I stumbled on the concept of mastery based learning when I read the book “Grading Smarter, Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn” by Myron Dueck. This is a wonderful book and gave me lots of great ideas that I could apply in my classroom. (I am hoping to do a review of it in a later blog, but I will need to reread it before I can do that.). The idea that stood out to me the most was the concept of mastery based grading. The traditional approach to structuring a class involves setting up a schedule at the beginning of the year and working through the semester following the pre-set schedule. This is all well and good if everyone understands what you are covering, or if the modules covered aren’t interdependent, but if content later in the semester depends on mastery of earlier content, then moving ahead on a set schedule doesn’t make sense unless everyone has mastered the content. Having all students progress on the same schedule regardless of mastery to ensure that all material is covered makes sense if you are worried about meeting a schedule and covering a specific amount of material, but it doesn’t make as much sense if you are worried about the student mastering the material. Students will learn the material at their own pace and pushing them forward when they aren’t ready can lead to frustration and failure.
There are a few other concepts about mastery based learning that appealed to me. The fact that in a traditional classroom you start out with a perfect grade and spend the rest of the semester losing points and bringing your grade down is counter-intuitive. The focus is on doing it exactly right so as not to lose points, and making mistakes can be a major disaster. In reality, everyone makes mistakes and learning from those mistakes is a great way to learn. Giving the students freedom to make mistakes takes the pressure off and gives them the opportunity to truly understand the material rather than just memorizing the correct answers to get the highest grade. It also gives all students that opportunity to receive a grade that reflects their actual understanding of the material. Another concept that appeals to me is that with mastery based learning, the student will be ready for each assignment as they get to it. I teach Excel, and it doesn’t make sense for someone to try to use an IF or PMT function if they haven’t mastered the SUM function. If I have my students follow a fixed schedule, this is exactly what can happen – and it doesn’t result in solid learning.
My course is actually two different courses combined into one. I teach basic computer concepts/literacy, which involves understanding things like hardware, software, the Internet, and security and privacy among other things as one part of the course. For the other part, I teach Microsoft Excel and Access. For the first part, I try to make most of the content/assignments relate to how the students would use and maintain their personal computers, and therefore mastery is important since these are life skills that they will use. As for the Excel and Access, we start with the basics and build, so mastering each concept before moving on to the next makes the most sense.
The way that I approached this is that each assignment is graded on a scale of 1 to 4, with a 4 meaning that the concept has been mastered, a 3 (or anywhere between 3 and 4) meaning that the concept was mostly mastered, and a 1 meaning that at least one element of the topic was not mastered and needs to be revisited. I didn’t use 2 as a grade because I was reserving that to use if I needed to shift a grade down because an assignment was significantly late (more on that later).
If you want to see the way that mastery based learning is explained to my students, it is explained in the Grading infographic.
I use a rubric to grade each assignment, with each required element receiving a grade of 1, 3, or 4. A 1 anywhere in the rubric requires the assignment to be fixed and resubmitted. If there are no 1s, then the scores are averaged, and that is the grade that is posted for a student. For example, if a student got a 4 on 3 of the required concepts and aa 3 on the 4th, their grade would be a 3.75. A grade greater than 3 is passing with no further work required, but I always give specific feedback when I take off points, and an interesting side effect of this grading method was that a student who received less than a 4 but still above a 3 would often (almost always for most students) read my feedback, make corrections and resubmit to earn the higher grade. Before I applied this method I felt like most students would never even look at my feedback, so this feels like a win (although more grading for me).
A problem that I ran into with this approach is that requiring an assignment to be mastered before it is considered to be complete made following a set schedule almost impossible. Everyone works at their own pace and not everybody will complete all of the assignments. Because of this, I set the course up with 3 tiers. The first tier is the material that I feel absolutely must be understood for a student to say that they passed the course. This minimum amount of material must all be completed for the student to earn a C in the course. Additional material was added to reflect mastery at a higher (B or A grade) level. This was someone confusing to the students at first, but eventually most of them got it.
Another problem that I ran into was that when I set up the course, I had a very naïve view that I wanted all students to understand all of the topics for the course, therefore, I should keep all of the assignments open for the whole semester to give the students a chance to learn the material. While this was nice in theory, the problem that I ran into was that without having a fixed due date/closed date attached to an assignment, most students made the work in my course less of a priority, then they tried to rush and complete everything the last few weeks of the semester. (Note: all assignments had suggested due dates that if followed would allow the students to complete the course at a reasonable pace). Needless to say, I had to modify my views on this. The first thing that I tried was to have all B and A assignments close about 3 weeks before the end of the semester, meaning that a grade of B or A was no longer available to students after that point. C assignments remained open for the entire semester. This worked a little better, but still wasn’t great. This semester, I instigated a new policy where all assignments closed 3 weeks after their due date (the 3 weeks was to allow students time to fix and resubmit assignments that received a 1). This meant that if a student did not submit an A or B assignment before it closed, that grade was no longer an option for them.
Despite the problems with the grading, I am actually very pleased with the way that mastery based learning has worked in this course. I can see that they students are truly learning the material. Before I changed the approach to the course, there were stude
nts who were passing (barely) that I felt had not actually learned anything – they were just going through the motions. This new set up doesn’t let them get away with that and once they embrace it, they end up learning (whether they want to or not).