Common Elements of Proficiency-Based Learning

Today, students arrive at Maine schools already learners. They've often grown up with computers, smartphones and tablet devices that let them explore the online world long before they learn to read and step foot in a classroom.

Proficiency-based learning recognizes that students have the drive, and the tools, to learn on their own in ways that work best for them.

Maine schools are leading the way in implementing proficiency-based learning. While each school implements it differently, proficiency-based learning has a few common elements wherever it's implemented.

  • Learning is the constant; time is the variable. The proficiency-based approach to learning recognizes that all students learn at their own pace. One student might learn fractions quickly, so there's no reason to hold her back while all other students in the class catch up. By the same token, a student who's taking more time than classmates to master the grammatical concept of "subjects" and "predicates" should only have to move on once he's mastered the concept. In high school, a student who's ready for college-level biology should be able to enroll in Biology 101 at a nearby college campus or online.
  • Learning is customized, engaging. The proficiency-based approach also recognizes that each student learns differently. One student might learn fractions best by reading instructions from a book, watching the teacher demonstrate the concept and practicing with paper and pencil. Another might learn better through a combination of watching instructional videos on YouTube and playing video games that incorporate mathematical concepts. If students are learning in a way that's natural to them -- which is an option that technology makes increasingly easier -- they're more likely to be engaged and excited.
  • Learning is driven by rigorous standards. Maine's academic standards articulate the skills students need to master to be prepared for college, careers and civic life. A proficiency-based unit often starts with the standard. "Describe ways organisms depend upon, interact within, and change the living and non-living environment, as well as ways the environment affects organisms,” for example. Students then work with their teachers to figure out what it means and get to work on projects of their choice that meet the standard.
  • Skilled teaching makes it possible. Proficiency-based learning changes much of what we've assumed about teaching. The teacher's role changes from one of delivering content, to one of working closely with students to help them discover their passions and preferred learning styles, use technology effectively to enhance learning, and decide how they'll demonstrate they've met the expectations.

School System Elements

School systems that make the transition to proficiency-based learning have the seven following infrastructural elements in common:

  1. A strategic design guides all decisions.
  2. The curriculum is written in the form of learner outcomes -- what the learner is expected to be able to do at each achievement level.
  3. Learner outcomes are categorized by learning format: individual, small group, large group.
  4. Learning outcomes have been created and placed online so they're transparent.
  5. Seminars have been created for those learners outcomes that require an interactive, seminar format.
  6. Scheduling technology has been implemented to facilitate customized learning experiences and interventions that help to keep individual learners on track.
  7. Accountability technology allows administrators to track each learner's progress on each learning topic.

This Center for Best Practice is a collaboration between the Maine Department of Education and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, made possible by the contributions of the Maine schools that share their stories.