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Mindset and Methods for Success in High School and College

Flipped Learning Makes Competency-Based Learning Practical

I know a retired dentist who volunteers lots of his time to helping students in primary and middle schools. He does many things for the students, but I will focus just on his regularly spending time in math classes, individually tutoring students having difficulty for various reasons. One day we had this conversation.

Bob said, “I have been tutoring a middle school student. A few times a week I re-explain the lesson, demonstrate doing the problems, answer questions, and encourage as I walk him through doing the assigned problems. But he is making no progress and I do not know what to do to help him. What do you think?”

“Do you mind if I ask you a question about your student?”, I replied. He said, “Of course not.” So, I asked, “About how far behind in math do you think this student is?” He said, “Maybe 2 years. He can add, subtract, multiply and divide, but he has forgotten or never learned everything from fractions, decimals and percentages. So, he’s completely lost now working on story problems and pre-algebra.”

In situations like this, I think that the alternatives are clear.

Alternative #1 More Time and Tutoring

Continue encouraging and tutoring in the hope that the student will catch on and take off. If you do this, it is almost certain that he will fall farther and farther behind. He is also likely to hate math and to assume that he is destined to remain incompetent in math for life.

 Alternative #2 Competency-Based Learning

Get the student out of the current class. Take him go back to what he already knows and move forward from there. The student might, for example, use Khanacademy.org to get instruction and help with problems. The student will probably need intermittent, brief advice and help from a teacher or tutor. This is difficult, and perhaps impossible, in most schools.

This is the standard dilemma of schools. The teacher is required to teach the curriculum. Some students are keeping up. Some aren’t. There is often some help for some of those who need it, but not enough. Having teachers or tutors take students back to where they fell off the math train and bringing them forward from there, rarely happens.

Alternative #1 is what usually happens. Students who fall behind in math or English or a language almost never succeed. They struggle through required classes, retain little competence, and take away negative attitudes about school, subjects and themselves. Though Alternative #2 is rare, it can be done and is being done, though so far, only in a minority of classrooms and schools.

Alternative #2 is called competency-based or self-paced or mastery learning. Students get instruction from a textbook or video. Then they do the exercises or problems, write answers or essays, and practice until they are competent in the present lesson. Through high school, this takes place mostly in class. That way, if a student gets stuck, the teacher or a fellow student or a volunteer tutor can help. When a student is ready to demonstrate competence, there’s test. If the student demonstrates mastery, he or she moves on. If not, the teacher confers with the student for a few moments on how to improve. Then the student goes back to work. Some of the advantages of competency-based learning are:

  • Students learning rates accelerate as they learn one less fully before going on to the next.
  • Students learn faster because they spend most of their time doing rather than listening and watching.
  • Learning rates are at least doubled by almost immediate access to help as needed.
  • Motivation and self-confidence increase based on success in learning.
  • Teachers’ workloads and frustrations go down, as they help almost every student to A-level competence in a course within the scheduled time of the classes and semesters.

The keys to competency-based learning are:

  • Teachers don’t deliver lectures very often. They mostly help students individually, as requested, a few minutes at a time, in class.
  • Students do the work of learning by actively reciting, memorizing, solving, analyzing and discussing. They do this mostly in class rather than as homework.

Competency-based learning has been successful in public and private schools, at all levels. It has worked in all subjects. Some examples at the college level include Keller’s Personalized Systems of Instruction, California’s Coordinated Instructional Systems, and the Western Governors University. The military used it with over 1 million soldiers for their Advanced Individual Training Schools. KhanAcademy.net uses this approach to assist students worldwide with math from adding through calculus, and other subjects.
Note: Do not confuse Competency-Based-Learning described here with a teacher continuing to teach from the front of the classroom, but repeating or modifying instruction based on the teacher’s estimates of what the students know or don’t know. This adaptation of group paced instruction doesn’t yield nearly the results of competency-based learning.

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