concept into their own words, the ability to replicate a portion of a process independently, or even simpler things like being able to identify structures or understand critical vocabulary for a unit correctly. 

Instructors are an essential part of this process and generate valuable feedback for students as they learn. They act as a guide, curate resources for students to gain mastery throughout learning units, and help to determine when students are ready to move on.

Additionally, parents are also expected to be a part of this process in many capacities depending on their child’s age and experience with CBE. Students might require assistance in building portfolios, producing deliverables (e.g., projects or other assignments), and adjusting to the new learning method asynchronously.

Assessments 

In CBE, an assessment is never reduced to a high-stakes summative exam (e.g., end-of-chapter tests, a midterm exam, or a final exam for a course). 

Assessments take place formatively over time, with instructors noting a student’s progress (or lack thereof) in order to determine when it is appropriate to either indicate that the student has achieved mastery or assign them a task from which they can demonstrate their mastery on their own. 

Assessment in CBE is truly a longitudinal measure over time, and while it frequently includes summative or capstone projects, it is not a snapshot of what a student knows on quiz and test days. 

Capstone projects are multifaceted tasks requiring students to demonstrate evidence of mastery in fields of study in a culminating assignment. For example, a CBE capstone project to demonstrate mastery of environmental and engineering principles might include performing research and designing a prototype to increase watering efficiency by 30% in dry climate settings.

Competency-based education changes the way instructors assess and grade students and what information students and parents have about their progress in a given area.

Instead of giving a student an A in math, an instructor might demonstrate a student’s mastery in various areas (Figure 1). It also means a change in the instructor-student dynamic, as CBE challenges students to become more independent, self-motivated learners in preparation for life after school. 

Figure 1

Notice how Figure 1 above denotes specific skills that a student has made progress in mastering. This specific report on mathematics competencies indicates mastery at 100% progress in each category (e.g., adding fractions). 

This approach opposes how many of us were “graded” in the past, in which weighted averages identified progress and resulted in a letter grade.

Mastery

We have discussed that mastery is what students seek to achieve in CBE rather than completing tasks and “covering the content.” However, what does mastery truly mean in the context of CBE?

Mastery, in most cases, refers to a student’s ability to reliably perform a task without guidance and/or demonstrate a skill and knowledge learned by producing some type of deliverable. 

In more traditional learning environments, students often don’t understand the material they are studying very well but are forced to move on as the learning unit progresses to stay on pace with the rest of the class. 

Their unit and final grades are usually determined by whether they show mastery on a single test or series of tests. In CBE, some students will move through a unit quickly, and others may progress more slowly until mastery is achieved. 

Frequently, mastery is achieved when a student produces an artifact that demonstrates their competency in a skill, process, or knowledge base. For example, a student might write a paper using various types of media to show themselves performing a task or explaining a concept. Another student might build a prototype or produce another form of a physical or digital product.

Students often have a lot of choice in how they demonstrate mastery, with instructors understanding the criteria and the students exercising freedom in how they meet those criteria. 

Resources and tools for parents 

When it comes to finding how to assist your child in a CBE environment best, the two most important resources will always be your child and their instructor. 

First, make sure you take the time to talk to both, so you have a complete picture of what your child is attempting to master and what areas they may be struggling in. 

Second, explore these resources and tools to help address any issues that may arise:

Final thoughts

Competency-based education is definitely a shift away from the traditional methods of teaching and learning—not just for students and teachers, but for parents as well. 

It also can require a lot of participation from parents in the early stages of transition from one way of learning to another. Remember, instructors should always be your first line of communication when it comes to your child’s learning. While there may be challenges, it does not mean that learning is not taking place. 

Competency-based education blog series

In our CBE blog series, we explore CBE and tools for parents, teachers, and students. Next month’s topic will be student resources for success in CBE. Stay up to date on future blog articles in this series by signing up for email notifications.

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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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