5 lessons from job-training programs: The original competency-based experts

2. Competencies evolve, and so should your program

When the program that eventually grew into mechatronics was begun, the original thinking was that students could get through in about 225 hours. “They found that didn’t work,” said Elsayed. So it was increased to 300 hours, then 360 hours. Because people go through the work at their own speeds, the higher amount of time seemed to mesh better with most students’ self-pacing.

But all along the instructors have also been adding competencies “to help students and ensure they were successful. By now the list of competencies adds up to the hundreds,” she pointed out. And they grow more complex as the student gains mastery in the beginning topics.

While the program is entirely self-paced, there are start and end dates the student is supposed to follow, with “a little leeway” built in, “because some people do take a little longer.” On the other hand, some people speed through based on their backgrounds. And they won’t be held back.

The instructor does “just-in-time” training, she added. “If two or three of them are having the same questions, he has a whiteboard and he pulls it over and he’ll draw a diagram or circuit and show them where they’re having trouble.” What the training isn’t, she said, is a “standard classroom lecture.”

3. Don’t ignore the fundamentals

Whether they’re going into traditional classrooms or competency-based programs, students still need to have the fundamentals, and that means a strong foundation in math. Early on, CCAC would assess students with a placement test. “We said, OK, as long as you are at a 10th grade level, you must understand algebra, [so] you’ll do well. But we found that just because you do all right on a standardized test, that does not mean you really understand algebra,” Elsayed said.

Currently, the math entrance requirement stands at 11th grade-plus.

CCAC has tried all kinds of techniques to bring students up to speed. Now the college takes a two-pronged approach. It runs a math café with tutors. And it offers Plato, an online remediation program from Edmentum. The school identifies where a student is weak in math and assigns modules for them to practice on. When they believe they’re ready, they can come back and retest.

Where prospective students aren’t able to get up to standard, they’re also unable to get into the class. “Some people just can’t,” acknowledged Elsayed. “They’re [not] willing to put in the time and effort necessary to learn the math.”

(Next page: Lessons 4-5)