Looking Under the Hood of Competency-Based Education

By Chris Sturgis, ComptencyWorks and Metisnet

American Institutes for Research (AIR) recently released Looking Under the Hood of Competency-Based Education: The Relationship Between Competency-Based Education Practices and Students’ Learning Skills, Behaviors and Dispositions. This is one of the first valuable studies we have had looking at the impact of competency-based education.

The Framework of Learning Skills, Behaviors, and Disposition

AIR created three domains to organize the different sets of learning skills, behaviors, and dispositions. (You can find them in depth in Box 2 on page 22.) I think these domains really add to our thinking and conversations about how schools are helping students develop:

Domain 1: Student Academic Mindsets and Dispositions

Students’ academic mindsets and dispositions include attitudes and beliefs about oneself as a learner, as well as feelings of connection with and engagement in school. They include intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy in mathematics and ELA, and sense of belonging in school.

Domain 2: Self-Regulated Learning Skills

Self-regulated learning strategies are the self-directed, meta-cognitive, and self-control strategies students use to engage in learning, including making an explicit effort to connect new learning to what they already know and directing attention toward key learning tasks.

Domain 3: Academic Behavior

Academic behaviors are the observable, outward signs that a student is engaged and putting forth effort to learn and participate in school. Examples include preparation for class and active interest in learning.

I have been testing these ideas to see if there is anything I would add – and the only thing I might wonder about is how to capture the issue about the ways in which stereotypes can influence how children think of themselves as learners (basically, are students developing a positive gender and racial identity) and the issue of how students understand their horizons, including perceiving themselves as college-going and, for those who are surrounded by violence, whether they will live past twenty-five.

Practices of Competency-Based Education

AIR considers CBE to be an instructional approach with a set of six practices used by teachers: learning targets, measurement of learning, instructional approaches and supports (including applied learning), when and where learning takes place, assessment of learning, and pace and progression (including students able to advance upon mastery). At CompetencyWorks, we tend to think of competency education as a district or school structure with instructional strategies used based on what is effective for students to be able to learn both foundational skills and higher order skills. Yet I find AIR’s effort to identify important instructional practices to be really helpful.

However, for future research, I think it is important to look at more than these six practices. I would consider the following as some of the basic things we should expect to see in a competency-based school to support learning: teachers holding a growth mindset about their students (i.e., all students can learn), self-directed learning practices, coaching in the habits of work, timely and differentiated supports (such as Flex Hours), coaching and feedback on habits of work, and grading systems that reflect how students are doing in terms of meeting the learning targets. Those feel like non-negotiables to me.

We might also think about what practices we might see in advanced or high quality competency-based systems. Although we are in a state of reflection and exploration about how to do it well, we should certainly see the ability of schools to meet students where they are academically without creating a linear, tracked system. We should be able to see schoolwide systems that make student performance levels explicit and teachers empowered to use strategies that ensure students are building the pre-requisite skills while also ensuring access to grade level standards as much as possible. But if there has to be a trade-off, then it is important for students to build those foundational skills, as they will be used over and over and over again throughout their education. Without them, we essentially handcuff them to the status of a struggling learner.

Other, more advanced practices would include students taking summative assessments after demonstrating proficiency (as compared to a schedule) and ensuring students have the opportunity to apply skills and build higher order skills. I’m sure other CBE educators would suggest other important practices, which means it’s probably worth it for us as a field to build some level of consensus. Perhaps NMEF might fund AIR to do a similar set of research?

The Findings

Their findings showed that based on those six practices, we appear to be improving intrinsic motivation and generally having a positive impact (page 5). The analyses showed several positive associations between students’ experiences of specific CBE practices and their learning capacities. I think the discussion on the findings is very helpful:

Intrinsic motivation appears to be one of the learning capacities most strongly associated with CBE practices. We always say that CBE will help students build intrinsic motivation, so it is wonderful to see that it really is. Several CBE features are positively related to changes in students’ intrinsic motivation during ninth grade. Having clear learning targets and requiring students to meet all learning targets to earn course credit in mathematics and ELA were both positively related to changes over time in intrinsic motivation. In addition, providing a variety of student-centered instructional practices, allowing students to participate in activities outside of school for course credit, allowing extra time to complete coursework (in mathematics), and providing a wider variety of assessment types (in mathematics) are positively related to changes in students’ intrinsic motivation.

