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A Leader's Guide to Competency-Based Education: From Inception to Implementation
Date Reviewed: January 18, 2019
Recognizing the growing interest in competency-based education (CBE) in U.S. higher education, but also the lack of shared standards or practices around it, three experts produced this guide for other educators who are contemplating a move to (or revision of) this type of instructional program. The authors help those who are enthusiastic about CBE avoid pitfalls by offering practical guidance. They strike a cautionary tone throughout, beginning their Introduction with the sobering reality that “there are relatively few schools that have been able to move from interest to implementation” (1).
One of the reasons for caution may be that even a definition of CBE is hard to come by. The authors joke that “if you were to ask ten people to define CBE, you would likely hear ten different answers” (2). Instead they offer five “hallmarks” of CBE: (1) “time is variable, and learning is fixed”; (2) there is “required demonstration of mastery or proficiency” which is (3) “determined by rigorous assessments”; CBE is (4) “focused on the student learning journey” and is (5) “offered in a flexible, self-paced approach” (3-4). Many educational programs would claim one or more of these hallmarks, but taken together, they represent a distinct departure from traditional education. CBE’s most famous feature may be the way it changes the relationship between learning and time by replacing the credit hour with continuous direct assessment. As the authors demonstrate, however, this change complicates everything from the transcript to faculty workload to accreditation. CBE’s intense focus on individualized student learning paths and assessment (“assessment on steroids,” as I once heard) is also significant because it changes what learners actually do to learn and what teachers do to teach. Traditional faculty roles are likely to be unbundled, “reassembled” (89), and redefined – or replaced – by roles like coach, tutor, and psychometrician.
Given the challenge of defining CBE and the guide’s relative brevity, it would benefit from some case studies, at least for readers who are still trying to gain a clear picture of what a CBE program looks like and why an institution might adopt one in the first place. Cases would presumably also help CBE adopters appreciate why other institutions made the choices they did. The book reads instead like an insider’s guide.
The book’s best feature, accordingly, is its soup-to-nuts review of issues that educators must consider when designing competency-based education. Chapters address institutional culture, program design, assessment strategies, staffing and business models, and approval seeking. Readers come away fully aware that CBE is not just a different teaching approach but a potentially radical disruption to education delivery.
Designing a Motivational Syllabus: Creating a Learning Path for Student Engagement
Date Reviewed: January 18, 2019
This book helps teachers think through the many functions and possibilities of the course syllabus, particularly as seen through the eyes of students. The authors advise thinking of the syllabus as a motivational tool rather than a punishing list of policies or a repository for contractual language; moreover, they suggest embedding more visual tools and images as well as more explicit rationales for assignments, even down to the individual class level. All of what they propose seems simple and reasonable, even for busy faculty. The authors clearly aim to help faculty see the excitement of creating “a course design tool that maps out the learning path for students” (19), and their suggestions will prove most useful to those beginning teaching who want to break out of the graduate school reading list mode and to those further on in careers, particularly those who might have changed (or want to change) their teaching strategies.
Harrington and Thomas write in an accessible and encouraging style throughout. After a brief consideration of the history and purpose of the syllabus in Chapter 1, they address the following issues in turn: applying course design principles with an emphasis on backward design; key components of any syllabus; policies and other boilerplate; issues of design; techniques for getting feedback and evaluating the syllabus; and ways of using the syllabus beyond its traditional roles. They helpfully include a sample syllabus as well as a syllabus checklist and sample grading rubrics. They lay out the main types of syllabi (coverage-based and activity-based) and argue for the superiority of a backward design that works from goals for students rather than from content or activities. They also champion Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning over Bloom’s, a distinction without a difference to readers who steer clear of learning taxonomies.
Many of the suggestions here seem more suited to a quick tutorial than a full-length book, particularly for seasoned faculty. But the biggest surprise is that this book scarcely addresses online learning management systems, an essential part of many courses that has, in some cases, completely replaced the single-document syllabus. Omitting this technology leaves a huge gap. This book would be greatly improved with a consideration of how the purpose and form of the syllabus has changed with the rise of learning management systems and how the principles described here apply to syllabus design in that context.
