Hello CBL friends, my name is Megan Freund. I am so proud to introduce myself as the Founder & President of Chi Beta Lambda. This section will outline my appreciation for CBL programs and how my student experience inspired me to create this organization in their image.

CBL Changed My Life

CBL was instrumental in helping me reach my full potential. I genuinely feel like a new person after completing my program. No student should miss out on the intangible benefits that come from this mode of instruction. If more people get educated this way, we can build a better world.

I Am Competent

Higher education has long been criticized because the classroom does not always prepare students for a career. CBL’s vocational focus aims to create stronger links between academia & the workplace through task-oriented instruction. Rather than learning about things, I learned to do them.

I Am Boundless

CBL is unique because it does not grade on a point system like traditional courses. If a single detail is unsatisfactory, students cannot move forward until they repeat and improve their work. I had to challenge myself and expand my abilities. I’ve become skillful in areas that were formerly outside my wheelhouse & discovered parts of myself I never knew existed.

I Am Unbreakable

CBL encourages academic growth. Rather than penalizing poor performance, CBL urges students to strengthen their work. The first time I failed, I was devastated. But, failure is built into the learning model, so eventually, I saw my progress as the real achievement. I am resilient, grades do not define me. I can and will manage anything life throws my way.

I Have Purpose

CBL is unconventional because it gives learners control to design their structure, timeline, & budget. This freedom can encourage pushing boundaries & imagining new ways of doing things outside academia. My dreams never seemed within reach until I discovered CBL. It was the stepping stone that helped turn my passion into action.

My Experience Was Terrible

Although I gained a great deal from CBL, it did not come easily. During my program, I did not feel or understand any of what I just mentioned above. Below is a raw account of the obstacles I faced and how they made me feel. Anything other than full transparency would be an injustice to other CBL students, past and present, who have had similar experiences. If we ever hope to make improvements, we must normalize discussing ALL of the ugly details. Please buckle your seatbelt.

I was so hesitant about CBL when shopping for my degree that I did not initially choose it. Instead, I signed up for online courses at my state university. Researching different programs filled me with doubt because I found conflicting information about CBL. Even though the cost was suspiciously low, I was unwilling to risk spending a few thousand dollars if it turned out to be a waste.

The program at my state school was unfortunately not what I expected. Even if I overloaded every term, a master’s program would take me a minimum of 2 years because they were a “part-time university.” Meanwhile, a few people I knew on social media graduated from CBL programs, so I decided to give it a shot. Holy Mackerel! I mastered the equivalent of three courses during my first month in CBL. Catch me if you can!

During my fifth week, I failed a competency-assessment I had invested 30-hours into. I was utterly devastated, and at that moment, the momentum I had built disappeared. I only missed one of the rubric’s nearly 40 lines; the grade should have been at least a high-A. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at feedback or answer calls from my CBL advisor. I was ready to quit.

Eventually, with my advisor’s support, I got back on my feet and continued moving forward. She reviewed the grading process with me again, and I did not do as badly as I thought. I did not realize that if I failed to earn at least a B on every criterion, I would need to revise and improve it to proceed. Merely taking a point deduction in exchange for a missed detail did not exist. Luckily, I was able to correct and master the assessment in under 15-minutes.

Every few weeks I was blindsided by a new issue (e.g., rubric design, grading, successful academic performance, leaves of absence, assessment attempts, GPA calculation, petitions to repeat, conferral windows, etc.) that completely derailed me. The program began to look like an obstacle course. Over and over, my advisor had to help me pick up the pieces. It became a toxic pattern that defined my experience. 

Almost immediately I was committed to finishing the program rather than trying to transfer out. Despite being in my first term (i.e., minimal time and money invested), I was unwilling to abandon my progress. I had never worked so hard at anything in my life prior to this program. I did not endure that pain & suffering for nothing.

The workload was more substantial than expected, but more importantly, it was tough to predict. The size and scope of assessments were often incongruent with the credit value. Some 2-credit assessments were less work than others valued at 1.5-credit. The descriptions were also misleading. A short answer assessment that asked for 2-3 paragraph responses ended up being 14 pages single-spaced.

