When educators talk about “proficiency-based learning,” they are referring to a variety of diverse instructional practices—many of which have been used by the world’s best schools and teachers for decades—and to organizational structures that support or facilitate the application of those practices in schools. Proficiency-based learning may take different forms from school to school—there is no universal model or approach—and educators may use some or all of the beliefs and practices of proficiency-based learning identified by the Great Schools Partnership.
On this page, we have provided a selection of statements and references that support and describe one foundational feature of proficiency-based learning systems, Instructional Strategies. In a few cases, we have also included additional explanation to help readers better understand the statements or the studies from which they were excerpted. The list is not intended to be either comprehensive or authoritative—our goal is merely to give school leaders and educators a brief, accessible introduction to available research.
“For more than two decades, researchers have attempted to identify and define the characteristics of learners who are successful in school and prepared for success after high school. Costa and Kallick (2000, 2008) laid early groundwork for this discussion by defining habits of mind in terms of a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems to which the answers are not immediately evident. In doing so, they identified 16 patterns of intellectual behavior, including many that have regularly recurred in subsequent research, standards, and discussions of college and career readiness; these include, among others, persisting, questioning, striving for accuracy, using precise language and thinking, applying the past to new situations, creating, and metacognition. In 2011, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills argued that ensuring student success in college and careers requires the integration of four essential skills into the core academic subjects: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation (p. 2). A research report by Casner-Lotto and Barrington (2006) ranked six key skills that employers identify as crucial to success in the workplace: critical thinking and problem solving was identified as the most important, while the other five were information technology application, teamwork and collaboration, creativity and innovation, diversity, and leadership. In the more recent literature, terms such as soft skills (Adams, 2012), developmental college and career readiness skills (Savitz-Romer & Bouffard, 2012), cognitive strategies and academic behaviors (Conley, 2007), non-cognitive factors (Farrington, Roderick, Allensworth, Nagaoka, Keyes, Johnson, & Beechum, 2012), and non-academic skills (Sparks, 2010) have emerged through the attempt to expand our understanding of college and career readiness beyond academic standards.” —Hess, K., Gong, B., & Steinitz, R. (2014). Ready for college and career? Achieving the Common Core Standards and beyond through deeper, student-centered learning. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.
“Metacognitive skills are more abstract than organizational skills, but equally important. Students with a grasp of metacognition can reflect on their own learning, develop identities as learners, and frame their own learning and career goals. Because traditional curriculums do not typically include metacognitive activities, many students do not learn how to capitalize on their learning or develop self-efficacy (Savitz-Romer & Bouffard, 2012). Educators can develop metacognitive skills through carefully-planned activities such as reflective writing, learning portfolios, and conferencing with adults, peers, and outside mentors.” —Hess, K., Gong, B., & Steinitz, R. (2014). Ready for college and career? Achieving the Common Core Standards and beyond through deeper, student-centered learning. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.
“The most abstract intrapersonal disposition in this skill set is academic perseverance. Although some researchers caution that more research is needed to determine the causal relationship between perseverance and performance (Farrington, et al. 2012), several studies of motivation and perseverance suggest that grit, defined by researchers as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, may be a better predictor of college and career success than either IQ or test scores (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). People with grit work strenuously towards challenges, maintaining effort and interest over time, whatever the adversities they face. Because vague extrinsic goals, such as getting a college degree or high-paying job, can rarely sustain learners in the long run, perseverance depends on intrinsic motivation, which gives individuals the stamina to reach personal long-term goals (Duckworth, et al.).” —Hess, K., Gong, B., & Steinitz, R. (2014). Ready for college and career? Achieving the Common Core Standards and beyond through deeper, student-centered learning. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.
