Every year since its publication in 1995 I’ve had some occasion to re-read Barr & Tagg’s “From Teaching to Learning – A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.” Ten years ago, I used it to frame theory for my work as a consultant helping institutions establish manageable and sustainable approaches to assessing student learning. This year I re-read the article through the lens of competency-based education (CBE) because that’s what I think about these days. And this time it felt like a lightning bolt struck! This article, without intending to, described the theory of competency-based education in terms of why CBE is a paradigm shift.

Defining CBE and the Teaching Paradigm vs. Learning Paradigm 

When I started working with CBE I found the most elegant definition surprisingly coming from the U.S. Department of Education, which described CBE as:

“Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities.”

That’s a pretty clear statement of the “how” of CBE, but it doesn’t help us with “why.”

In a nutshell Barr & Tagg define the gaps in higher education through a critique of where it was in 1995 (and arguably still is in 2016) and where it needs to be. They use “the teaching paradigm” to illustrate where we are now, and “the learning paradigm” as where we should be. For starters, they point out that higher education institutions focus on providing or delivering instruction and improving the quality of instruction where it should focus on producing learning and improving the quality of learning. They talk about how the role of faculty needs to shift from transferring knowledge from faculty to designing powerful environments for eliciting student discovery and construction of knowledge. As I re-read “From Teaching to Learning” I began to see a framework for competency-based education.

I love the idea of competency-based education because it provides learners with clear learning targets that they reach their own way, fits their time requirements, and honors knowledge they already have. CBE is designed to help learners achieve their learning goals more quickly through an individualized, frequently self-paced model. I can see the promise of CBE and can also see the obstructions to realizing the full benefits of CBE.  But rather than talk about obstructions, I’d like to talk about the promise.

Connecting the dots – CBE and the Learning Paradigm

Below I’ve used a selection of learning paradigm criteria from Barr & Tagg and how they relate to CBE in the following section.

Specified learning results

The learning paradigm requires us to heed the advice of the Wingspread Group: “New forms of assessment should focus on what college and university graduates have learned – the knowledge and skill levels they have achieved and their potential for further independent learning.” P. 18

We’ve all seen higher education move toward specified learning results – mainly through the influence of regional and professional accreditation’s emphasis on assessing student learning outcomes. Syllabi have been re-written, program outcomes defined, rubrics built, and accreditation teams have levied consequences for not taking assessment seriously. Outcomes assessment practices – where the program of the unit of measure – arguably laid the ground work for expressing competencies where the student is the unit of measure.

Pre/during-post assessments

It [assessment] would track the flow of students through learning stages (such as the achievement of basic skills) and the development of in-depth knowledge in the discipline.  P. 20

Because of the independent and self-paced nature of CBE, the assessment process shifts from grade-focused to student pathway focused. “Pre-assessments” shift from a mechanism for faculty to evaluate the learner’s strengths and weaknesses to an opportunity for the learner to avoid subjecting him/herself to content they already know. “During” assessments shift from a collection of summative data points that average up to a course grade to low/no-stakes opportunities for the learner to self-assess and prepare for a summative assessment. “Post” assessments shift from a focus on judgment to opportunities (often times repeated) to gain mastery.

Environment is ready when the student is

In fact, the Learning Paradigm requires a constant search for new structures and methods that work better for student learning and success, and expects even these to be redesigned continually and evolve over time.  P. 20

This concept is one of the key benefits to CBE learners. Instead of classes that start and end at the same time for a specified term based on someone else’s time preferences, the course is carefully constructed to support cycles of learning, practicing and assessing on a competency-by-competency basis in a time frame that allows the learner to take as much or as little time as possible to master the content.

Learning held constant; time varies

Instead of fixing the means — such as lectures and courses — the Learning Paradigm fixes the ends, the learning results, allowing the means to vary in its constant search for the most effective and efficient paths to student learning.  P. 21

In most CBE programs, learners can take as much or as little time as they need because the determination of mastery is set. This means they can say with confidence that they have achieved mastery and they can say precisely what they have mastered.

Degree equals demonstrated knowledge and skills

Paradigms change when the ruling paradigm loses its capacity to solve problems and generate a positive vision of the future . . . The Learning Paradigm doesn’t answer all the important questions, of course. What it does do is lead us to a new set of questions and a domain of possible answers. What knowledge, talents and skills do graduates need to live and work fully? What must they do to master such knowledge, talents and skills? Are they doing those things? Do students find in our colleges a coherent body of experiences that help them to become competent, capable and interesting people? Do they understand what they’ve memorized? Can they act on it? Has the experience of college made our students flexible and adaptive learners, able to thrive in a knowledge society?  P. 25

CBE is a key contributor to higher education’s answer to the call for change. Although most institutions have not reached the point where the degree actually does convey demonstrated knowledge and skills, we can now see what this would look like but for the pesky conflict between the credit hour and financial aid.

Barr & Tagg could not have known in 1995 that their work would provide the theory for competency-based education, but I hope they are as thrilled as I am that CBE is taking hold as firmly as it has in the last two years and that higher education is stepping up to the paradigm change.

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