Students’ perceived clarity of learning targets were positively associated with the greatest number of favorable changes in learning capacities. Educators have told me repeatedly that transparency is proving to be transformational for both teachers and students. The study showed that students’ perceived clarity of learning targets in their mathematics and ELA courses were related to favorable changes in intrinsic motivation, perceived utility of mathematics and ELA, locus of control, self-management, and preparation for courses (both overall and specifically within mathematics and ELA classes). These findings suggest that students’ clarity of learning targets may be an important instructional feature.

Some CBE practices appear to be related to positive change in learning capacities from fall to spring in one academic subject area only. In mathematics classes, requiring students to meet all learning targets in order to receive course credit, providing students extra time to complete coursework when necessary, allowing students to retake assessments without taking points off, and offering a variety of instructional practices were all positively related to changes over time in efficacy in mathematics. Having clear learning targets, allowing extra time to complete coursework, and allowing students to participate in activities outside of school for course credit were also positively related to changes in perceived utility of mathematics during students’ ninth-grade year. In contrast, none of the CBE features we examined were related to efficacy in ELA, and only the clarity of ELA learning targets was positively related to changes in students’ perceived utility of ELA.

We think that the strategies about how to best meet students where they are when they have significant gaps may also be domain-specific. We need to draw on this research as we investigate how to help students build their missing pre-requisite skills.

Providing varied and flexible instructional practices appears to be one of the only CBE practices positively related to changes from fall to spring in students’ self-regulated learning skills. Although commonly associated with CBE, offering a variety of instructional practices is not exclusive to CBE. Yet, this area was the only one that appeared to be positively associated with both self-monitoring of understanding and cognitive control.

Students’ sense of belonging, perceived utility of ELA, efficacy in ELA, locus of control, theory of intelligence, planning for the future, expectations for future education, self-management, and preparation for courses (both overall and specifically within mathematics and ELA courses) were not related to individual CBE practices. Aside from the aforementioned positive relationships with clarity of learning targets in mathematics and ELA courses, other individual CBE practices did not seem to be related to changes in measured learning capacities, with a few exceptions.

Certainly, I wouldn’t expect students to learn self-management unless there were self-directed learning practices and coaching on the habits of work. It doesn’t just happen – students need lots of opportunity to practice and receive feedback to build these into strong habits. I’m guessing that the GPA is more highly related to proficiency in the habits of work than it is as an indicator of academic skills.

Reflections on Our Field

Another contribution of this study is the look at all the instructional practices in schools that are CBE compared to those that aren’t. AIR suggests that some practices are used by teachers in both types of schools, while others seem to be more frequent in CBE schools. They also note that practices will vary greatly within CBE schools with no more than two or three years of implementation, which raises huge questions for us: What exactly do we mean when we say a school is CBE? The researchers suggest that we begin to think about competency-based education as a continuum in the degree that schools have implemented.

I really did find the sections looking at how instructional practices vary to be fascinating. And sometimes it was a very honest mirror holding up all our wrinkles and warts. For example, on page 11, it doesn’t look like we are doing so well in breaking out behaviors from academics in our grading systems. Yet, we also know that many competency-based schools don’t start to change their grading practices until year two or three, and many choose what can best be described as a hybrid between traditional and CBE. Nor are we creating opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways, just multiple times.

One of the most concerning issues is found on pages 27-28, where the non-CBE schools seem to be doing a much better job using what AIR refers to as non-traditional assessment practices than what we would hope to see in a CBE school. Now what’s up with that? This suggests to me that something is either being interpreted or emphasized in a way that is undermining our efforts. I’m guessing that the concept of self-paced and students working at their own pace are possibly being interpreted to mean students work on their own. Even AIR’s own examples of practices related to pace and progression are all about students being able to take more time or advance rather than focusing on what is in place to make sure students are progressing at a meaningful pace.

However, there appears to be some good news, as well. According to the study, students are doing more applied learning in CBE schools.

Again, I really want to commend AIR. This was a tremendous challenge to do this kind of research at this stage of CBE’s development. I look forward to their continued leadership in helping us to figure out how to do better.

This post originally appeared on CompetencyWorks.


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