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Earn Points! Moving Towards a Competency Based Grading System

There's been a noticeable move here in Iowa towards Competency Based Education.  It's slowly gaining traction in the PK-12 system, and it may eventually affect the way we learn and teach in higher education.  What I like most about it is that it rewards competency more than seat time, the passive version of attendance.  I have sat through many classes in which I learned very little because I knew most of the content already.  As a teacher, I've had students that I recognized passed my course way before the class was complete, so I had to find ways to make the class more engaging without "over-preparing" them for the next course.

For a class to effectively embrace competency based education, I believe the whole program, in which it is a part of, needs to adopt the approach, otherwise other teachers and students may find that the competency based approach may be unfair.  I'd be happy to expand on this later, but I'd like to present an interim solution for those ready for teaching in a competency based classroom even if the program is not ready.

Transforming a Traditional ESL Course into a Competency Based Course

The emphasis is on how the teacher approaches grading.  I'd like to use one of my ESL Writing courses as an example of how I used to grade, and then I will introduce how I would make changes to this course.  The link to my old course syllabus is at  If you take a look at the grading, it is based on percentages, which I loved at the time because it provides everyone a clear idea of how each of the performances are weighed.  However, it may be misleading to some students because they may interpret completing the assignments as passing the course.   A more transparent approach would be to show points for practicing and mastering concepts for each component.  I became more aware of this idea as my daughter practices her math skills on Khan Academy, which embraces some principles of Competency Based Education.

Before I analyze and translate the percentages into points for the grading section, I believe it is more important to analyze the learning outcomes for the course.  That is where this new approach should start to take hold.  From a design standpoint, this makes sense.  Because I have the advantage of being an instructional designer and a teacher, this is a logical starting place.  However, my experience has shown me that many teachers do not see objectives or learning outcomes as the first place to make changes.

In the course description on the same webpage, I have a list of 6 goals (or objectives or learning outcomes).  I want to envision how students could earn points for each of these goals.  Fortunately, the most important goals (as reflected in the grading section) are already tied to points.  I already assign points to goals 2 and 3 in my rubrics, which address the main purpose of the course--essay writing.  I give students access to these rubrics on the day I assign the essays.  They are given points for every item they do well.   To view a sample rubric from the last essay writing class I taught at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, click here.

If you look at my sample rubric, the first page is point-based.  However, I probably would change the second page, which focuses on grammatical and mechanical mistakes.  Instead of making this subtractive, I would add another section where students earn points for grammatical and mechanical accuracy.  And if that section scored at a certain level, I would offer them opportunities to work more on their areas of weakness.  This is related to the next section.  Although essay writing is addressed in 2 of the 6 course goals, they represent 90% of the grading.

First Change is Major - Grammar & Mechanics Support

Goals 1 and 4 are both part of their homework assignments, which is only 10% of their grade.  This is probably the weakest part of my course design.  In retrospect, I believe that this approach only benefited the high performers (better essay writers) and quick learners.  There were some students who needed more practice to help them master the skills for their writing.  I believe here, a points system would enable the students to practice more on certain areas of the writing and less on writing a whole essay.  I'm mostly referring to goal #4 here, which emphasizes practicing and mastering sentence construction (which they should have mastered in the class previous to this one) in the areas of punctuation, capitalization, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and subject-verb agreements.  To encourage students with weaker grammar skills, I would prefer to reward their practice rather than penalize their mistakes, thus reducing my deficit mindset and promoting students' growth mindset.

Although time may be taken away from composing an essay, more time is spent on mastering skills the students need to compose a better essay.  If it appears that a few students will need more time, then I would seek help from the writing center or from a teaching assistant.  Although they can practice with the writing center and/or a teaching assistant, I prefer them to demonstrate their mastery of the necessary skills for the class. 

Second Change is Somewhat Major - Providing Options for an Assignment

I made Goal #1 the first goal because it was the first goal I wanted students to achieve before writing essays.  My measurement for achieving this goal was poor in that it was too indirect.  Students completed homework assignments based on the textbook that helped them understand the importance of the writing process, but I never had a clear explanation from each student.

Changing this is minor because it requires changing the assignment and the grading of that assignment.  Part of competency based education is that the teacher provides several pathways for students to demonstrate their understanding of a concept.  To explain the importance of the writing process, I would give students options to do this in several ways:
  1. Through a written assignment
  2. Through a class presentation
  3. In a class discussion (points earned based on active participation)
  4. Through a video
I like these options because two of them, options 1 and 4, do not require "seat time."  Options 2 and 4 could be linked together in the same class period, depending on how many students chose these options.  Although students could earn the same amount of points regardless of their options, I believe some introverted students would prefer option 1 or perhaps option 3 if they were permitted to talk only with a partner or two.

Mastery of this goal would permit students to go on to the essay writing goals, which are Goals 2 and 3.  Goal 4 would occur throughout the course, hopefully tapering off at the end.

Third Change is Minor - Revise Learning Outcomes

Changing Goals 5 and 6 are important because the teacher cannot really assess or assign points to these goals.  They are as follows:

5)  Apply their newly acquired writing and grammar skills in and outside the classroom environment
6)  Demonstrate a higher confidence level when writing essays in English compared to their confidence upon entering the course

These goals were written to emotionally appeal to the students, and I assume that, for the most part, they were met.  However, I never measured these directly.  And it would be a bit silly for students to earn points for demonstrating higher confidence.  That seems like a never-ending upwards spiral for accruing points.

My solution would be to remove these two goals.  If I need to have more than 4, then I would write separate goals for each type of essay.

Final Thoughts

Remember that these are changes one can make in a program that has not yet embraced competency based education.  Students can more easily visualize their learning through points they are earning for each goal, objective, or learning outcome.  This should also help make your class more transparent to other faculty in your department.  I hope that this type of practice would influence one's peers and maybe even the program to make changes towards competency based education.

Are you an English language teacher trying to implement a competency based approach in your class?  What are you doing?  How have you changed your course design and pedagogy?


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