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Set Your Guideposts: Defining and Pursuing Success in Competency-Based Education

The EvoLLLution | Set Your Guideposts: Defining and Pursuing Success in Competency-Based Education
Supporting student success inside and outside the classroom, and more clearly defining what success means, requires setting important guideposts that help direct growth in CBE programming.

“Ski the slope, not the mountain,” a wise professor once told me—meaning don’t worry about everything you will encounter down the mountain, only focus on what is right in front of you, and bit by bit you will find yourself at the bottom, hopefully with all of your limbs intact. The idea of skiing the slope became a mantra throughout my graduate studies as I methodically completed each requirement before me, one by one, rather than worrying about the entirety of them.

In my work with learners of all ages, I see the idea behind skiing the slope and not the mountain as one of the most important things we can help students learn. In our daily lives, not just in school, we are all confronted with a mountain of responsibilities and the key to success is learning how to prioritize and tackle, or divide and conquer.

The ability to prioritize your workload could not be more important for online, adult learners who are largely responsible for their own motivation and forward momentum. One of the biggest lessons I have learned working for the competency-based Personalized Learning program at Northern Arizona University is the value of incremental, attainable milestones.

We are always looking for ways to get better at what we do, and one of the things we quickly identified as an area for improvement is how we help our students learn to prioritize and tackle their coursework. So often, we wrongly assume that our students know how to put themselves to task because they are adults, many of them with jobs and families and a mountain of real-world responsibilities. But in fact, it is those students who need our help the most to learn how to schedule their time and balance their workload so they can keep up with their lives and their jobs and their schoolwork. There is an old saying: If you need something done, ask a busy person. This adage is supported by the findings of a 2016 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggest the busier you are, the more productive you become (Wilcox et al). It is this mentality that we need to teach our students: When the tasks keep coming in, don’t get buried by an avalanche of responsibility; stop and make a list of what needs to be done then go about checking each one off your list.

This advice is the heart of what has come to be known as the “Ivy Lee Method.” In 1918, Ivy Lee, who is considered the founder of modern public relations, was a productivity consultant. He offered Charles M. Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel Corporation, a suggestion to improve the productivity of the corporation’s executives. His recommendation was to end each day by making a list of the 5 or 6 most important things you want to accomplish the next day, listing them in order of importance. The next day, focus on one task at a time, and anything unfinished should be carried over to the next day’s list of tasks. This seems pretty straight-forward advice, but the story goes that after 3 months of implementing Lee’s suggestion, Schwab was so pleased with the productivity of his executives, he wrote Lee a check for $25,000 (which equates to roughly $400,000 by today’s cost of living). Teaching our students how to effectively manage their workload will help them be more successful in all aspects of their lives.

Another area we have identified for improvement is finding the sweet spot between flexibility and structure. In our effort to provide our students absolute flexibility, we found that we have not provided quite enough structure. Some students did really well with the absolute freedom to work on what they wanted whenever they wanted work on it, but most of our students have needed a bit more accountability. They found it was too easy to procrastinate when they didn’t have any timeline requirements, and many found themselves scrambling at the end of their six-month subscription to maintain satisfactory progress.

We have now implemented some fence posts to help encourage consistent progress. Our faculty work closely with our students to help them develop a study timeline and identify submission targets. And then more importantly, the faculty follow up with the students to see how they are doing meeting their goals. The role of our faculty is part cheerleader, part drill sergeant, and our students have shared that this model was very helpful. They appreciated having a go-to resource who knew why the student had enrolled in our program, what they hoped to accomplish while they were with us and what they were looking forward to doing after graduation. Students shared that having someone they felt accountable to encouraged them to work at times when they did not feel like working, simply because they didn’t want to report they had missed their goal.

We have also built in clearly articulated definitions for what satisfactory progress looks like in our CBE program. We have established a part-time and full-time completion expectation for our students. When they begin their subscription, they identify both the number of credits and the courses they intend to complete during the six months. They still have the freedom to pick and choose which of the competency-based lessons they want to work on, but they are held to the expectation that all lessons associated with their selected courses will be finished by the end of the subscription. We have additionally built in some mini checkpoints within the lessons to encourage consistent, weekly academic activity.

Through these steps and more, we have seen improvement in our students’ progress, and we look forward to finding more ways to help our students navigate the mountain.

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Abadi, M. (Sep. 8, 2018). A CEO and dad uses a 100-year-old strategy to get control of his schedule in just 15 minutes each night. Business Insider.

Wilcox, K.; Laran, J.; Stephen, A.; Zubcsek, P. (Mar. 2016). How being busy can increase motivation and reduce task completion time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 110 (3), pp. 371-384. DOI:

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