Battling unraveling emotions & continually trying to get back on track was exhausting; it consumed more time than the coursework. Luckily I stayed in the program, but I decided to quit repeatedly. It is tough to come back from the point of defeat, so once I got there, that is where I stayed. Even in my program’s final days with one credit remaining, I was wholeheartedly willing to call it a wash. Only that is unlike me. I did not quit once in the seven years I spent working on my bachelor’s degree.

Each subject matter expert (SME) seemed to follow their own interpretation of the rules. Then once enough time elapsed, I discovered that my advisor misinformed me on some key CBL policies. I swapped stories with some fellow students I connected with via the school’s social media page. They reported a wide variety of guidance from their SMEs & advisors, many different from mine. Every day I became more confused.

Everyone (e.g., friends, family, advisor, & SMEs) agreed that I was putting too much pressure on myself and suggested easing up a bit. After all, it wasn’t a race. But after a few calculations, I realized that giving myself one more day to complete each assessment would extend my program more than two months. Almost immediately, time became my enemy. Minutes turned into dollars and pushed my degree further out of reach. I began to view every minute of unproductive time as wasted, and the pressure became overwhelming.

As the clock ticked, I was baffled by the entire experience. CBL is nothing like I imagined. I did not anticipate any of these problems. How many more were there going to be? Would I reach the end of the program to find out it was not real? I still didn’t know. If it was real, would I even be able to finish? Could I run into a new issue and be stuck forever? This seems unnecessarily difficult. Can I handle the stress? Am I smart enough? I am in over my head.

I hadn’t made any progress in weeks. I worked tirelessly every day, but I could not get anywhere. My advisor & SME helped me the best they could, but I continued getting stuck in the same places. I tried switching to new content, but I was too frazzled to jump into another subject. Soon I would be paying tuition without earning any credits at all. I reached a point where I couldn’t even look at the material anymore. I was paralyzed, I hadn’t signed into the learning platform in days. I filed for a two-month leave of absence.

Every time I’d try to vent about my experience I only ended up getting more frustrated. None of my friends, family, or colleagues knew what CBL was. They did the best they could trying to be supportive. But most of the time, they thought I was just stressed about graduate school or being a student. I was screaming into a void.

I communicated with the other students equally upset & lost, but merely knowing I wasn’t alone didn’t help. My advisor & SMEs told me that the program wasn’t easy. They didn’t elaborate, though, so I was unsure if they meant the major, graduate-level work, online education, or CBL. The idea that others had problems would not make me more competent. I have never struggled academically, so I interpreted it as evidence that furthering my education was that I was on the wrong life path. I felt incompetent. I saw myself as a failure and believed I did not belong in the program.

I could recite CBL policies and explain how the program worked, but for some reason, I never knew what to expect. My advisor warned me about potential pitfalls & the literature (e.g., program guide, school website, & catalog) clearly explained the framework. But I was still blindsided by every new issue. It seems impossible to know something is coming yet simultaneously never see it coming, but that’s what I went through daily. My expectations were constantly incongruent with reality.

I was so upset when I finished my program that it took two months to unclench my jaw. I did not feel any sense of relief or joy. Negativity loomed & almost a year of stress became anger. I was not excited about obtaining a master’s degree, nor was I proud of earning a 4.0 GPA. I did not announce anything on social media or take graduation photos. All I wanted to do was crawl into a hole. 

Not everything transferred from my state university, so I had to repeat several credits via CBL that I already earned in online courses. The coursework differences translated to jarring time & effort disparities. I spent 30+ hours per week in CBL to earn an A in courses that took me 5-10 hours per week in an online class. CBL does not award credit for participation (e.g., weekly discussions), whereas it accounted for 40% – 60% of my online courses’ final grade. Theoretically, if a student earns 100% on participation valued at 60-points and averaged 75% on assignments that made up the other 40-points, they could earn an A in an online course. Conversely, I had to meet or exceed expectations on each detail of every single assignment to earn an A in CBL.

Course-based students earned the same degree and qualified for the same honor societies as I did, so neither seemed to accurately represent my experience. It became infuriating that I worked so much harder than necessary to end up in the same place as everyone else. I scoured the internet for a CBL honor society but found nothing. Having no way to differentiate myself from course-based students was almost insulting.

Reflection: Piecing it Together

“What in tarnation was that?”

No matter how straightforward it may seem, students and educators alike fail to appreciate how difficult it can be to wrap your brain around CBL. The structural and operational concepts of school from elementary level through college are mostly constant. As we participate in classic student or educator roles over many years, that framework solidifies as habits we are not consciously aware of. 

