The role of peer evaluation in competency-based learning

In 2019, the National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education found that out of 602 institution respondents, 74% reported being in the process of adopting CBE or being interested in CBE.

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning (CBL) is a results-driven learning system in which students progress onto the next “level” by mastering competencies (Henri et al., 2017). CBL has gained the interest of many higher education institutions as it allows students to learn at an individualized pace, and develop the necessary skills for their academic or professional careers before advancing to the next level.

Barriers to Competency-Based Learning:

Despite the proven benefits of competency-based education, institutions have struggled to fully adopt it. The barriers to CBL mainly come down to the resources required, and without the aid from technology like Kritik, it can be challenging to implement, particularly for mid to large class sizes. 

There are institutions that have fully adopted CBL or are taking the steps to implement full CBL programs. Two such examples are the University of Wisconsin and Southern New Hampshire University. 

Universities Recognized for Implementing Competency-Based Learning:

The University of Wisconsin system is piloting a CBL program called UW Flexible Option, or UW Flex, in which professionals evaluate students’ skills and masteries over any given amount of time (University of Wisconsin, 2021). CBL programs are designed to allow students to direct their own learning pace as they achieve masteries to complete their programs, instead of traditionally measuring academic success through grades and credits earned (Fain, 2019). Moreover, learning is non-semestered, so students are not required to begin their studies at the beginning of the term and can complete assessments in a flexible learning environment (University of Wisconsin, 2021).

UW-Milwaukee’s Bachelor of Nursing Flex Option has benefitted many students who want to advance their nursing education and careers. A study in 2017 revealed that slightly more than 44 percent of nurses working in Wisconsin did not possess more than a two-year degree, and were looking to receive more education and training without pausing their careers (Lumina Foundation, 2017). In this case, the Nursing Flex Option suited nurse Mary Olukoton, who comments that a CBL-based course has given her much more academic independence:

“I definitely like setting my own pace. I’m the type of student who likes to go to class prepared, and it’s frustrating when you get to class and have to work at the pace of other students who aren’t prepared” (Lumina Foundation, 2017).

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has also fully adopted competency-based education. As the university explains, they took this step to ensure academic success focused on measuring learning rather than measuring time or credits. More specifically, rather than say “so many hours equals a course, and so many courses equals a degree,” competencies and learning measure a student's progress in their education journey.

While the University of Wisconsin and Southern New Hampshire University have both taken significant steps to implement CBL, many institutions are looking for solutions to introduce competency-based learning pedagogy in ways that can be implemented quickly without increasing their overall workload.

Kritik team members work directly with departments and individual instructors to implement peer learning in a way that reduces the grading burden and allows more time for coaching and mentoring. In a three step onboarding process, the Kritik team ensures professors are not only comfortable with the platform, but also receive the ongoing support they need to have immediate success with peer learning. 

Why the focus on competencies? How can we assess them?

A competency is the capacity to apply skills, knowledge, or abilities to a real-world situation. If a competency is mastered, the student has knowledge or skills and has demonstrated that they know how to use it. For employers, or future career aspirations, competencies are critical to ensuring what is learned in school is relevant and can be applied the real-world context. 

For assessment, competency-based models rely on measurement assessment. 

“If a proposed competency cannot be described unambiguously and subsequently measured, it probably is not a competency. Given these fundamental attributes, all parties to the learning process—faculty, external experts, administrators, and students—should be able to understand with clarity the outcomes of the learning experience” (Voorhees, 2001).

Assessments can take the form of tests, projects and other activities, but in any case, instructors need to clearly communicate to the students the competencies to be taught and assessed in order to ensure students have a clear roadmap for success (Henri et. al, 2017). The added flexibility of CBL allows for the additional implementation of pedagogical strategies including project-based learning, group-based learning, team-based learning and peer-learning. 

Peer assessment is an effective strategy to implement competency-based learning. Students are able to focus on achieving competencies outlined by clear rubrics and objectives set out at the beginning, and then provide and receive feedback based on their competencies. 

What role does peer evaluation play in competency-based learning?

Did you know that increased peer assessment methods have a direct, positive impact on student performance and competency development? Increased student engagement and reflection directly influences the quality of feedback and develops competence as students actively learn and apply coursework (Ibarra-Sáiz et al., 2020).

Peer assessment can enhance coursework and help students develop necessary knowledge and skills for the future. Evaluation and feedback through peer assessment will help students gain greater confidence in their judgment while developing a deeper understanding of course content. 

A 2020 study examines how peer assessment practices can help facilitate effective competency-based learning in undergraduate courses. Peer assessment is a powerful tool to develop competencies by:

Allowing students to gain a better understanding of course expectations and materials:

Students will develop and demonstrate competencies through evaluation and feedback. This process encourages active learning as students apply their knowledge of the course to evaluate their peers’ work. Furthermore, when they provide feedback on others’ evaluations, they are able to reflect on their own assignment and gain a new perspective on how to improve their work. When students are motivated to provide quality, constructive evaluations and feedback, they positively contribute to their own and their peers’ competency development (Ibarra-Sáiz et al., 2020).

Allowing students to develop problem-solving skills by applying their knowledge in contextual situations:

By developing competency in the course, students are better equipped to solve problems and navigate situations that could arise in the relevant academic or professional environment. Peer assessment can also introduce new ideas or ways to communicate ideas, and present a new lens of understanding of course work.

