What is Proficiency-Based Learning?

Often I hear math teachers complain about standardized tests assessing student reading skills instead of what they actually can do in math. Teachers might say, “they know how to multiply, they just can’t read the word problem because of reading difficulty”. Statements like this make educators take a step back and ask, what are we really assessing here?

Proficiency-based learning, sometimes called competency-based learning,  is an approach to learning that focuses on the advancement of students based on mastery of content rather than grades, age, attendance, and/or other factors. In this approach, learning competencies are specific, should be measurable, and are designed to empower students to take responsibility for their learning and demonstration of knowledge.

Proficiency-based learning also involves assessment that is meaningful. Students are given differentiated support based on their individual needs and abilities. Once students have shown mastery of content, they are able to progress to new objectives creating a more personalized learning experience.

Today, many colleges are moving toward proficiency-based learning models and moving away from credit hours and grades. Rather than using seat time as a measure of learning, universities are putting more of an emphasis on actual content learned. Considering this, it is important for educators in elementary, middle, and high schools to incorporate proficiency-based learning into their classrooms in order to prepare them for college and career readiness.

What are the Benefits of Proficiency-Based Learning?

Proficiency-based learning has many benefits. This type of learning allows for an increase in student engagement due to the relevancy of content to students. In proficiency-based learning, instruction is tailored to individual student needs, therefore allowing students to move through the curriculum at their own pace. This prevents students from becoming overwhelmed or bored.

In addition to being motivating and self-paced, proficiency-based learning allows for flexibility and tends to lend itself to adaptation depending on individual needs of learners. With proficiency-based learning, there isn’t a set schedule that must be followed or deadlines for grades to be in! When students are ready to progress and have demonstrated mastery, they are allowed to move on.

One of the most beneficial elements of proficiency-based learning is its focus on skills-based assessment. In this approach, learning is centered on real-world skills and application. Lessons are designed around skills that are needed in order to master content and apply knowledge to real-world situations. Considering this, differentiation is offered in regard to assessment. Students have the option to choose how they demonstrate mastery.

For example, after a unit on the various branches of government, students may choose to create a video of their learning, write a paper about their learning, or create a PowerPoint presentation. This gives students choice in how they show what they know, giving them freedom to be creative and apply their interests and preferences to content.

Another noteworthy benefit of competency-based learning is that it is more cost efficient than standardized testing. According to The Huffington Post, standardized testing can cost states around 1.7 billion dollars per year. Testing costs per student vary from state to state. In New York, for example, standardized testing costs around $7 per student and in Delaware it costs approximately $73 per student. The high cost of testing, in addition to concerns about test validity and quality, is causing some states to seek a more cost efficient way to assess student learning. Proficiency-based learning assessments allow for measurement of content mastery at a much lower cost.

Proficiency-Based Learning Strategies to Try in Your Class

Transitioning from traditional learning to proficiency-based learning is not an easy change to make. It will come with practice and useful strategies and resources. Here are several strategies and tips for implementing proficiency-based learning in the classroom.

  • Offer Choice – Use activities and tools such as choice boards or curriculum menus. This will allow students to take ownership of their learning and demonstrate mastery in a way that fits their learning style and interest.
  • Student Surveys – Give student surveys to collect information on how and what they’d like to learn.
  • Feedback, Feedback, Feedback! – Since grades are off the table, be sure to provide frequent and meaningful feedback on student progress and product.
  • Use Learning Targets – Provide students with learning targets so that they don’t lose sight of the big picture.
  • Use Formative Assessments – Use formative assessments such as observation, notes, exit tickets, demonstration, etc to monitor student progress.
  • Use Authentic Assessments – Use authentic assessments to find out what students know. Use real world situations to assess students such as performance tasks, experiments and projects.
  • Utilize Technology – Use digital tools and sites that allow students to practice content and show mastery (presentations, recordings, etc).
  • Use Pre-Assessments – Conduct pre-assessments of student skills in order to meet them where they are. This will help you avoid teaching over students’ heads or presenting them with information that they have already mastered.
  • Be Flexible – Give students flexible learning opportunities that allow them to choose how they will learn and pick a delivery style that works for them. For example, one student may prefer reading about a topic, while another wishes to watch a video.

These strategies and tips are just a few ways to start transitioning into a more proficiency-based learning program. Moving toward a proficiency mindset will allow students to grow at their own pace and in their own way. Don’t be afraid to give it a try!