It is becoming increasingly clear that the traditional seat-based, “sage-on-the-stage” approach to teaching and learning does not work for every student. One then wonders why competency-based education (CBE), successful as it is in both primary and secondary levels, is not implemented in our universities.
As Rwanda moves toward market oriented education, and more accurately, student centered learning in higher institutions, CBE becomes the single most effective means to achieving this end. While we have embraced CBE practices in our primary and secondary schools, when students join institutions of higher learning, they are forced into traditional classrooms that emphasize their ability to remember the course content rather than their capability in performing tasks in real life.
What makes CBE a good fit in our varsity classrooms? Implemented effectively, CBE will also improve quality and consistency, reduce costs, shorten the time required to graduate, and provide us with true measures of student learning. One characteristic of competency-based education is that it measures learning rather than time. This means that students’ progress is measured by a demonstration of the competencies they require for a particular course, regardless of how long it takes. While more traditional models can and often do measure knowledge and a few competencies (if any), they are time-based — courses last about four months, and students may advance only after they have put in the seat time. So, while most colleges and universities hold time requirements constant and let learning vary, competency-based learning allows us to hold learning constant and let time vary.
Another reason we need CBE in universities is the huge number of adult learners joining the universities to upgrade. We know two things about adult learners — they come to higher education knowing different things, and they learn at different rates. CBE recognizes this reality and matches the education to the student needs. Unlike a one-size-fits-all approach, it allows adults to come back to college and apply what they’ve learned, either through formal education or their work and life experience. They can move quickly through materials they already know and focus on what they still need to learn. For many, this means that they can accelerate their progress toward a degree, saving both time and money. How effective is it to use traditional methods with in-service teachers?
Even more important is the practical element of CBE. Competency is the core word and principle in CBE. With this approach to education, employers are assured that our graduates are not half baked as they cannot graduate without demonstrating the technical, adaptable and transferable skills they have acquired. One might argue that the productivity of a graduate is not solely dependent on the program but rather multiple factors. This is true, but what good are the so called multiple factors if a student’s learning needs are not met through the right program?
However, to implement it, we must fundamentally change the faculty role. When faculty serve as lecturers, holding scheduled classes for a prescribed number of weeks, the instruction takes place at the lecturers’ pace. For most students, this will be the wrong pace. Some will need to go more slowly; others will be able to move much faster. Competency-based learning shifts the role of the faculty from that of “a sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” Faculty members’ new role will be guiding learning, answering questions, leading discussions, and helping students synthesize and apply knowledge.
The writer is a Language Consultant