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Erin Nguyen: UCLA needs to implement competency-based learning in STEM courses

Kelly Brennan/Daily Bruin

By Erin Nguyen

Feb. 22, 2017 7:55 p.m.

On my first day of organic chemistry class, my professor told us to look to the person on our left, then our right and expect one of the three of us to drop or fail the class.

Though harsh, my professor’s words held truth.

Universities are admitting more science, technology, engineering and mathematics students than they expect to graduate, and students are taught to compete, rather than support each other. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that40 percent of engineering students and 60 percent of premedical students switch to other subjects or fail to earn a degree.

Luckily, the new Life Science 7 series that debuted this fall is addressing these concerns.The series implements a flipped classroom format where students watch prerecorded lectures before class. The freed-up class time is then used to clarify concepts and practice applying the lecture material.

LS 7 was piloted in a class of 80 students, but many STEM lectures enroll over 200 students. LS 7’s flipped classroom is the change UCLAneeds, but the department can expand to larger classrooms by incorporating competency-based learning, or CBL. It emphasizes learning material over multiple tries, rather than making or breaking one’s grade over a single set of exams.

CBL, paired with flipped classrooms,may fix STEM’s turnover problem. A meta-analysis from UC San Francisco that analyzed 225 studies on flipped classrooms versus traditional lectures found that active learning can raise average grades by half a letter, and that students are 1.5 times more likely to fail under the traditional lecture model.

Students seem to appreciate the change. “In the moment, no one really likes extra work, but the video lectures keep you on track for what you need to learn and they’re helpful during test season,” said Aleeyah Mithavayani, a first-year neuroscience student.

Flipped classrooms also allow students to give teachers more feedback than traditional classrooms, and by extension make the material more tailored to students’ needs. Debra Pires, a professor who taught a LS 7 class in the fall, said she would make changes to potential test questions or activities if her students thought they were confusing.

Since the LS 7 series is still in its pilot stages, the department has the opportunity to test out other pedagogies to ensure that the flipped classroom can be sustainable in the long run. In particular, the newly freed-up class time provides the perfect opportunity to test CBL.

Under the flipped classroom model, class time is used to work on assignments that require application rather than memorization of the material. These assignments will solidify thecourse contentas well as allow students to collaborate with their peers, which is especially important in highly collaborative fields such as medicine and engineering. The assignments can be boosted to become quarter-term projects. With CBL, students are allowed to improve upon and resubmit their original projects if they did not do well the first time and take more creative risks in their work. The bottom line is that students have less pressure to cram for tests and more time to internalize the information.

Furthermore, class time can be used to administer test retakes. Existing CBL models have had students explain why the answer they chose on multiple-choice tests was wrong to receive partial credit, reinforcing any information they missed the first time.

For example, Cathy Davidson, a Duke professor, successfully implemented the CBL model in her classes.

Davidson noticed that students were writing and putting in more effort than the required course curriculum. In a project on attention span, one student flashed images on a screen while presenting his project, followed by a quiz on the presentation. Davidson concluded that students were more likely to take creative freedoms rather than cater to what they believe their teacher wants because they had the opportunity to redo the assignment.

CBL has also been implemented on a large scale at other universities. The Massachuetts Institute of Technology and The California Institute of Technology only assign their freshmen “pass/no record” grades in their first semester and “A/B/C/no record” in their second semester. Caltech and MIT exemplify that academic rigor and fostering learning for its own sake are not mutually exclusive. If top-notch schools can implement CBL to an entire cohort, UCLA can implement the model to a few select courses.

Of course, it is easy to dismiss competency-based education since not everyone in the “real world” gets a second chance. However, many professionals actually flourish through revisions. Architects redesign until their clients are satisfied, journalists submit multiple drafts and exams taken as adults – such as the bar exam, LSAT and driver’s license exam – allow retakes without repercussions.

Furthermore, it’s especially important to master information in introductory classes. A biology student, for example, could still receive a good grade if they glossed over a topic like photosynthesis, but did well on other topics. The only way to ensure they know this information is to require mastery.

UCLA has made great strides in academia and LS 7’s flipped classroom model is making a step in the right direction to reform traditional education. The newly available class time offers the perfect opportunity for collaborative work, application of material and assignment redos.

In a high-achieving school like UCLA, CBL can show students that failing for the first time just means that you hold yourself to a high standard, you’re surrounded by excellent people and you have room to grow.

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Erin Nguyen | Alumnus
Nguyen was an Opinion columnist.
Nguyen was an Opinion columnist.
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