Competency-based Learning

By Kristy Johnson, head of Middle School

We all experience feedback daily in various forms throughout our lives. The type of feedback and how we receive it help us improve our performance and reach our goals. In education, feedback for students is often given through grades. 

Traditionally, grades from assignments, projects, labs, quizzes and tests are combined into one single grade composed of a mix of cognitive and non-cognitive elements. The hope is that these single grades clearly communicate how students are progressing in their learning and how they are doing in school. However, other methods exist for providing feedback in the classroom, and they have been seen to help students articulate not just what they know but what they know how to do. 

Competency-based learning (CBL) is one alternative method for providing feedback to students. When feedback is given to students through core competencies or learning outcomes, students understand where they are doing well and where they demonstrate a need for growth. The Aurora Institute has led the work defining CBL, and it has articulated seven core elements:

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery (in a key skill or area of learning)
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing. They can demonstrate their understanding through classwork and assessments.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable. These skills can be applied beyond the assessment at hand, e.g., later on in their schooling and/or life.

Over the past few years, the fifth- and sixth-grade teams have been exploring CBL to see what parts of a competency-based learning model might work at LJCDS. In addition, the Middle School’s World Language department has been using a standards-based or competency-based feedback model for years now. 

Last year, for professional development, the Middle School invited Global Online Academy to present about the type of feedback CBL provides students. As a result, teachers have created, or are creating, learning outcomes or core competencies that have been shared with students and families through grading rubrics. With these rubrics, students receive specific feedback on their work and are given support to demonstrate growth in their core competencies. The rubrics demonstrate to students and families that “grades do not reflect who you are as a learner, but where you are in your learning journey.” 

At the end of the day, we want our students to learn for the love of learning and not just for the grade. CBL feedback helps to get us closer to that goal by helping take the focus off one-single grade and emphasizing the mastery of learning.

Kristy Johnson
Kristy Johnson

Head of Middle School

Kristy Johnson attended Tulane University on a Division I volleyball scholarship and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in management in marketing. She earned her master’s degree in the humanities with an emphasis on art history from the University of Chicago. While at the University of Chicago, she served as the women’s volleyball assistant coach. Mrs. Johnson began her teaching career at The Bishop’s School. Before joining La Jolla Country Day School in 2010, she taught history and was the dean of students at Sacramento Country Day School.

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