“Deeper learning happens when students must regularly transfer and construct new knowledge through disciplined inquiry. The second phase of curriculum redesign entails systematically embedding increasingly challenging learning tasks at all grade levels. These may take the form of multi-faceted projects or extended performance tasks, but they should force students to think critically and creatively about content and give them time to do so. Useful resources for designing and evaluating such tasks include: Newmann, King, and Carmichael’s (2007) framework for authentic intellectual work; various models for examining the demands of cognitive rigor (Hess, Carlock, Jones, & Walkup, 2009; Paige, Sizemore, & Neace, 2013); and research-based learning progressions that outline how individuals develop content expertise over time and how to design tasks that reflect that development (Bechard, Hess, Camacho, Russell, & Thomas, 2012; Corcoran, Mosher, & Rogat, 2009; Daro, Mosher, & Corcoran, 2011; Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007; Hess, 2010; Hess, 2011; Hill, 2001; Masters & Forster, 1996; NRC, 2012b; Wilson & Bertenthal, 2005).” —Hess, K., Gong, B., & Steinitz, R. (2014). Ready for college and career? Achieving the Common Core Standards and beyond through deeper, student-centered learning. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.
“When students have strong self-efficacy (belief in their ability to learn and perform well) and high expectations for success, they are more likely to persevere in the face of challenge (e.g., Bandura, 1997; Schunk & Pajares, 2009). These beliefs can be stronger predictors of success than measured levels of actual ability and prior performance.” —Shechtman, N., DeBarger, A. H., Dornsife, C., Rosier, S., & Yarnall, L. (2013). Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
“Beliefs about ability and expectations for success can be fragile, especially when students face a new challenge they have never encountered before. Research by Dweck and colleagues points to the importance of a ‘growth mindset,’ the belief that ability is malleable and can be increased with effort and learning (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). This is contrasted with a ‘fixed mindset,’ the belief that ability is a fixed quantity that one either possesses or does not. When faced with academic tasks that are routine and do not entail challenge, students with fixed and growth mindsets tend to exert similar effort. However, when tasks become challenging, students with growth mindsets are more likely to persist. Studies have also shown that these mindsets themselves can be malleable and that, when students are taught to have a growth mindset, they are more successful academically (Blackwell et al., 2007).” —Shechtman, N., DeBarger, A. H., Dornsife, C., Rosier, S., & Yarnall, L. (2013). Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
“Part of developing resilience in the face of challenge is understanding that challenges are inevitable and not an indication of personal failure. A theme that came up in some of our interviews is that many students, both higher and lower achieving, experience a breakdown when they encountered some of the inevitable challenges of schooling—such as increasing difficulty and abstractness of concepts, and decreasing structure in the middle grades, and need for new strategies for success. Intervention studies have shown that students can be taught to attribute challenge to external factors that are ‘bumps in the road’ rather than limitations in their own level of ability (e.g., Wilson & Linville, 1985; Walton & Cohen, 2007; Cohen et al., 1999).” —Shechtman, N., DeBarger, A. H., Dornsife, C., Rosier, S., & Yarnall, L. (2013). Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
“There is an extensive body of research showing that students will persevere more in the face of challenge when tasks have value for them—they find them interesting or see them as serving short- or long-term goals that are important to them. Students may need support in knowing how to connect the dots between the work they are doing and the purposes it may serve in their lives, or support in discovering and fostering interests.” —Shechtman, N., DeBarger, A. H., Dornsife, C., Rosier, S., & Yarnall, L. (2013). Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
“Extensive research shows that when students feel a sense of belonging in their school and classrooms—through relationships with peers, teachers, and other adults—they are more likely to engage in schooling. Students’ sense of belonging is closely tied to their perceptions of competence and autonomy, intrinsic motivation, and willingness to adopt established norms and values (e.g., Osterman, Johnson, & Bybee, 2000). There is growing consensus that the nature and quality of students’ relationships with their teachers and peers play critical roles in engaging students to learn (Wentzel, 2009; Ladd, Herald-Brown, & Kochel, 2009). Feelings of lack of trust, respect, or fairness from teachers or alienation and rejection from peers can be a strong determinant of disengagement from school.” —Shechtman, N., DeBarger, A. H., Dornsife, C., Rosier, S., & Yarnall, L. (2013). Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
“Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck (2007) studied an intervention designed to change attributions among low-income minority seventh grade students in an urban school. At the beginning of the school year, the students took part in eight workshops on brain function and study skills, over eight weeks. Students in the experimental group were taught that the brain can get stronger when a person works on challenging tasks, while those in the control group learned only study skills. At the end of the academic year, the students in the experimental group earned significantly higher mathematics grades than those in the control group (a mean increase of 0.30 grade points), reversing the normal pattern of declining mathematics grades over the course of seventh grade. Noting that the effectiveness of interventions targeting attributions has been replicated with different student populations, Yaeger and Walton (2011) observe that these studies support the hypothesis that changes in attributions can lead to a positive, self-reinforcing cycle of improvement. Students who attribute a low grade to transitory factors, such as a temporary lack of effort, rather than to a lack of general intelligence or mathematics ability, are more motivated to work harder in their classes. This leads to improved grades, which, in turn, reinforce students’ view that they can succeed academically and make them less likely to attribute any low grades to factors beyond their control.” —Hilton, M. L., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
“In a recent review of the research on self-regulated learning, Wolters (2010) observes that, although there are several different models of such learning, the most prominent is that developed by Pintrich and colleagues (Pintrich 2000; 2004). In this model, learners engage in four phases of self-regulation, not necessarily in sequential order: forethought or planning (setting learning goals); monitoring (keeping track of progress in a learning activity); regulation (using, managing or changing learning strategies to achieve the learning goals; and reflection (generating new knowledge about the learning tasks or oneself as a learner).… The construct of self-regulated learning has been used to design instructional interventions that have improved academic outcomes among diverse populations of students, from early elementary school through college. These interventions have led to improvements in class grades and other measures of achievement in writing, reading, mathematics, and science (Wolters, 2010).” —Hilton, M. L., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
“Research on academic motivation shows that students learn more deeply when they attribute their to performance to effort rather than to ability (Graham and Williams, 2009), when they have the goal of mastering the material rather than the goal of performing well or not performing poorly (Anderman and Wolters, 2006; Maehr and Zusho, 2009), when they expect to succeed on a learning task and value the learning task (Wigfield, Tonks, and Klauda, 2009), when they have the belief that they are capable of achieving the task at hand (Schunk and Pajares, 2009; Schunk and Zimmerman, 2006), when they believe that intelligence is changeable rather than fixed (Dweck and Master, 2009), and when they are interested in the learning task (Schiefele, 2009).” —Hilton, M. L., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
“Studies of metacognition have shown that people who monitor their own understanding during the learning phase of an experiment show better recall performance when their memories are tested (Nelson, 1996). Similar metacognitive strategies distinguish stronger from less competent learners. Strong learners can explain which strategies they used to solve a problem and why, while less competent students monitor their own thinking sporadically and ineffectively and offer incomplete explanations (Chi et al, 1989; Chi and VanLehn, 1991). There is ample evidence that metacognition develops over the school years; for example, older children are better than younger ones at planning for tasks they are asked to do (Karmiloff-Smith, 1979). Metacognitive skills can also be taught. For example, people can learn mental devices that help them stay on task, monitor their own progress, reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and self-correct errors.” —Hilton, M. L., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
“Studies related to setting objectives emphasize the importance of supporting students as they self-select learning targets, self-monitor their progress, and self-assess their development (Glaser & Brunstein, 2007; Mooney, Ryan, Uhing, Reid, & Epstein, 2005). For example, in the Glaser and Brunstein study (2007), 4th grade students who received instruction in writing strategies and self-regulation strategies (e.g., goal setting, self-assessment, and strategy monitoring) were better able to use their knowledge when planning and revising a story, and they wrote stories that were more complete and of higher quality than the stories of control students and students who received only strategy instruction. In addition, they retained the level of performance they reached at the post-test over time, and when asked to recall parts of an orally presented story, the strategy plus self-regulation students scored higher on the written recall measure than did students in the other two groups.” —Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
“Providing opportunities for students to personalize the learning objectives identified by the teacher can increase their motivation for learning (Brophy, 2004; Morgan, 1985; Page-Voth & Graham, 1999). Students feel a greater sense of control over what they learn when they can identify how the learning is relevant to them. In addition, this practice helps students develop self-regulation (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Students who are skilled at self-regulation are able to consciously set goals for their learning and monitor their understanding and progress as they engage in a task. They also can plan appropriately, identify and use necessary resources, respond appropriately to feedback, and evaluate the effectiveness of their actions. Acquiring these skills helps students become independent lifelong learners.” —Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
