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How Are Students Graded in a Competency-Based Program?

Competency-based education (CBE) is not exactly new, but it is being adopted by a growing number of colleges and universities across the U.S., including the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI). But what is competency-based education? What shows up on your transcript once you’ve taken a course? How will you be graded?

Here is a brief overview of CBE, and how UMPI faculty members assess the performance of their students.

CBE in Brief

CBE programs award credit to students based on mastery of academic concepts. Students move on to the next subject after demonstrating competency in a concept. Learning in CBE is not time-bound. If a student shows competency after two weeks, for instance, he or she can start the next class. Students can go at a slower pace if they need more time to master the material.

At UMPI each course in a YourPace online degree program covers a series of competencies. Students who master the series complete the course. Students can progress faster based on previously earned college credits. They can also move forward based on prior real-world experience — not only on-the-job experience, but also experience they’ve gained outside of work.

The CBE Assessment

At UMPI, students have the option to complete what is known as a prior learning assessment (PLA). Through the PLA, students have the opportunity to evaluate their previous experiences and decide where they are in the process of earning a degree.

“A big part of the prior learning assessment is the development of a portfolio. And that simply could be you writing out all of those different experiences that you’ve had on the job over the years,” said Carolyn Dorsey, UMPI Associate Professor of Business Management. “It could cover the responsibilities that you’ve had, the presentations that you’ve made to coworkers. It could be the fact that you have to do peer evaluation.

“We document that experience in a way that speaks to the outcomes of this particular competency,” Dorsey said. “By doing that, we could say you’ve mastered the competency.”

Making the Grade

CBE proponents point to flaws in the traditional A-F method of grading. They say that while this system works well for some students, it is a questionable model for those who need more time to gain competency in a subject. CBE proponents also maintain that traditional methods can cause feelings of futility in these students, reinforcing beliefs that they simply cannot learn. As a result, the motivation to stay in school wanes. With CBE, students are able to take more time to master subjects they are having difficulty with.

But there has to be some tangible method of measuring performance, even in a CBE program. So what is it?

UMPI issues grades in the YourPace online degree programs, but those grades are based solely on the final assessment of each course. An assessment could consist of a paper, presentation or multiple choice exam. Faculty members administer quizzes and practice questions, and hold discussion sessions to help students gain mastery over content and prepare for the final assessment. While the final assessment is graded, the other exercises are not. Students must receive a minimum score of 80 to pass a course/competency.

For paper and presentation final assessments, students have the option to submit their final as a “draft” version and get instructor feedback prior to submitting a final version. For multiple choice exam assessments, students have a maximum of two attempts to score an 80 or higher. They have the ability to re-take the assignments leading up to the final as many times as necessary — until they feel they are ready to begin the final.

UMPI’s YourPace online bachelor’s degree programs in Accounting, Management & Leadership, and Project Management provide convenient options for students seeking to build on previous education and experience to earn a degree.

Learn more about the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s online Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration programs.


CompetencyWorks: What Is Competency Education?

Eduventures: Findings from the 2018 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education

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