Students with Program Mentors in the LCD Pilot

Using Data to Support Adult Learners in Competency-Based Education

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A Fresh Look at Competency-Based Education

At the beginning of 2020, none of us could have predicted the challenges we’d face this year. A global pandemic combined with social and political upheaval have fundamentally changed the way we live, work, learn, and play. This is especially true in the education sector. This article focuses on predictors of student success by using data to support adult learning in Competency-Based Education (CBE) settings.

Educators have had to rethink and rework their curriculum to fit unfamiliar online platforms. They also must consider the diverse needs of learners with varying abilities, face-time and technology constraints, or who may be dealing with difficult personal circumstances. I salute the educators and students of every age and grade level who have worked so hard to adapt and succeed despite the most trying of circumstances.

In my role as the Director of Institutional Research at Western Governors University (WGU), I lead a team that depends on data to help us understand the challenges our students are facing and find ways to help them succeed. WGU is a nonprofit, online, competency-based university that was established in 1997 by a group of U.S. governors. Their goal was to make higher education more accessible and to improve career prospects for adult learners. The goal was to focus on those who are already employed and whose life circumstances make pursuit of higher education difficult. It’s a goal that’s as relevant today as it was in the late ‘90s.

Towards Better Careers through Competency-Based Education (CBE)

With national unemployment numbers higher than we’ve seen in decades, many people will be forced to upskill or reskill to find employment. This is not a new challenge. Many adults make the choice to pursue higher education while balancing careers, families, and financial constraints. However, the global effects of COVID-19 have magnified the difficulties of fitting education into already-complicated lives. Not only that, I believe the current economic climate will prompt unprecedented numbers of people to pursue higher education to establish new careers or change career paths entirely.

So, the question is, what is the best way to serve adult students who, for the most part, already have some marketable skills and workplace experience? At WGU, competency-based education (CBE) enables us to acknowledge the skills students already possess and move them toward better careers and better lives. WGU has pioneered CBE at the university level. And we are constantly working to improve the student experience. However, we understand that adjusting to a CBE educational model can be a difficult transition for some students. A robust, evidence-based reliance on data provides the basis for innovative programs and initiatives to keep our students on the path to success.

CBE at WGU

To understand how we use data to enhance the student experience, it’s important to understand how CBE works. Since many people may not be familiar with CBE – let me share some information about CBE. Simply put, CBE is an educational model that focuses on knowledge and mastery of skills rather than time spent in a classroom, whether physical or virtual.

Many students who enroll in a degree program at WGU already have applicable skills they’ve picked up on the job. Some also have previous college credit in their chosen area of study. Our online courses remove the restraints of daily or weekly “seat time.” This allows students to determine the pace and timing of their education. If they are already knowledgeable about a certain aspect of their degree program, they can move through those courses quickly. They demonstrate mastery of the subject through assessments, including proctored exams, papers, and projects. But in areas where they lack previous knowledge or skills, they can take more time to learn and become proficient. As they progress, they earn required competency units (CUs) rather than traditional credit hours in order to qualify for a degree.

Keeping Students on Track

Self-driven learning is convenient but also requires a strong support network. At WGU, each student is assigned a faculty member, known as a program mentor, who works with them from the day they enroll to the day they graduate.

  • The program mentor provides program-level instruction and support.
  • They help students navigate course requirements and guide them through every aspect of their education.
  • These mentors are key to student success. In fact, in a recent Gallup Alumni Survey, 68% of WGU graduates said they had a mentor who encouraged them, compared with just 34% of students nationally.

In addition to program mentors, students receive educational support from other types of faculty, including course instructors, who are subject-matter experts and provide instruction at the course level. Evaluators with advanced degrees review assessments and provide comprehensive feedback to students.

The Unique Challenges of CBE

The snapshot of a typical WGU student looks much different from that of a typical four-year university student. As of July 31, 2020, 85% of WGU’s 123,214 currently enrolled full-time students hold down jobs while enrolled in their courses. And 74% work full time. The median age of students is 36, and a majority are married with families.

Online CBE courses provide a more flexible, accessible education experience. Nevertheless, students who are new to the CBE educational model can find it difficult to adjust to independent learning. This is especially true when balancing jobs and families in addition to their studies.

Some of the biggest points of friction for WGU students’ on-time progress to graduation include time management, access to technology, and, more recently, struggles related to the coronavirus pandemic. WGU’s purpose is to help students achieve a degree and a satisfying career. So, it is up to us to find ways to meet students where they are. And to support them as they overcome hurdles to accomplishing their goals. We do that by collecting and analyzing data points, which allows us to identify efficient and creative ways to assist our students.

Predictors of Success

WGU’s program mentors are educational superheroes. They are the helpers and motivators who keep students engaged and supported through their journey with the university. In order to provide this support, mentors monitor certain data points for each student that indicate their level of successful engagement with their courses. These data indicators track events such as assessment scores, academic activity within a certain time period, and length of time since a student has engaged with a faculty member.

Depending on the program, WGU mentors work with 80 to 90 students at a time. Prior to 2018, in order to keep track of each student’s success indicators, mentors had to manage and collate several different reports and spreadsheets to get an accurate snapshot of each student’s academic behavior. With enrollment steadily increasing, we knew this time-consuming process of manually gathering student reports was unsustainable.

