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Many instructors begin the course-development process by asking themselves what they want students to have learned when the semester ends. Nina Morel, dean and professor of professional studies at Lipscomb University in Tennessee, said she used to plan her courses around topics she wanted to address.

Characteristics of Competency-Based Education

  • Students learn at their own pace until mastering objective
  • Learning materials split into discrete chunks, either on-ground or online
  • Often taught by "instructional teams" that divide tasks like grading and coaching
  • No formal definition or reference in existing Department of Education regulations

She’s had to let go of that approach now that she’s teaching courses in the emerging format known as competency-based education. Her main focus for those courses is preparing students to successfully complete the final assessment, whether it’s an essay or a project.

Anything that doesn’t directly connect to boosting the students’ tangible skills gets cut from the curriculum. It’s been humbling for Morel to rethink her priorities.

“There’s a lot of stuff that I personally like and love to teach that isn’t worth all that much,” Morel said.

The increasing prominence of competency-based education in discussions of innovation has nudged instructors at a variety of institutions to question their long-held beliefs about their role in the academic experience. Some institutions dipping a toe into competency-based education have brought instructors accustomed to traditional classrooms along with them, often creating new professional development workshops in the process.

For instructors like Morel, it’s a welcome opportunity to re-examine the higher education mission. Others have approached the diversifying landscape more tentatively.

“It is a very good and effective delivery system to implement, but it needs to have a lot of thought behind it, and the thought has to be about creating meaningful learning situations,” said David Tan, a professor of higher education and learning technologies at Texas A&M University Commerce.

Competency-based education has been on the lips of policy makers as well, as the Department of Education ponders wide-ranging regulatory changes that could open the door to more experimentation with short bursts of learning and new ways to measure student achievement.

Following a recent survey that indicated sustained interest in the format, “Inside Digital Learning” talked to instructors about how they transitioned to the new mode of instruction and what they’ve learned. Critics of CBE remain unconvinced that this new format facilitates meaningful learning experiences and worry that work-force industries will struggle to equitably define the value of competency achievements. Given uncertainty around this relatively new model, instructors often need time to grow accustomed to it, according to Charla Long, executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN).

"They’re learning as students are learning," Long said. "That’s a vulnerable place to be as they’re developing their skill set."

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How Teaching Can Change

Tan has been teaching for more than 30 years but got started with CBE just a year ago, when administrators at Texas A&M asked him to take over the CBE program.

He oversaw the redevelopment of close to 50 syllabi for traditional face-to-face courses now offered in a CBE format as well. In the new version, students at the start of the semester get a list of expected competencies, which they complete at their own pace. Students can participate in virtual discussions, and get timely feedback on assignments from their instructors. Everything students turn in, from exams to term papers and interviews with practitioners, must demonstrate competency, Tan said.

Developing learning outcomes and assignments designed to help students achieve them was difficult at times because predictions of what students will accomplish in a course don’t always come true. But he came around to the value of the format for preparing students for specific sectors of the work force.

His own teaching changed as well. “As a faculty member, it really forces you into being a little bit more concise, a little bit more strategic on what it is that you’re hoping to accomplish,” Tan said.

Working with students in CBE courses has made Kim Kostka, professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater at Rock County, more wary of measuring learning through exams and quizzes. She points out that one-time assessments don’t reward students for learning that might happen over the course of participating in the exams.

“I don’t feel confident that students who didn’t do well on an exam didn’t learn -- I can’t tell, actually,” Kostka said. “It just might be they didn’t perform well on this assessment.”

Kostka now teaches courses in both formats, and she said she’s more attuned in general to what students are learning.

Thanks to a federal requirement that competency-based programs include a nebulously defined “regular and substantive interaction,” Kostka thinks she spends more time engaging with every individual student from her CBE courses than from her traditional face-to-face and online courses, in which some students form closer relationships with instructors than others. During mandated monthly check-ins, Kostka updates students on their progress and opens a dialogue with them about their own impressions of the experience.

“They can reveal quite a bit of themselves in those moments,” Kostka said. “It’s really fun to respond to them and hear more about how this is affecting their everyday life.”

Instructors often have to adjust their long-held beliefs about teaching before they’re ready to teach CBE courses. Shonda Gibson, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Texas A&M University System, spent a couple decades in the didactic world of corporate training before shifting to higher education and, eventually, to CBE. When she recruited and trained teams at several apparel manufacturing companies, Gibson said, instruction was often centered around the idea that the teacher has all of the knowledge and the student needs merely to sit passively and absorb it. The same was true in traditional higher ed classrooms, she found, making for a natural transition. CBE is different altogether, she said.

“If you want it to be all about you as an instructor, you’re going to hate CBE,” Gibson said.

Gibson used to avoid handing out sample worksheets or offering students rubrics because she worried those materials would make assignments “too easy.” But she now sees the value of making clear to students up front what they’re expected to learn and how they’ll accomplish those goals.

Time and Effort

Some public narratives around competency-based education question whether instructors in that format play an active enough role in their students’ experiences. Instructors who teach CBE courses dispute that characterization.

Scott Mehall, a senior instructional designer and work-force development coordinator at Carlow University, helped in 2017 to convert an existing graduate certificate program for instructional designers into a competency-based mode. Getting it off the ground took more time and effort than expected, Mehall said.

In addition to his duties developing the program, Mehall teaches as well. Unlike with traditional courses, Mehall doesn’t have to spend time at points throughout the semester preparing lecture materials for an upcoming session. “But the semester before it is an incredible amount of work,” he said. Learning experiences and activities have to be carefully designed and clearly explained.

According to Mehall, concerns about whether the instructor is sticking to a predetermined schedule for the course don’t matter in competency-based courses, in which students proceed at their own pace.

“In a face-to-face class, we’re always kind of looking at where are we supposed to be on whatever the preconceived notion is of how long the class is taking,” Mehall said. “[In CBE] we’re not so worried about catching up or being behind.”

Having hired traditional instructors to teach CBE, Gibson has witnessed rocky transitions firsthand. Some faculty members just aren’t suited to the format, she said.

“You have to allow them time to shift and learn and to get in it and really feel how much of a difference you’re making in people’s lives,” Gibson said.

Instructors new to CBE often express anxiety about whether they're capable of embodying the role of an instructional coach, Long said. On the other hand, the transition can be reinvigorating for instructors who feel stuck in a teaching rut, she said.

Even instructors who have grown accustomed to CBE acknowledge that it’s not going to solve all of higher education’s problems in one fell swoop -- or overnight.​ Texas A&M Commerce launched its CBE program in 2013, but according to Tan, instructors and administrators there have just recently gotten a handle on it.

“It’s not a panacea for everything, but if done correctly and properly given the right context and situation in what you hope to accomplish, it has a lot of strengths,” Tan said.

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