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What educators could learn from CBME

cover of Medical TeacherIn 2010 the journal Medical Teacher devoted an entire issue to competency based medical education: http://informahealthcare.com/toc/mte/32/8. This issue is well worth reading by any educator in higher education that is interested in competency based education. While the articles are written about medical education, which many in the liberal arts reject as “practical” rather than “theoretical”, and therefore not applicable to undergraduate education, those with more insight will learn how to develop stronger competency based programs, and the value of a competency based program.

Today’s Inside Higher Ed, featured yet another article on the move to competency based education: http://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/01/23/colleges-pitch-possible-experiments-competency-based-programs. It’s a short article stating that a number of colleges and university are preparing to launch competency based programs. But the list of participating institutions is not one that contains any surprises. These are colleges and universities that are known for non-traditional curriculum. What might surprise some is the list of medical schools moving to competency based programs, and that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in its 100 year anniversary of the much respected Flexnor Report,  advocated for competency based medical education.  In it’s 2010 report  Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency, the authors’ recommended that medical schools “standardize learning outcomes and assess competencies over time.” and added:  “A focus on learning outcomes and milestones could end the time-based structure of medical school and residency.”

Many medical schools have taken the advice of this report quite seriously, and have been working on converting existing curriculum to a competency based format. The rest of us could do well to learn from what they are doing. It may not all be applicable, but there is much to be learned from their thoughtfulness and efforts.

I highly recommend that those who are interested in Competency Based Education in Higher Education read Medical Teacher’s issue 8 of volume 32.

Mastery Based Learning

This week, Inside HigherEd published an interesting article that discusses the drawbacks of measuring learning using the credit hour. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/09/wiche-transfer-passport-based-proficiency-rather-credits In this author’s opinion, it’s about time educators took a serious look at this standard. While many might defend the current system, there are few that can rationally defend the current system’s measurement as an accurate assessment of learning. If it does measure learning, it does so in an accidental manner.  What it mostly measures is time and perhaps practice. But what is does not measure is competency. “Averaging of a grade over time does not adequately represent the level of mastery”.(Bramante & Colby, 2012) and may give the false impression that the student is prepared to move to the next level. The fact is that without insuring mastery, “a learner cannot use that knowledge or skill in future learning” (Bramante & Colby, 2012), nor in a job that requires that knowledge or skill. And, the student may never get the opportunity again to master it.

What does an “A’ in higher education actually mean? It could mean nothing at all other than that the professor gives everyone, who shows up to class, an A–which I know from experience does in fact happen–whether that is online or face-2-face.

Far too often I hear the refrain that competency based education will ruin real education, will take away from developing the mind and whole person. Just because a book is assigned, does not mean the students read it. Just because a student sits in class, and maybe even participates, does not mean they learned the material, nor that they can apply it. Rather, a true master has the ability to apply knowledge and skills to complex and diverse situations, not simply answer the problems at the back of a textbook. So, a master of philosophy can not only apply philosophical theories to philosophical discussions, but to literature and math, and even physics. The ability to do so is a measure of competency. CBE does not eliminate general education, and assessments can be developed to measure the level of ability a student has to apply knowledge and skills.

But lets look at this from a very practical perspective. Here is the grade makeup of an actual course (a typical course):
Open Book quizzes–17%,
Final exam–11%.

Here is another:
Final Exam–16%,

Instructors generally pick these percentages in a random manner. It’s not based on some scientific study. It’s personal preference. Additionally, participation, homework, and quizzes do not demonstrate competency. They are really “practice”, yet they figure into the final grade. And, often a great percentage of the final grade. One school I worked with had a problem with students completing the final exam, because it had so little weight that it made almost no difference in the final grade of many students (the students calculated the impact of the grade vs leaving early–that’s scientific).

In a competency base course the assignments, participation, quizzes and other activities would become self-assessments and practices, helping the student gain competency and providing a measurement that the student could use towards their own learning: where were they still weak, were they ready to take the final assessment, etc. The greatest weight by far is on a final assessment. One that measure mastery. One that measures the students ability to take their knowledge and skill and apply it to a complex and unknown task. The assessment would not only measure competency, but the level of competency. This is a far more valuable grade than one that might measure participation and homework.

In the next post we’ll look at the process for converting a traditional course to one that is competency based.

Bramante, F., & Colby, R. (2012). Off the clock. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Constructivism & Competency Based: can they co-exist in the same classroom

Constructivism and constructivist pedagogies has been a topic of debate and research for decades, and many programs have been developed based on a certain definition of it’s meaning.  David Jonassen et all describe this in the following way: “The constructivist sense of ‘active’ learning is not listening and then mirroring the correct view of reality, but rather participating in and interacting with the surrounding environment in order to create a personal view of the world. Constructivists engage the learners so that the knowledge they construct is not inert, but rather usable in new and different situations.” (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell & Haag, 1995)

Jacqueline Grennon Brooks defines it this way: Constructivism is basically a theory … It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.” (Grennon Brooks, 2004)

Problem-based learning, and scenario-based learning (a form of problem based learning) are methods used in constructivist classrooms–creating authentic learning experiences. Students in a constructivist classroom are expected to self-directed, and a focus is on developing metacognition in the student in order for them to become self-directed learners. However, when we discuss these types of learning, or types of instructions, we are not talking about how these are assessed. The premise is that everyone’s experience will be different, that truth is relative to the individual and that no two people will experience the same event in the same way. But, while difference individuals may tackle a problem differently, there often is only a small subset, if not a single, truth (or correct “answer”).

It makes sense when we think about this with regards to medicine–you want a physician that can apply their knowledge and skills to complex circumstance, to use critical thinking skills to solve problems, to be competent, and to come up with the right solution (to make the correct diagnosis)–but what about an editor, or an accountant, or an artist? Can we apply the same expectations to these fields and to learning in general.

Competency-based learning, like constructivism, requires students to be able to construct their own knowledge and to be able to apply that knowledge (and skills) to authentic, varying and new experiences. Competency-based education requires that students have a depth of knowledge and an acquisition of skills that can be applied not simply regurgitated. While constructivism focuses on the method for acquiring knowledge and skills, CBE focuses on how that is assessed and what triggers progression . They not only can coexist, but without students constructing their own knowledge, it should be, theoretically, impossible for them to pass a competency-based program.

Grennon Brooks, J. (2004). Workshop: constructivism as a paradigm for teaching & learning. Retrieved from http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J., & Haag, B. B. (1995). Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education.American Journal of Distance Education9(2), 7-26. doi: 10.1080/08923649509526885