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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):
Homework–43%,
Participation–10%,
Open Book quizzes–17%,
Project–10%,
Midterm–9%
Final exam–11%.

Here is another:
Quizzes–28%,
Midterm–13%,
Final Exam–16%,
Participation–21%,
Assignments–22%.

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.


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