How Competency-Based Education Paved the Way for College

by Briana Medina

My senior year of high school was a big year for me: leadership roles in clubs, AP classes, two internships, and a spring musical. But despite those things, only one stressor truly haunted my mind: where I would go to school the following year. I attended Kettle Moraine School for Arts and Performance (KM Perform) for high school, a competency-based learning environment in Wales, WI, and I wanted a similar experience for college. Naturally, my laundry list of possible colleges included primarily small, private, liberal arts colleges. So it was a shock to all – myself included – when I chose the University of Wisconsin-Madison to continue my education.

Going to a school with a student population of 135, I was shocked walking into my 500-person lecture hall, where the professor talked for an hour and 15 minutes straight. I got a 67% on my first exam and immediately began questioning everything I thought I knew about my education. I had always loved the personalized, project-based approach used in KM Perform, but was it worth it if my next four years were going to look like this? I expressed my fears to my roommates, and to my surprise, I wasn’t the only person who had done poorly on my first exam. All 4 of us had. I also talked to my peers in class the next day and found out I wasn’t the only one who could have done better on that first exam. While I wasn’t the only one who had done poorly on the exam, I was undoubtedly the only one of us who attended a competency-based learning environment in high school.

It was time to change my mindset. Even though I only had a little experience demonstrating my learning through exams, I looked back on many other ways I had presented my knowledge throughout the years and began using those experiences and skills to my advantage.

In KM Perform, participation was crucial to success, so I made it my goal to participate in every class discussion and ask questions when I needed clarification. At the same time, some students around me stared at each other like deer in the headlights during class discussions. One of my professors was so impressed with my participation that he told me I had shown him I knew the material and that I didn’t need to take the final exam. I found that even if you do poorly on an exam, communication and participation skills are crucial to maintaining a good GPA at UW-Madison.

Group work is typical in courses at UW-Madison, so students must be able to collaborate. As a student in a competency-based learning environment, I collaborated with other students every day during my high school career; we presented projects, solved problem sets, had discussions and put on performances together. Knowing your place in a group project and working with others is crucial to your post-secondary education and your career after college.

Critical and creative thinking was a standard expectation in KM Perform. Therefore, essay writing comes naturally to me. While many students wrote essays about examples used in class by the professor, I compared political theory to a Taylor Swift song. My roommates thought I was crazy, but I received an A regardless, and I enjoyed writing it.

As I continue taking UW-Madison classes, I see how many professors are beginning to ditch exams to see learning demonstrated in more meaningful ways, like in-depth projects or essays. I am continuously shocked by the number of disappointed students who would prefer to take an exam because they are not confident demonstrating learning in any other way. As far as I know, exams are rare in the workforce, so why would we continue to use them to demonstrate competence at the post-secondary level for much longer? Furthermore, why aren’t we preparing students to be more well-rounded in high school to prepare them for the different ways they will need to demonstrate competence in the future?

Before I went to KM Perform, I had little confidence in myself. I had difficulty speaking in front of large audiences, participating in class, and working with others. The nature of competency-based learning pushed me to work on these skills, which have prepared me tremendously for my post-secondary education. As a sophomore in college, I am heavily involved with multiple student organizations on campus, including student government. I am an undergraduate research assistant in an ongoing project about Latinx political mobilization and am on the Dean’s list. I am the student I am today because of the skills I gained attending a competency-based learning environment.

Briana Medina headshotBriana Medina is an undergraduate studying Political Science & Education Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Briana is passionate about social justice, particularly educational equity. Her additional areas of interest include immigration policy and settler colonial theory. In her free time, she participates in the Associated Students of Madison, works as an undergraduate research assistant in the political science department, and sings with the Madrigal Singers at UW-Madison.