From Theory to Practice: How Teachers Are Implementing Competency-Based Learning

What does a transition to competency-based learning (CBL) mean for a teacher? What does it mean for instructional design, classroom community, and feedback?

In the past eighteen months GOA’s faculty have worked hard to craft competencies and outcomes for their courses, building the infrastructure for GOA’s transition to CBL, then doing the hard work of putting these competencies into practice in their courses. As with any transition, there are challenges as well as breakthroughs. After a semester of observing, coaching, and discussing CBL with our teachers as they grapple with this work, we have learned a great deal. Throughout this work, we asked them to share their insights and feedback using Flipgrid, ideas that will shape our continued progress. I gathered some of their main points below, and I hope they are useful to other teachers and school leaders undertaking a similar transition toward a more skills-based, student-centered approach to teaching and learning.

Be as reflective and flexible as you want your students to be.

Establishing competencies and outcomes for a course or across a program is a process that requires constant reflection and iteration.

  • Keep competencies dynamic. Writing discipline-specific competencies and outcomes is an iterative process. A healthy set of clear, useful competencies and outcomes will be constantly evolving along with the teacher, the students, and the course itself. Kathleen Ralf, who teaches GOA’s Genocide and Human Rights course, has been very intentional about tracking which learning outcomes she assessed in her course and when she assessed them. In Kathleen’s words, she is “cultivating her outcome garden” by asking herself which GOA learning outcomes are bearing fruit in her course and which could stand to be pruned. In the same spirit, GOA has opened its core competencies and outcomes up for comments from the faculty, with an eye toward revising them for 2018-2019. (See my colleague Susan Fine’s recent post on the process of articulating competencies and outcomes.)
  • Remember CBL is meant to increase and enhance student choice. The idea that there is just too much to do in a course isn’t new, and it certainly isn’t specific to CBL. I’ve written before that one practical first step into CBL is to think of an abundance of material (whether traditional content or in this case learning outcomes) as an opportunity for student choice. Several of our teachers have empowered students to choose the outcomes on which they would like to be assessed on a given project (including Paulette Unger, below). This is a part of a broader effort to encourage more metacognitive reflection in our courses. Teachers structure competency-based reflection activities, encourage their students to highlight outcomes on which they would like to improve, and then hold them to meeting their own targets on subsequent assessments.

Keep the focus on feedback.

If maintaining a well ordered competency garden is a means to an end, that end is to set oneself up to deliver feedback that drives learning.

  • Feedback should inspire action. All too often digesting and incorporating feedback is an implicit expectation when we should be designing learning experiences that explicitly require students to consider and act on feedback. The video below from two of our Introduction to Psychology teachers (John Zebell and Katrina O’Connor) outline a “Learning Portrait” assignment that they’ve created to push students to revisit their feedback and the work they’ve done throughout the course as they think about their goals going forward.

One student’s response to the Learning Portrait assignment.

  • Think of feedback as a form of dialogue (rather than a monologue). Jeff Schwartz, GOA’s Poetry Writing teacher, likens this process to jazz improvisation in the dynamic way that he and his students are constantly giving feedback to one another, riffing on each others’ ideas and reflecting on the feedback that they have given and received. Designing mechanisms that nudge students to incorporate their feedback and to reflect on their personal growth over time will ultimately lead to deeper, more enduring results.

Remember the root of “personalized learning” is personal.

Teachers who are pushing deep into CBL are including personalized pacing in their courses. Personalized learning needs to simultaneously harness technology for automation and increase the human touch. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

  • Put a premium on community. Matt Westman has designed GOA’s Arabic Language through Culture course to be largely self-paced while maintaining a close-knit online learning community. Students with varying levels of Arabic work through a series of language acquisition modules at their own pace, receiving formative feedback along the way. They also participate in a more traditional communal learning experience in culture modules designed to bring the class together. This shared experience, in combination with a lively Slack community, hold the learning community together even though students are largely working at their own pace.
  • Design your feedback to emphasize a human conversation. As students work their way through their Arabic language modules, they get small bites of feedback from their teachers as well as from automated quizzes. When they are confident in their skills, they schedule a videoconference with one of the two teachers to prove that they are ready to move on and to receive summative feedback. This periodic conversation, where the teacher acts more like a language learning coach, keeps the teacher-student relationship strong and keeps the students on track to meet their learning goals. The human touch is everything.

We are thrilled with the progress that our teaching team has made this semester and are looking forward to pushing even deeper into CBL. I know that these lessons will inform our next steps, and I hope they will also help guide other educators transitioning to a competency-based framework.

Global Online Academy (GOA) reimagines learning to empower students and teachers to thrive in a globally networked society. Professional learning opportunities are open to any educator. To sign up or to learn more, see our Professional Learning Opportunities for Educators or email with the subject title “Professional Learning.” Follow us on Twitter @GOALearning. To stay up to date on GOA learning opportunities, sign up for our newsletter here.

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