Harrington and Thomas rightly see the syllabus as a document that communicates expectations while explaining why the work of the course matters. Much of their focus is on tone and balance: even subtle changes in language and a careful curation of policies, such as those related to student behavior in class, can pay dividends in making students feel more positive and motivated to take on the work of the course. Although this book is not specific in any way to religious studies or theology, any teacher can benefit from a reminder of ways to improve this most standard of course materials.
Course design in online learning juggles a range of factors to produce an effective learning environment. For instance, most of us who teach online must navigate the expectations of our institution. Maybe a requirement to adhere to some external standard, like Quality Matters, exists. Perhaps the learning management system defines ...
Teaching and learning become rich and exciting when any classroom makes room for and taps into the resources of diverse backgrounds, contexts, and identities. Also, it’s the right thing to do. When I began teaching online, I knew classroom diversities might increase due to broadening access, but I suspected ...
Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts
Date Reviewed: November 29, 2018
Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts provides a framework for continual improvement and deliberate practice in the area of course design, assignment creation, and assessment. Although this book focuses on faculty in the arts, its wisdom is accessible to all faculty in higher education. The authors argue that “strong teaching requires careful planning, even though the time constraints of academe do not always allow for it” (2). Therefore this book is comprised of fifty tips that can stand alone and/or work together to provide a cohesive pedagogical framework. Meaningful Grading is divided into three parts: (1) course design and preparation, (2) during the semester, and (3) post semester.
The book begins by challenging the reader to examine their own beliefs and biases, know their educational context, and define what success will look like in their course (6-7). As I read this section, I was reminded that many faculty in higher education receive little to no training in pedagogy and course design. Haugnes, Holmgren, and Springborg argue that we must be intentional in our course design and that “grading, if it is to be meaningful to students, must be intentionally integrated into the whole course” (30). The authors focus heavily on ensuring that course goals, teaching and learning activities, and assessment (evidence of success) must work together to support student learning. The course design process is iterative and one will cycle through “all the legs of the tripod multiple times. . . until each is in alignment to help support deep learning” (33).
Part two presents a series of tips that operate as “grab and go ideas in the middle of the semester” (65). This section provides advice on how to clearly communicate the goals and expectations that were crafted in part one. It also focuses on how to teach discrete skills and content as well as how to emphasize process over perfection. The authors suggest that it is important to identify what success looks like at multiple distinct points in the process in order to provide students with more meaningful feedback along the way. In addition, it is through the intentional use of field specific language in all communication with students (syllabus, critiques, meaningful feedback, and comments) that students are exposed to and are able to absorb field specific language and concepts.
Finally, part three provides advice on how to engage in reflection on a completed semester in order to establish and improve meaningful grading practices. The first tip in this section encourages faculty to seek feedback from students and faculty colleagues during and after the semester in order to become a more effective grader. Although this feedback can include end-of-semester evaluations, the instructor is encouraged to seek additional and separate forms of feedback from students about fairness of grades, use of rubrics, and other course activities. The instructor is also encouraged to return to course goals and course activities to assess if goals were met and the process of grading was useful for both the instructor and the students.
As a faculty member who is not in the arts (design, architecture, fine and visual arts, media arts, literary arts, printmaking, performance arts, etc.) but utilizes various forms of art in my lectures, course activities, and graded assignments, I found this text to be very helpful in expanding my knowledge of how to better incorporate and assess the use of art in a learning context where students may not initially see or value the ways in which art speaks to the content at hand. It also provided me a strong foundation on how to better communicate to students the ways in which what they are learning to master is a form of artistry.
This book provides practical and accessible advice on how to design and execute a course in any discipline in higher education while simultaneously speaking to the unique nature of assessment in the arts. I believe it is an important read for all faculty regardless of discipline and experience level, and trust that it will help us more critically examine our pedagogical strategies and assessment methodologies.