Q&A: Making learning visible

ACER’s annual Research Conference kicks off in 2 weeks’ time, on 22 August 2022. This year, the conference will once again be held virtually, and the theme is ‘Reimagining assessment’.

Dr Diane DeBacker has worked in education for 40 years and is the founding director of the Center for Certification and Competency Based Education (C3BE), an education research centre within the Achievement & Assessment Institute (AAI) at the University of Kansas. She joins us in this Q&A to give Teacher readers a glimpse of what she will be sharing in her Keynote and outline the current state of competency-based education internationally.

You’ll be delivering the Karmel Oration at ACER’s Research Conference 2022. Your presentation is titled ‘Making learning visible: Moving from nouns to verbs’. Can you give Teacher readers a taste of what you will be speaking about?

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my presentation at ACER’s Research Conference 2022. I’m looking forward to being with the other presenters and attendees, albeit virtually. It is a tremendous honour to be invited and to give the Karmel Oration.

As I respond to the questions for this article, I remind readers that most of my comments are from my experiences and education in the United States. My international experience as a Senior Advisor to the Director General and Executive Director of the P-12 sector in the Abu Dhabi Education Council provided me the opportunity to work with educators from across the world and, as such, I’m keenly aware of the differences in education systems. I’ll provide context when needed but am confident the Teacher audience will be able to follow along.

Historically, both the pathway of learning and the final determination of learning has been presented in discrete lists. Consider, for example, Pre-K-12 education. There’s a starting point of preschool (sadly, not universal in the United States) and then a progression of moving through the grade levels of Kindergarten, Grade one, Grade 2, and so forth through to Grade 12.

A similar pattern follows in postsecondary education with years as the descriptors, i.e., freshman year, sophomore, junior and senior. In both Pre-K-12 and postsecondary education, it’s possible to drill down to what is taught at each level. For example, a student in fifth grade in the United States typically learns about Mathematics, English Language Arts, Science, History, Fine Arts, Physical Education, social/emotional learning, etcetera. In postsecondary education, a learner chooses a major and then proceeds to take the required courses. At the end of the grade or course, the learner receives a letter grade such as A, B, C, D, F, I, or something similar. Grades are then placed on a transcript which shows the journey of learning. What the learner is left with is a list of nouns, i.e. Mathematics, Freshman Literature, Intro to Statistics, etcetera. A list of nouns tells us little about what the individual knows and can do.

My presentation will focus on the work of C3BE, at the Achievement and Assessment Institute of the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, Kansas (USA). C3BE was established in January 2021 with the mission of making learning visible through a variety of tools and techniques, including mapping (learning, teaching, curriculum), authentic assessments, credit for prior learning, stackable micro-credentials, innovative technology, and working with businesses and enterprises to meet workforce demands.

You’ve said: ‘By moving from nouns to verbs; by moving from course titles to competencies; by moving from transcripts to learner outcomes, learning becomes visible.’ How are K-12 schools doing with this (tertiary institutions seem to be leading the way)? At the moment, is it very much up to individual teachers and groups of colleagues to implement this kind of approach?

Moving from nouns to verbs, from course titles to competencies, from transcripts to learner outcomes are just a few of the components of competency-based education (CBE). Tertiary institutions are certainly leading the way with CBE. Even so, the CBE movement in the United States is not widespread.

In their book A Leader’s Guide to Competency-Based Education: From Inception to Implementation (2018), authors Bushway, Dodge, and Long describe the journey of CBE in postsecondary education in the United States. Alverno College is considered the first postsecondary institution to implement CBE in 1970. Over 50 years later, there are only a handful of CBE institutions throughout the country. Western Governors University (WGU) is the best-known and gaining in popularity and enrolment since opening in 1999. Other post-secondary institutions have components of CBE, but rarely system-wide such as WGU.

The K-12 sector in the US has also been slow to move to a system that incorporates principles of CBE which includes articulated competencies/learning outcomes, authentic and aligned assessments, time and access to content, credit for prior learning, and project-based learning such as clinicals, internships, and field experience.

I had the privilege of serving as principal of an alternative high school where principles of CBE were evident in the curriculum design, instructional delivery and grading practices. Courses typically taught over a semester (18 weeks) were broken into smaller units of 3 weeks. This structure allowed for students to gain success early and often. Students earned points rather than grades for the 3-week units and points earned could not be taken away.

This unique structure of teaching and learning allowed students to earn points at their own pace, making learning the constant and time the variable. Demonstration of learning included authentic assessments via portfolios and a required senior project addressing the school district’s exit outcomes. This work was revolutionary, praised and replicated. It was also difficult because it was radically different.

Why is it important that we give more information about student competencies and their ‘learning journey’ (for their time in school and beyond)?

Knowing what’s behind a course title or a letter grade benefits five stakeholders. Learners understand what they need to know and be able to do to successfully complete a grade or a course or get the jobs they want. Educators can identify the competencies their courses address and create outcome assessments that will allow the development or mastery of competencies to be tracked. Postsecondary programs need to ensure that all desired competencies are available and understand any overlap in competencies across courses. Employers need to understand what employees and future employees know and can do. Policy makers need to understand where there are gaps in the competencies that businesses need and the pipeline of learners that will be needed to fill those gaps.

What are you hoping teachers and school leaders take away from your keynote?

There’s never been a better time to rethink and redesign education. The resiliency of educators, students and families as shown during the closure of schools due to COVID-19 confirmed that learning can happen anywhere and anytime.


Bushway, D.J., Dodge, L., & Long, C.S. (2018). A leader’s guide to competency-based education: from inception to implementation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Research Conference 2022 ‘Reimagining assessment’ runs from 22-25 August. You can explore the full program and register for the event now.