Technology to Bolster Student Success

To address these challenges, faculty and staff spent two years and more than 2500 engineering hours designing the Learner Care Dashboard (LCD). The LCD provides an at-a-glance view of student success indicators, allowing for more timely and personalized interaction with students who may need help. Faculty members can access the LCD 24/7. And they can gather and summarize the data by program, specific faculty members, or student pacing patterns.

WGU began pilot testing the LCD in July 2018, launching it to a small group of mentors and faculty. Data from the pilot program made it clear that the LCD provided timely prompts to intervene with students after noting a decline in their academic engagement. Students whose mentors used the LCD had more frequent engagement with the courses, engaged sooner after experiencing a difficult event like a failed assessment, and completed 6.3% more CUs than did similar students whose mentors did not participate in the LCD pilot program.

Students with Program Mentors in the LCD Pilot

Additionally, course completion rates for students whose mentors used the LCD were 3.8% percentage points higher than peers whose mentors were not part of the pilot program. Non-attempt rates of assessment—the number of students who miss a test deadline—for students in the pilot program were 2.3% percentage points lower than those of their peers. Over time, students’ performance improved as the number of detrimental events per month decreased.  This suggests that mentors and faculty were more proactive in supporting students before they experienced one of these events and quickly responded to assist them afterward.

Students whose mentors participated in the pilot expressed satisfaction with the mentoring changes. Surveys following the pilot program showed that, compared to their peers, students whose mentors used LCD strongly believed their relationship with mentors directly increased their academic success.

Benefits to Mentors

The LCD led to great improvement in the mentors’ experience as well. In addition to greater ease of use in generating reports, the LCD led to:

  • an increased responsiveness to student needs,
  • more productive student interactions, and
  • better work-life balance.

One mentor said, “LCD had me so organized I did not have to run my usual reports and manipulate spreadsheets to get what I needed. I am so excited about how much this will help my mentoring practice, but more importantly, the success of my students.”

Using Data to Expand Support SystemsWoman in Blue Denim Jacket Sitting on Green Grass Field

Competency-based learning paths are highly adaptable and accessible to students. But, it is admittedly harder to build a community of care for students whose in-person interactions with faculty are limited. To combat this, WGU continues to use available data to develop and improve its student support systems.

After the success of the initial LCD pilot program, WGU expanded it. Now the program includes approximately a third of faculty members in March 2019. LCD was fully implemented on June 10, 2019. This has allowed all mentors and faculty to personalize their interactions with students and provide support based on their needs rather than the date on the calendar.

Today, the LCD uses student activity data such as quiz results, click data, and student record data regarding calls, emails, and live event attendance to trigger faculty notifications. These notifications prompt outreach based on student behavior and performance results. The dashboard also allows faculty to measure the impact of certain interventions on student progress, both as a general student overview and sorted by sub-groups such as gender, class level (undergrad or graduate), race, socioeconomic status, and more.

Proactive Student Support

For example, we recently analyzed academic persistence—defined as on-time progress in the current term and persistence into the next term by at least 45 days—among students who failed an objective summary assessment. The analysis showed that outreach from a course instructor increased student persistence by 6.4% percentage points compared with students who did not receive outreach. Furthermore, students who received outreach within 24 hours of the failed assessment persisted at a rate 3.9% percentage points higher than students who received outreach after the 24-hour window had passed.

The same analysis showed certain sub-groups of students demonstrated a higher persistence response to faculty outreach than the overall student population. First-time in college (FTIC) students are a small but growing group at WGU, that has historically struggled more with the independence and flexibility of a CBE program. These FTIC students showed an increased persistence of 7.2% percentage points compared with students in the same group who received less-timely faculty outreach. A similar pattern was evident with non-STEM majors, whose academic persistence increased by 7.1% percentage points when they were contacted by a faculty member after a summative objective assessment failure.

A Unique Approach to Support

The ability to aggregate and interpret data for the benefit of WGU’s student population has led to other unique support initiatives as well.

Man Wearing Black Crew-neck T-shirt Using Black Headphones Reading Book While SittingA great example is the Environmental Barriers Program (EVB). EVB was created to help monitor natural disasters, environmental influences (i.e., social or physical influences), and other events that might make it difficult for students to continue in their studies. And it has proven to be invaluable in guiding WGU staff to assist students who are facing job, housing, or educational insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a macro level, WGU is using employment data to lead in the mapping of in-demand skills by industry and geography. This effort will provide real-time career insights for students as well as program development insights for educators, helping the entire education and workforce training industry adapt to an increasingly skills-based economy.

The Path Ahead

Recent world events have forced us to rethink how we engage with careers, education, and each other. As we trend toward a more virtual society, it’s important to make every effort to maintain the social relationships that are such an integral factor in the human experience. I believe competency-based education is the way to make higher ed more accessible and attainable to adult learners. But, I also believe we must prioritize the creation of scalable support systems that are tailored to fit the needs of the people we serve. Data collection and interpretation are the invaluable tools that will help us adapt to and accomplish that mission.

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Kurt Gunnell

Kurt serves as a Director of Institutional Research at Western Governors University (WGU)




The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.