Friday, March 18, 2011

Mastery based grading/learning

I have been wanting to blog about this for a week now but haven't had time. This delay has allowed me to organize my thoughts a little more on the topic of Mastery Based Grading/Learning, so I can't complain too much.
I was shocked when I went on twitter the other day and a teacher was told by a 32 year veteran that being able to re-assess students was an absurd idea. He felt that students have one shot at the test and if they do not pass it then, too bad for them. They should have studied more.
This is one thing that I have very strong feelings about and there is research backing up my feelings. I should (but I won't) actually post any of the research in here, but you can just Google and come up with hundreds of results on why mastery based learning and teaching is better than the "one shot" method.

Anyway back to why I feel mastery learning is better.

1) The main reason that I feel mastery learning is better than the "one shot" method is due to it actually allowing students to master each topic and not just feel that they have the one opportunity to get it right. I pose the question "does it really matter when students master material if they do master it?" To me this is a strong NO! If a student masters a certain topic 4 months down the road and can show mastery on this topic, then I feel they should get credit for this immediately. Why hold it against them that they didn't 
 understand it initially. The topic might have been out of the developmental zone at the time and they had to mature a little more too truly understand what was happening. Research shows that there are optimal times when students should learn certain materials (only if education designers would listen to this). It might have been the way that it was explained by the teacher (even though we don't like to think this, but teaching styles affect learning greatly which is why differentiation is such a big topic these days), or any one of another factors. The important thing is that the student understands the topic now and can move on.

2) The second big reason why I feel mastery based learning is better than the "one shot" method is due to the stress that is present in high stakes (one opportunity) testing. If a student only has one opportunity to pass the test, this is going to create a very stressful atmosphere (I know it does for me). I hated the feeling that I had when I knew that I didn't do a problem right and if I had just one more opportunity I could show that I actually did know what was happening. If students know that they will have multiple opportunities to show they have mastered the topic, and this is not their only chance, they will be more relaxed and will actually perform better on the assessments due to this atmosphere.

3) The third reason why I do not like "one shot" testing is due to the lack of time. Most school testing is in a timed setting. If a student needs a little more time on tests and they are not able to finish everything due to this lack of time, then they are obviously not going to receive the grade that they actually deserve. (Most teachers are usually forgiving if students do need a little more time and supply it to them, but it still goes back to point number 2.) Think back to all of those times that you felt rushed to finish a test and knew that you did not put forth your best work or even complete some problems. How nice would it have been to know that you have another opportunity to show that you know this material?

So you might be wondering, "But Jacob, how do you plan on implementing this style learning in your classroom?" I will admit first thing that it is going to take quite a bit more work on my part to keep everything straight. I will have to always be updating my grades and remembering what the students have mastered and what they have not. I will most likely use the ideas that Dr. David Coffey uses here. Base my grading on a 5 point scale. 0 points being not even attempted. 1 point being started but never actually made it past the first couple steps. 2 points being started to go, got through the first few steps but couldn't finish the problem. 3 points being you made it to the end of the problem, found the correct solution, but your explanation of how you found this solution was lacking.  4 points being that you did most of the steps correctly, found the correct solution, but you either left some steps out or went too far on the problem. Finally 5 points being that you found the correct solution, the explanation of how you arrived at this solution is clear and concise, and your interpretation of the problem is accurate.

The implementation of mastery grading is the hardest part of it. The students will not really see any change in their normal day. They only time it will affect them is when they have to try for mastery again. It basically just requires the teacher to do more work. But it will be worth it if students are learning more; at least that is my feeling. It does put more responsibility on the student though to set up times to master topics if they missed it the first time. Ideally no student should receive below a B- in the class if they master every topic. Will this happen, no because some students won't care enough to take time out of their after school day to master topics. But the ones that do care and don't master the first time will be there and will be thankful for the opportunity.

Another nice thing that someone suggested to me is once students master a certain topic, an example of this would go into a portfolio that the student would keep throughout the year. At the end of the year, the students would be able to look back and assess their own learning and really see everything that they have learned that year. It would be a nice sense of accomplishment for them. It would also work as a really nice resource for the students in the future to be able to look back at their examples and remember how to do certain problems. This would also have the benefit of showing the administration that your students are truly learning A LOT in your class.
What are your thoughts on mastery based learning/grading?


  1. As a homeschooling family, our children have the opportunity to master a subject before they move on to the next one. I feel this is especially important in math. My youngest doesn't like that she's doing "6th grade math" when she's in "7th grade", but that's where she is in terms of what she's comprehending right now. I would've loved to learn under a mastery style of teaching. But then again, I love learning! May you be blessed as you continue down the teaching road.

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