Defining Success in a CBE Program

a key pushing through the tumblers in a lock.

Thanks for asking, Mike. I can’t tell from your tweet whether you’re referring to 70% of outcomes grades in a course, vs. getting 70% of questions within a competency correct, so I’m going to address both conditions.

Passing a Traditional Course

We are all accustomed to the traditional grading practice in which we work our way through a series of assignments in a course, getting different scores on each, and having our total success calculated as an average of those scores. As long as the average of our scores is above a certain threshold, say 70%, then we are considered to have “passed the class”.

Assignment 1 Assignment 2 Assignment 3 Assignment 4 Assignment 5 Total Grade
76 100 0 91 87 70.8

In this example, the student has generally performed well on most assignments, but has completely failed Assignment # 3, earning zero points. The average of these five scores is still above 70%, so the student passes the course. Whatever competencies Assignment # 3 was meant to assess, the student did not show evidence that s/he is competent. The student passes on into their bright future without ever really having to learn that material.

Competency Based Grading

I like to think of a CBE gradebook as tumblers in a lock — the door (or course) won’t open until every individual competency is met. Each competency is assessed separately and the student does not progress into their bright future without showing mastery of each individual competency.

In this sense, the grading is a binary, either/or choice — competent or not? pass or fail? — and it’s the reason why I argue against using percentages at all when assessing competencies. Using a four-point scale like the one below keeps the focus on whether the student is showing competency or needs more revision:
– Emerging
– Approaching Competency
– Exceeds Competency

So can a student who has shown mastery of 70% of the outcomes in English 101 pass the course? No. They need to master 100%, especiallly since each competency stands on its own as a discrete skill, knowledge, or attitude that students must demonstrate mastery of.

(Side note: Yes, this is harder than what students are used to! It results in negative initial evaluations of CBE programs by students who are accustomed to the workload of a traditional course. It’s also the reason that CBE requires a much higher level of student support than we are accustomed to seeing in traditional ed. Higher standards, more support — they go hand in hand).

Defining Competency

Now, within each competency, I have seen people make correlations like “if you get 70% of the questions right on this quiz, that shows competency.” You as the instructor/ creator of the assessment have the freedom to determine what level of performance should constitute a passing grade.

A baseball player who hits 70% of pitches would be considered superhuman, while an air traffic controller who only keeps 70% of planes from crashing would be considered a failure.

When you are designing assessments to measure competency on a given task, you should use whatever industry-specific guidelines are available to you, as well as the reasoned input from subject-matter experts and likely employers. What’s important, though, is to make this reasoning transparent to all stakeholders — even going so far as to write up an explanation of how this task is expected to demonstrate mastery of this competency.

If you (as a subject-matter expert) determine that getting 70% of 100 questions right on an anatomy quiz shows sufficient understanding of the structures of the body for students to be successful later in life as a surgeon, then that’s your call to make. However, CBE calls us to make that decision in partnership with the employers where our students will one day work. If they are only willing to hire surgeons who can name 100% of body parts, then you would do well to adjust your assessment to match.

I hope I’ve answered your question, Mike, or at least shed some light on the matter. Please feel free to comment or question if I went astray.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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