Attainment-Based vs Time Based
The idea behind attainment-based instruction is that students move on to a new topic or competency when a standard of achievement has been attained, rather than when a certain amount of time has passed. Along with that goes the notion that students should be allowed to move on as soon as they have mastered something if they want. Also, it means that students can remain with a topic until they have mastered it.
Among other things, this means that students are not made to waste their time. This form of progression is the norm in games. Different players will get through the game at different rates, but if they win, all will usually have had similar challenges and learned similar things. That’s pretty much what I want when I teach.
This idea also has implications for grade expectations. In a typical game players start with a score of zero and must earn points. Contrast that with a typical course where, whether it is stated explicitly or not, most students go into a course imagining they have an ‘A’, and every time they earn less than a perfect score on something, they see it as having done something wrong (*).
In a gamified course, all students start off with a score of zero, and everything they do adds to their score (in my version they are guaranteed never to lose points they have earned(**)). If they blow an assignment they simply earn fewer points and must either re-do it or do something else to earn the points they need. There is no one thing they can do that will prevent them from earning an ‘A’.
This has a profound impact on the risk associated with any individual item and often results in students trying things they might otherwise not, which can in turn result in students actually learning more.
This also changes the stress effects of the course in general. Today’s students often have to juggle many different things – school, jobs, personal lives, … I’ve had more than a few students who were single parents, or had to cope with a serious illness or death in the family during term. Taking an attainment-based approach recognizes and respects the fact that school is only one of many things that students must cope with. Allowing them to complete things (as far as possible) at their own pace and on their own schedule allows them to juggle their time in a very personal way. I’ve had students with almost no points at the 1/2-way mark in the course pull it all together and end up with an A. I’ve also had students who anticipated heavy demands from term projects in other courses and worked ahead in mine when they had the time, thereby evening out their workload over the term. And then there was the student who had a close family member pass away near the start of term and who had to go to Europe for the funeral. They struggled throughout the term but the inherent flexibility in the way my course was assessed allowed the student to catch up and still pass. Had this been any other course, missing a bunch of classes at the start of term would have almost certainly meant a fail.
(*) By the way, the winning strategy in a situation like this is to do nothing. I sometimes wonder if this can explain the behaviour of some students.
(**) Given that my goal is to help my students learn, AND that the points they earn are a measure (symbol) of what they have learned, it doesn’t make sense to take points away. That would be like saying they no longer know something they knew before, and that’s just mean.
Just to keep things organized: these are Reigeluth’s 8 core ideas for a new post-industrial paradigm of instruction:
- Learning-focused vs. sorting focused.
- Learner-centered vs. teacher-centered instruction.
- Learning by doing vs. teacher presenting.
- Attainment-based vs. time-based progress.
- Customized vs. standardized instruction.
- Criterion-referenced vs. norm-referenced testing.
- Collaborative vs. individual.
- Enjoyable vs. unpleasant. 
- C. M. Reigeluth, “Instructional Theory and Technology for the New Paradigm of Education,” Revista de Educación a Distancia, vol. 11, Sept. 30 2012 2012.