“Studies have shown that ‘contracts’ can have positive effects on students’ ability to set objectives for their learning (Brophy, 2004; Greenwood, 2002; Kahle & Kelly, 1994; Miller & Kelley, 1994; Tomlinson, 2001). These contracts provide students with control over their learning and provide opportunities for teachers to differentiate instruction to better accommodate students’ learning needs (Tomlinson, 1995)…. [C]ontracts can include teacher-identified or student-identified learning objectives. They can take the form of a learning plan that provides options for the kinds of activities students do on particular days and at specific times. In addition, they also provide students with guidance about what they need to accomplish, help students organize their time, and provide ongoing opportunities for students to seek or provide their own feedback.” —Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
“The purpose of self-assessment is to identify areas of strength and weakness in one’s work in order to make improvements and promote learning, achievement, and self-regulation (Andrade & Valtcheva 2009). As defined by Paul Pintrich (2000), self-regulation is the tendency to monitor and manage one’s own learning. Research suggests that self-regulation and student achievement are closely related: Students who set goals, make flexible plans to meet them, and monitor their progress tend to learn more and do better in school than students who do not (Zimmerman & Schunk 2011). Self-assessment is a key element of self-regulation because it involves awareness of the goals of a task and checking one’s progress toward them. As a result of self-assessment, Dale Schunk (2003) found that both self-regulation and achievement can increase.” —Andrade, H., Huff, K., & Brooke, G. (2012). Assessing learning. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.
“Classroom assessment practices such as self-assessment, peer assessment, and portfolios have the potential to not only help students learn core content knowledge and skills, but also to develop important self-regulatory habits (Allal 2010; Andrade 2010).” —Andrade, H., Huff, K., & Brooke, G. (2012). Assessing learning. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.
“Effective education requires the fusion of skill and will such that intrinsic interest and motivation are given at least as much attention as cognitive outcomes (Crooks, 1988). Research suggests that when students share in the assessment process, they perceive more control of, and more responsibility for, their own learning (Rieg, 2007). Allowing students to help determine the criteria by which their work is judged gives them a feeling of empowerment and makes evaluation of their work seem less punitive and more constructive (Brookhart, 1997; Rieg, 2007). In turn, the positive effects on self-efficacy and motivation are likely to promote learning and achievement. Consistent with this notion, Haydel & Roeser (2002) found that students who believe they can affect their learning through persistently engaging in the educational process score better on standardized tests.” —lark, T., Englert, K., Frazee, D., Shebby, S., & Randel, B. (2009). Assessment: A McREL report prepared for Stupski Foundation’s Learning System. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
“Research has repeatedly demonstrated that student motivation and achievement are maximized when learning targets and standards are high but attainable (Crooks, 1988). In many instances, however, this is not possible if all students are working simultaneously on the same tasks and trying to meet the same targets (Crooks, 1988). Thus, it is also important that assessment be aligned to the needs of individual children in order that each child is appropriately challenged (Brimijoin et al., 2003). Consistent with this notion, studies have shown that student learning is enhanced when the material is taught at students’ individual readiness levels, connected with their interests, and presented according to their strongest learning styles (Crooks, 1988).” —lark, T., Englert, K., Frazee, D., Shebby, S. & Randel, B. (2009). Assessment: A McREL report prepared for Stupski Foundation’s Learning System. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
“Research also suggests that students remember information best when it connects to their lives and when it is taught within a broader meaningful framework. This type of instruction encourages transfer of knowledge, where students extend their learning and apply it to new circumstances (Shepard, 2005). According to a study by Darling-Hammond, Rustique-Forrester, and Pecheone (2005), students in states currently using assessment systems that evaluate a full range of state standards, including higher order thinking and performance skills, show higher levels of achievement and lower dropout rates.” —lark, T., Englert, K., Frazee, D., Shebby, S., & Randel, B. (2009). Assessment: A McREL report prepared for Stupski Foundation’s Learning System. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