Promoting critical thinking and effective communication in assignments:

The study also found that students who critically assessed their peers’ assignments and were open to improving their own work developed confidence in their judgement and contributed to more effective learning in the classroom (Ibarra-Sáiz et al., 2020). Peer assessment helps facilitate meaningful discussions between students, and enables them to critically think about their own work and help others. Feedback increases the capacity and quality of learning (Hounsell, 2007).

The study’s findings conclude that students could effectively demonstrate competencies in their course through peer assessment.

Peer assessment creates a dynamic learning environment. With students acting as evaluators, teachers are able to act as facilitators and mentors, guiding discussions and evaluations to elevate learning and provide specific guidance along the way. 

Learn more about the benefits of peer assessment here.

How can Kritik help facilitate competency-based learning with peer assessment?

Kritik empowers professors to implement competency-based learning strategies seamlessly into their course while simultaneously allowing for a more efficient, manageable grading and administration process. 

There is a recent shift from teacher-centered education to learner-centered education, and at the same time, a shift from content-centered curricula to competence-centered curricula. It is top of mind for education research and institutions to commit to evolving in order to ensure students receive a learning experience that will prepare them most effectively for their future. That being said, competency-based education for all its benefits - retention and recruitment, addressing diverse student needs and industry needs, and providing a clear assessment structure to students - has struggled to be widely adopted institution-wide. However, with Kritik, CBL is not only possible, but also more accessible than ever. 

Kritik implements CBL through three stages of peer learning: Create Stage, Evaluate Stage, and Feedback Stage. Engaging students in different creative and reflective stages facilitates active learning and helps them gain a better understanding of course material. Peer assessment allows students to critically assess their own work, while evaluating their peers’ and providing meaningful feedback.

In the Evaluate stage, students follow a rubric and are expected to justify the grade they provided to their peers. Students learn to be accountable for their learning and to think deeper as they explain their thought process behind the evaluations.

In the Feedback stage, students respond to and rate the evaluations they’ve received based on how critical and motivational they are (Levels 1-4). If either Critical or Motivational is rated Level 1 or 4, the student must justify their feedback. This encourages further reflection and discussion before the activity is graded and finalized by the instructor! This cycle of evaluation encourages students to actively reflect on their own work and apply course concepts and knowledge while evaluating others’ work.

For more insights on peer assessment, we have some helpful articles about effectively facilitating peer assessment and engaging students with peer assessment.

Moreover, Kritik allows you to create calibration activities, which allow you to measure how similar students grade to you. This will develop students’ competence in evaluation, as they use your rubric to evaluate sample creations and understand your course expectations. The more similar they grade like you in the calibration activity, the higher the students’ overall grading power; this will impact other students’ scores during the evaluation stage.

The calibration feature ultimately reduces grading time, as students’ grading powers will help you grade other students’ work. Not only do students’ work get evaluated by multiple persons, but these evaluations are also calibrated similarly to how you would grade them.

In Conclusion

There is great enthusiasm by institutions for competency-based learning as a way to improve student engagement, increase focus on critical thinking and higher order thinking skills and better prepare students for meaningful careers post graduation. At the same time, the resources required to implement CBL have posed challenges. Peer learning is a solution that addresses these challenges allowing professors and students to realize the benefits of CBL without the growing pains or any increases in resources or time. 

References

Doucette, D. (2016, March 29). How competency-based courses are changing the Education Game. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2016/03/how-competency-based-courses-are-changing-education-game.

Fain, P. (2019, January 28). Slow growth for competency-based education, but survey finds interest and optimism about it. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/01/28/slow-growth-competency-based-education-survey-finds-interest-and-optimism-about-it.

Henri, M., Johnson, M. D., & Nepal, B. (2017). A Review of Competency‐Based Learning: Tools, Assessments, and Recommendations. Journal of Engineering Education (Washington, D.C.), 106(4), 607–638. https://doi.org/10.1002/jee.20180.

Hounsell, D. (2007). Towards more sustainable feedback to students. In Rethinking assessment in higher education: learning for the longer term.

Ibarra-Sáiz, M. S., Rodríguez-Gómez, G., & Boud, D. (2020). Developing student competence through peer assessment : the role of feedback, self-regulation and evaluative judgement. Higher Education, 80(1), 137–156. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00469-2.

Lumina Foundation. (2017, September 26). UW-Milwaukee 'Flex' program helps Nursing Students Chart career success. Focus. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://focus.luminafoundation.org/uw-milwaukee-flex-program-helps-nursing-students-chart-career-success/

Neary, D. M. (2020, September 1). Competency-Based learning puts students at the CENTER. it's perfect for now. EdSurge. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-09-01-competency-based-learning-puts-students-at-the-center-it-s-perfect-for-now

Postsecondary Competency-Based Education Research at American Institutes for Research (2019). State of the Field: Findings From the 2019 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education [Data set]. American Institutes for Research. https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/National-Survey-of-Postsecondary-CBE-Lumina-October-2019-rev.pdf.

University of Wisconsin (2021, April 6). Meet Claire— How the UW Flexible Option Works for You [Video file]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGwa1_9NWuo&t=10s

Voorhees, R. A. (2001). Competency-based learning models: A necessary future. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2001(110), 5-13. https://doi.org/10.1002/ir.7.

Virginia Li
Education Researcher

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