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Can competency-based learning reverse the trend of below-grade-level work?

Can competency-based learning reverse the trend of below-grade-level work?

What do assignments tell students about teacher expectations?

More than we think.

As a former senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Dallas, one of my goals was to challenge my computer science students to think differently. My classes were centered on the assumption that a software developer needs lifelong learning abilities to make it in the industry. In a competitive work environment, their skills would be constantly put to the test, so they had to learn how to sit on a problem — together or individually — and be comfortable with not knowing how to do something. This couldn’t have been possible with projects that were well below their actual skills. My job was to challenge them to develop a passion for their field and be constantly curious to learn more. Unfortunately, we’re seeing less of these challenges in classes today, especially at a K-12 level.

Recent evidence suggests that below-grade-level work has increased to alarming rates, especially for underserved students. According to a TNTP study, these students have significantly less access to appropriate assignments, even when they have already demonstrated mastery of grade-level work. Spending more time on less challenging work does a disservice to students who need the skills to succeed in the future, whether it’s applying for college or a job, or developing their passions. Denying them this opportunity also sends the wrong message, as teacher expectations can improve or limit student achievement.

Reversing the trend of below-grade-level work with competency-based learning

So, what can teachers do in this situation? Accelerating learning has its merits, but educators need the right tools to support students, mainly when it comes to closing the learning gaps that have become more evident after students have returned to school in person.

To this end, competency-based learning — similar to mastery learning championed by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom — can help schools ensure that teachers are focusing on the right learning objectives and each student reaches their potential. The focus is on students demonstrating that they have acquired knowledge and skills suitable for their grade level. If they can’t meet the requirements, students receive additional instruction, meaning that they can’t move past a lesson — and to a more difficult concept — until they master lower-level ones. In this way, students don’t have to spend time on below-grade competencies once they demonstrate mastery. Additionally, students who face struggles in a certain area are not forced to move on to another lesson before they’re ready.

Many years ago, one of my biggest frustrations as a teacher was that I could only offer so much attention to each student. I could only do so much with a manual competency-based approach in a class of more than 100 students. As an educational technology expert, I know that teachers today can do much more than I could at that time — while also holding themselves accountable to assign grade-level work.

Here are just some of the benefits of implementing a competency-based approach with the help of educational technology:

Focuses on grade-level learning outcomes

With competency-based learning, learning outcomes are the same for everyone, although the time to achieve them varies on an individual level. The school or even the entire district sets higher expectations for all students. For instance, many learning platforms allow teachers to add national and state standards, which are grade-appropriate.

How does this work? Teachers can tag learning content, such as lessons and assessments, with these learning outcomes. This means that they’ll be able to see how well students are progressing toward each outcome or standard, something that would be nearly impossible to do in the classroom.

Most importantly, teachers will be encouraged to assign work based on grade-level competencies since it’s much easier to align the learning outcomes with schoolwork.

Identifies learning gaps

Learning gaps are almost inevitable — but this doesn’t mean that teachers should consistently assign below-grade-level work in the hopes of closing them. The better approach is to identify learning gaps for each student and offer them the resources they need to improve.

For instance, as students work on lessons and assignments, an online platform can gather data about their progress. Since the platform tracks individual competencies, it also detects any learning gaps and alerts teachers, allowing them to intervene in real time to help students improve their skills.

Moreover, this is a helpful strategy because all students don’t advance at the same pace and don’t experience learning gaps simultaneously (or experience the same gaps). It’s a more effective way to ensure that students don’t get left behind and that teachers won’t dwell too much on competencies their students already have.

Enables corrective instruction

Corrective instruction ensures students have the prerequisites to proceed to more advanced units. Students get the same assignments, but this doesn’t mean they can’t get individualized help.

After detecting learning gaps, teachers can use a learning platform that uses automation to intervene promptly. For example, after completing a lesson, students can take a quiz. If they score below 50%, a teacher can tell a learning platform to automatically send a message to the student with recommended steps to help them improve, such as “retake the lesson,” “watch this video” or “retake the quiz.” The objective is to give students the steps needed to get to grade-level work if they’re not yet ready.

However, as educational technology advances, students can also see recommendations directly from the platform. In this way, they can select the most relevant and personalized content according to their preferences. For instance, many students prefer to watch a video instead of reading an article, which is fine as long as they improve their results.

Focus on closing learning gaps, not below-grade work

While it’s unfortunately true that many students are dealing with significant learning gaps, especially in the wake of the pandemic, consistently assigning below-grade-level work sends them the wrong message. Instead, a competency-based approach assisted by education technology can be a better alternative, as it focuses on identifying learning gaps and taking actionable steps to tackle them.

To learn more about enabling competency-based learning using an online platform, check out our Competency-Based Learning guide.

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