“Connections to experts outside of school can also have a positive influence on in-school learning because they provide opportunities for students to interact with parents and other people who take an interest in what students are doing. It can be very motivating both to students and teachers to have opportunities to share their work with others. Opportunities to prepare for these events helps teachers raise standards because the consequences go beyond mere scores on a test (e.g., Brown and Campione, 1994, 1996; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, in press b). The idea of outside audiences who present challenges (complete with deadlines) has been incorporated into a number of instructional programs (e.g., Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997; Wiske, 1997). Working to prepare for outsiders provides motivation that helps teachers maintain student interest. In addition, teachers and students develop a better sense of community as they prepare to face a common challenge. Students are also motivated to prepare for outside audiences who do not come to the classroom but will see their projects.” —Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
“Many models of curriculum design seem to produce knowledge and skills that are disconnected rather than organized into coherent wholes. The National Research Council (1990:4) notes that ‘To the Romans, a curriculum was a rutted course that guided the path of two-wheeled chariots.’ This rutted path metaphor is an appropriate description of the curriculum for many school subjects: ‘Vast numbers of learning objectives, each associated with pedagogical strategies, serve as mile posts along the trail mapped by texts from kindergarten to twelfth grade. . . . Problems are solved not by observing and responding to the natural landscape through which the mathematics curriculum passes, but by mastering time-tested routines, conveniently placed along the path’ (National Research Council, 1990:4). An alternative to a ‘rutted path’ curriculum is one of ‘learning the landscape’ (Greeno, 1991). In this metaphor, learning is analogous to learning to live in an environment: learning your way around, learning what resources are available, and learning how to use those resources in conducting your activities productively and enjoyably (Greeno, 1991:175)…. Knowing where one is in a landscape requires a network of connections that link one’s present location to the larger space. Traditional curricula often fail to help students ‘learn their way around’ a discipline. The curricula include the familiar scope and sequence charts that specify procedural objectives to be mastered by students at each grade: though an individual objective might be reasonable, it is not seen as part of a larger network. Yet it is the network, the connections among objectives, that is important. This is the kind of knowledge that characterizes expertise. Stress on isolated parts can train students in a series of routines without educating them to understand an overall picture that will ensure the development of integrated knowledge structures and information about conditions of applicability.” —Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
“Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures…. Learners, especially in school settings, are often faced with tasks that do not have apparent meaning or logic (Klausmeier, 1985). It can be difficult for them to learn with understanding at the start; they may need to take time to explore underlying concepts and to generate connections to other information they possess. Attempts to cover too many topics too quickly may hinder learning and subsequent transfer because students (a) learn only isolated sets of facts that are not organized and connected or (b) are introduced to organizing principles that they cannot grasp because they lack enough specific knowledge to make them meaningful.” —Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
“Learners of all ages are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others—especially their local community (McCombs, 1996; Pintrich and Schunk, 1996). Sixth graders in an inner-city school were asked to explain the highlights of their previous year in fifth grade to an anonymous interviewer, who asked them to describe anything that made them feel proud, successful, or creative (Barron et al., 1998). Students frequently mentioned projects that had strong social consequences, such as tutoring younger children, learning to make presentations to outside audiences, designing blueprints for playhouses that were to be built by professionals and then donated to preschool programs, and learning to work effectively in groups. Many of the activities mentioned by the students had involved a great deal of hard work on their part: for example, they had had to learn about geometry and architecture in order to get the chance to create blueprints for the playhouses, and they had had to explain their blueprints to a group of outside experts who held them to very high standards.” —Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
“One aspect of previous knowledge that is extremely important for understanding learning is cultural practices that support learners’ prior knowledge. Effective teaching supports positive transfer by actively identifying the relevant knowledge and strengths that students bring to a learning situation and building on them. Transfer from school to everyday environments is the ultimate purpose of school-based learning. An analysis of everyday environments provides opportunities to rethink school practices in order to bring them into alignment with the requirements of everyday environments. But it is important to avoid instruction that is overly dependent on context. Helping learners choose, adapt, and invent tools for solving problems is one way to facilitate transfer while also encouraging flexibility. Finally, a metacognitive approach to teaching can increase transfer by helping students learn about themselves as learners in the context of acquiring content knowledge. One characteristic of experts is an ability to monitor and regulate their own understanding in ways that allows them to keep learning adaptive expertise: this is an important model for students to emulate.” —Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.