Proficiency vs. Mastery: Recognizing Growth and Excellence in CBE

"You got 'A' on blood test? Why not A+?!"

In response to Kaplan University Begins Offering Personalized Competency Reports to More than 40,000 Students

Kaplan University’s Personalized Competency Reports

It’s great to see Kaplan’s Competency Report, though it’s a bit less granular than I was expecting. I’ve seen at other institutions where they have a small set of high-level institutional competencies like these, and then a more detailed, larger set of specific learning outcomes that actually guide instruction and assessment. Considering one of the competencies here is “Mathematics“, it underscores how many specific bits of knowledge and skills have to feed up into that one rating.

I wonder– do students get that report too? I would imagine they would see their specific performance on individual learning modules, not just these high level competencies? Ideally, there should be both.

Proficiency vs. Mastery in Competency-Based Learning

On another point, I really like the scale of mastery they use for the student grading report. It is as follows:

  • Introductory
  • Emergent
  • Practiced
  • Proficient
  • Mastery

One protest I hear from faculty about this type of scale is whether mastery can ever truly be achieved in school, and this scale nicely situates mastery above proficiency to emphasize how rare (yet attainable) it is. I like this because it doesn’t correspond with the 100-point scale (As-Fs), so it discourages the kind of grade-grubbing conversations we see in traditional ed. (e.g. “I need an A in this class”) and replaces them with conversations around whether the work shows evidence of proficiency.

It’s true that most students will reach proficiency (not mastery) within the timeframe of instruction. This is not a failing, though the 100-point grade scale creates the illusion that 100% is the standard, and anything less is a failure. The over-emphasis on grades is parodied in the popular online meme “High Expectations Asian Father”:


Creating the perception that an “A” is the only acceptable grade puts pressure on students to achieve them, but it also puts pressure on instructors to inflate grades to appease students who aggressively lobby for them. Again, all of this is counterproductive if students are getting As without truly showing mastery in their work.

Often students will perceive a grade less than 100% as a negative evaluation of them personally, not as an attempt at constructive feedback about the work itself. Their responses are often attempts to save face, to protect their egoes, or to retaliate against the instructor for this perceived insult. This complicates the relationship between teacher and student, creates an adversarial dynamic rather than one of partnership, and discourages further collaboration and revision towards mastery.

The Proper Value of a Passing Grade

I think of proficiency as truly representing 100% success, and mastery as being 110% — showing exceptional ability, effort, and expertise that goes well beyond expectations. There should be no penalty for showing proficient work, but there should be a reward for exceeding the requirements of the assignment (as there are in real-world work settings). CBE removes the time-pressure on learning so students are free to push themselves to mastery if they choose to, but are also free to progress to the next challenge if they are satisfied with proficiency.

As I state in “The Angry Birds Guide to Online Lesson Design“,

In Angry Birds, you can progress to the next level after scoring two stars on a challenge (proficiency),but you can also persevere to achieve mastery (3 stars) if you are motivated to do so… these design choices support students’ ability to self-monitor and develop metacognition about themselves as learners.

This game design supports students’ intrinsic motivation to work towards mastery, while not penalizing those who achieve proficiency.

I found, while teaching in Envision Schools‘ project-based mastery learning program, that students would often far exceed the requirements of the assignment, where it was clear they were pushing their abilities for their own personal reasons, not just to get an A. The resulting work artifacts showed an unreasonable amount of effort and care — the kind of quality you see in artisan crafts, not classroom assignments. This type of achievement is (A) sufficiently rare that it can not be expected of all students, and (B) should be highly rewarded when it is achieved.

I applaud Kaplan University, Envision Schools, and all the other institutions that are changing the conversation from an “all or nothing” (0-100%) view of student achievement, and one that emphasizes growth and recognizes excellence.

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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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