The missteps from my SMEs & advisor should not reflect poorly on them; it simply demonstrates that faculty & staff wrestle with CBL too.

When CBL removes traditional structure (e.g., due dates, semesters/terms, classes, teachers, classmates, point-system grading, & even books) it is simply human nature to fill those blanks with what we know. So, we often think and behave as if the structure is still there when it is not. Even though we may know and understand the new rules, we often expect the old rules to apply.

Forgetting everything you know about school & reimagining academia from the perspective of CBL is no small feat. CBL learners, staff, and educators are battling a lifetime of conditioning atop their program’s intended workload. These mental barriers are certainly manageable, but they are unique challenges that do not exist in a course-based setting, in-person or online.

Frustration is a Great Source of Inspiration

“There has to be a better way.”

Having finished school, it was time to switch gears and move on to the next phase in my life. I was fortunate enough to attend a university whose mission is to make the world a better place. Changing the world is a tall order, seemingly out of reach, so I never took it seriously. But after almost a year with that in the back of my mind, it became a part of me. I did want to make a difference and use my education for something meaningful; I just didn’t know how. Looking at my own life for inspiration seemed like a reasonable starting point. Once I stopped focusing on my anger & began asking myself how I could make it better, my purpose became clear.  

That goal could use some polishing, but it is what drove me to embark on this journey that has become Chi Beta Lambda. It is what continues to motivate me to advocate for these students & their programs. I am committed to changing the conversation in CBL because I know it would have made a difference for me. I am not in a position to make these programs any simpler, but I can work to make the CBL experience less painful.

Students need to know that CBL is fundamentally different from anything they’ve ever encountered. I was completely unaware of what my program was designed to do and the impact it was having on me. And most importantly, I had no idea how to cope with it. For months, I was in distress and a moment away from quitting. I almost did not make it because I did not understand how well I was doing. I hate to think of how many students dropped out because they went through the same thing. Had someone ever said “yes, it’s harder than taking classes,” or “it will be challenging no matter how smart you are,” or “you’re not failing, you’re learning,” my entire experience would have been different. 

Shifting from classic instruction to a formative learning environment can be defeating. After a lifetime of summative assessments, students are likely to attribute struggling or failing to not trying hard enough, not doing it right, or not being smart enough. Proactive transparency about alternative instruction’s inherent challenges is necessary to prevent students from interpreting the intended CBL experience as a personal deficiency. It may seem obvious and certainly easier said than done, but if students understand what CBL is and how it works, they will be better equipped to cope with challenges and thrive.

Hindsight is 20/20

It would have been utterly life-changing to know these things during my program. If I could go back in time, this is what I would tell myself:

"You are not losing your mind; yes, it really is that hard. It is completely different than taking classes, and significantly more difficult. most CBL coursework is not the same as traditional coursework."
"Many students misinterpret competency as being smart enough to complete a degree without needing to taking classes. That couldn't be further from the truth. Demonstrating intelligence (e.g., smarts) is incomparable to demonstrating competence (e.g., ability)."
"A great deal of CBL coursework is experiential (i.e., learn by doing). It's not hard for no reason; there is a method to the madness. Simply moving through the content is meant to engage, teach, & ultimately change you." 
"Learners with more existing knowledge & experience may be able to move through these programs more quickly than others. But no level of skill will make it easy. The content is intentionally challenging."
"You feel like your brain is melting because CBL is transformative. You're growing in ways you never knew were possible. That discomfort means it's working. You're going in the right direction, keep pushing."
"CBL has an emotional component that is often absent from classroom learning. These programs are vocationally focused, so it can be stressful to solve complex real-world problems. There is also a level of emotional growth associated with developing new skills."
"The cognitive barriers make you feel lost, like you're in a parallel universe. The inability to grasp seemingly straightforward rules of CBL is not a reflection of your intellect. You're actually fighting your own brain as you move through the program because CBL is fundamentally different from everything life has taught you about school."
"Failure does not mean the same thing here. There is no expectation of mastering everything right away. Assessments are constructed to pinpoint areas of proficiency and areas that need development. CBL is an ongoing, collaborative process, so feedback should be viewed as the starting or middle point rather than the end."
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