Rigor and Competency-Based Instruction

Are we asking the right questions?

By Barbara R. Blackburn

Competency-based Instruction, or instruction that is focused on students’ meeting specific competencies, is expanding its influence in education.  There is growing interest in the notion that, rather than looking at an overall grade as evidence of mastery of work, we should assess student performance on mastery of individual competencies.

However, some educators question the role of rigor in competency-based instruction.  Are we holding students to rigorous expectations if we are asking them to master one competency before moving to another?

To answer this question, we must first address the definition of rigor.  Rigor is not simply asking students to do more work, whether they are successful or not.  Rigor is also not failing the most students.  Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.

Expectations

Let’s take each part of this definition and consider how it is or is not reflected in competency-based instruction.  First, each student is expected to learn at high levels.  For this to occur, the competencies themselves must be rigorous.  Are they preparing students to be college- and career-ready?  Do they reflect levels three and four of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge?  Do they represent the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy?  I spoke with one teacher who pointed out that even if a competency is rigorous, it may require students to demonstrate mastery of rote skills as a part of the application.  When this is the case, it’s important that mastery not be limited to the basic skills that are a part of the competency; rather, students must show mastery of the higher level skills that, hopefully, are the focus of the competency.

Additionally, there is a standard expectation that each student is expected to learn.  This implies that, rather than teaching to a group and hoping everyone will learn, there is a focus on the individual student’s mastery of goals and competencies.  High expectations are critical in a rigorous classroom, and competency-based instruction reflects these expectations.

Support

The second aspect of rigor is that each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels.  Competency-based instruction, when done well, relies on student support.  In a competency-based classroom, if a student does not demonstrate mastery of the competency, additional support and scaffolding should be provided to enhance student learning, so they can demonstrate understanding.  Some educators note that competency-based instruction is driven in part by the desire to provide support so that students can truly learn, rather than simply moving students through the curriculum at a standard pace, only providing support when there is time to do so.

Demonstration of Learning

Finally, in a rigorous classroom, each student demonstrates learning at high levels.  There are two aspects in this part of the definition.  First, each student demonstrates learning.  A competency-based classroom insists upon this individual focus.  If one student does not demonstrate mastery, he or she continues the work, with appropriate support, so he or she can show they understand the content.  Second, students should master learning at high levels.  We discussed this in terms of expectations, but it’s such an important point, let’s look at it in detail.

Competencies that only require basic skills are not rigorous.  For competency-based instruction to be rigorous, it must ask students to demonstrate a high level of understanding.  We often use Bloom’s Taxonomy to determine whether something is high level, but I prefer to use Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  Bloom’s Taxonomy is extremely verb-dependent, which can be deceptive.  For example, create is a high-level skill with Bloom’s.  But there is a difference is creating a model of a prosthetic arm and creating a get-well card for a fellow classmate.   Sample expectations that are considered rigorous with Webb’s Depth of Knowledge include:

  • Are students proposing and evaluating solutions or recognizing and explaining misconceptions?
  • Do students go beyond the text information, while demonstrating they understand the text?
  • Are students encouraged to explain, generalize, or connect ideas?
  • Do students support their ideas with evidence?
  • Are students restructuring problems or formulating a mathematical model for complex situations?

We must assess our competencies to ensure that they are rigorous, rather than simply assuming they are.

Conclusion

Competency-based instruction does support the characteristics of rigor.  It demonstrates high expectations through its insistence that students demonstrate mastery of each competency.  Support and scaffolding is embedded within instruction in order to insure student success.  Finally, competency-based instruction, by its nature, requires that each student demonstrate learning.  The only question that remains is whether the competencies themselves are rigorous.  It is important for teachers and leaders to work together to assess the competencies and ensure their rigor.

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