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Aurora Institute

Iowa Goes BIG: From Reservations to Success

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jim Flansburg

Issue(s): State Policy, Redefine Student Success

This blog was originally posted May 20, 2014 at the Iowa Department of Education. Be sure to watch the video about BIG — it’s really fun and iowa_de-150x150interesting.

There is no particular formula for successful competency-based education (CBE). Programs vary from in-school coursework where the student learns at his or her own pace to internships and project-oriented work.

Ideally, students could choose which path to take since they have different preferences in the way they learn, said Iowa Department of Education Consultant Sandra Dop.

“Some students might choose one type of learning over another,” she said. “For instance, a student might want a specific learning environment for gaining proficiency in a particular subject, but another learning environment to demonstrate proficiency in another area.  All of this is negotiated with the teacher.  Kim Carter of QED Foundation calls it, ‘negotiated pace with gradual release,’ meaning that the students are not completely on their own to set a pace, and they slowly take over their learning as they develop the skills to do so. ”Dop said CBE has less to do with the academic pace of students but rather ensuring students know what they are supposed to learn.

Elizabeth Sturms approached CBE with caution and doubt. Two years ago as a junior in Muscatine, she was invited to help design a model for her district.

“I had reservations at first,” said Elizabeth, who is now a freshman at the University of Iowa.
“I was used to the conventional approach where the teacher is at the front of the room giving  information to the students.”

She soon saw it differently. By her senior year, she was fully engaged in CBE.

“One of the coolest things for me is that I could get through my work a little faster than other students,” Elizabeth said. “It also was cool seeing students who took a little more time and not being penalized for it. In my government class, since we had our own time to show our understanding of the concept, we could finish the concept earlier and develop a project to show our understanding of the subject.”

Were there any long-lasting benefits? Elizabeth gives an unqualified “yes.”

“The CBE courses really paid off in college,” she said. “Within the first couple weeks as a freshman, having that CBE background really gave me confidence and enabled me to go headstrong into student organizations and projects. CBE is a great foundation for university-level thinking and problem-solving.”