Mastery Based Learning


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. I never view mistakes as failures. They are simply opportunities to find out what doesn't work. - Thomas A. Edison

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 mountain-988779_960_720learned 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).


I Designed a New Course This Summer – Here is What I Learned


Note: This post is actually a blog post from a class blog in my OTID masters program. I am reposting it here as in introduction to what I did when I redesigned my course. I have now taught this course for 2 years and it is constantly evolving. I plan to discuss elements of the course in more detail in future blog posts.

Since I began the Online Teaching and Instructional Design program at Lenoir-Rhyne University this past fall, I have been learning different elements of course design. I have learned about tools to use for creating content, I have learned about how people learn, and I have learned about different instructional design models that can be used to help to plan a course. This summer I got a chance to put it all together by taking a course that I have been teaching in some form or another (a freshman level, college Information Technology course) and redesigning it completely. I used a combination of Merrill’s First Principles and Understanding by Design (see my earlier post on this mash-up) as my instructional design model. It was definitely an iterative process. I listed each of the topics that I wanted to cover in the course, then for each topic I figured out what I wanted the students to understand and what I wanted them to be able to do. Based on this list, I began creating content and assignments for the course (I opted to get rid of the textbooks and create my own content).

I think that my favorite part of designing the course was giving myself a blank slate to work with. When I got permission from the department to redesign and go book free my ideas started running wild. I originally was going to try to gamify the course, but I couldn’t come up with a storyline that I felt would work, so I put that idea on hold. In the end, I decided to design the course as an internship. The beginning of the course is an orientation and all of the assignments are work that an IT intern might reasonably be asked to do. The content that they learn is designed to give them the “training” that they need to be able to complete their assignments. The course design really allowed me to be creative and the assignments are set up to allow the students to be creative as well.  Instead of writing papers or giving presentations, they are creating Prezis or podcasts or flyers/posters. I actually piloted the course this summer and then worked on improving the course and making it better using the techniques that I have learned in my summer classes. Having a chance to try out my course with actual students gave me good insight into what worked and what didn’t. The students seemed to like the format of the assignments and the quality of work that I received was much better than what I was used to getting for equivalent assignments in the previous version of the course. I think that framing the assignments as part of an internship really helped the student to understand the reason they were doing the assignment and made it more meaningful.

In case you are curious, here is an example of an assignment:

Example Assignment

And if you click this link you can see an example of a student’s submission for this assignment.

I got to play with a lot of technology when I was creating this course. I used Blendspace to compile the content for the course. Each Blendspace was the equivalent of a chapter in a textbook and contained all of the information that the students needed to be able to do the assignments. The Blendspace contained links to web pages, video, or content that I created (click here to see what the Hardware Blendspace looks like). If I couldn’t find the content that I needed online, I used Prezi and/or Camtasia to create it myself. I also used Thinglink and Piktochart to create a lot of the content that I used in my Canvas site for explaining the details of the course. I had a lot of fun letting my creative side take over as I was generating the content for the course.

The element of the course that I am most proud of and the one that was probably the most difficult for me was the grading policy. Since I began this (On-line Teaching and Instructional Design) program I have been reading a lot about how the traditional approach to grading is not necessarily the most conducive to learning. I decided that I would take a non-traditional approach to grading in this class. The idea came from the concept used in a gamified classroom, where the student begins the course with a 0 and works up to the grade that they desire. I combined this with mastery based learning to come up with a grading policy that is intended to maximize student learning.  There is a no-fail policy on all assignments. If a student turns in an assignment that doesn’t demonstrate a mastering of the topic, they are given feedback (in the form of text comments or a video) and asked to re-do the assignment. They can keep re-doing the assignment as often as required to demonstrate that they understand the concepts.  I actually developed a mission statement for the course that I placed on the home screen so that the students will see it whenever they log in:

Course Mission Statement.png

When I originally designed the course I wanted it to be flexible. I didn’t want to have a set schedule because that isn’t compatible with mastery based learning (some students will master concepts very quickly while others will require more time – this is one of the problems with a traditional classroom). What I learned is that having no schedule inspires the students to do no work. I ended up creating a “suggested” schedule to keep the students on pace. If they needed to work on a topic for a longer time, that was okay, but at least they understood where they stood with respect to completing their assignments in the time that they had. The other area that I ran into problems with was actually introducing the new grading concepts to the students. I did not have enough of an introduction to this for the students in my summer course and what I did have required them to do a lot of reading. I used what I learned in my courses this summer to develop an interactive syllabus that gives the students everything that they need to know about the course in a friendly, clickable format with videos and infographics explaining what they need to do. Here is the syllabus that I created (I used Thinglink, Piktochart and Camtasia to make it):

(If the links don’t show up when you click on the above syllabus, you can get to it through this link)

Creating this new version of my course was a lot of work and a lot of fun. As I am finishing up the summer semester teaching with the first version of this course, I am very pleased with the results. The past two summers I have had very poor results in my summer online courses. Most students did very poor quality work, put in minimal effort, and in the end learned very little despite my best efforts. From my experience a lot of these problems were because the student hadn’t taken an online course before and didn’t know what to expect and typically over-scheduled themselves (either with work or vacations or both). This summer, I am happy to say that everyone who took the time to complete the course learned something. The grades and the participation were much better and the questions that I got from students showed a level of engagement that I haven’t seen before. I am very much looking forward to teaching my new updated version of the course in the fall.