Home Assessment Mastery Learning and Grading: Changing our Approach to Outcomes and Grades

Mastery Learning and Grading: Changing our Approach to Outcomes and Grades

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Imagine if Education Worked This Way in Most Schools …

Back in 2011, I had been blogging about education for a couple of years and found myself thinking that while lots of tech tools showed promise as engaging constructs, and offered something new and exciting, I wasn't sure that they could really change learning. Then I came across the concept of “reverse instruction”, which had recently been labelled the “flipped classroom” by some pioneering teachers writing about it online. Here was something that could truly impact the we teach and how students learn.

The flipped classroom technique leverages technology to truly position teachers to change how they teach, and how students learn. The concept of individualized learning had been around for decades, and all teachers inherently do it to some extent, but in the traditional classroom, there had never been much time for it. With the flipped classroom, by pushing some learning content out of the classroom, it freed up time during class to work more directly with our students. This just made so much sense.

I've been writing about and using flipped techniques ever since, and it has been my pleasure to teach educators all across the world about how to get start with it in their classrooms over these last 5 or so years.

A Gateway to Deeper Learning

Over that time, while gaining experience teaching, and constantly reading and learning about it, I've noticed that many passionate educators have used the flipped classroom as a gateway to deeper learning experiences. Aaron Sams does a great job of laying this out in this video:

Sams notes how teachers typically take a second step beyond the flipped classroom model to build on what they've started. This can include more inquiry, project based learning, and mastery learning, and “handing over a lot of control of the learning process to the students” (ohh … scary).

Mastery Learning

Sams references Mastery Learning in his video, and it ties into the concept of Mastery-Based Grading, so let's review it quickly. Mastery Learning is an instructional strategy and educational philosophy, first proposed in 1968 by Benjamin Bloom (yes, also the mind behind the famous Bloom's Taxonomy). Mastery Learning “maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery (i.e. 90% on a knowledge test) in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information. If a student does not achieve mastery on the test, they are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information, then tested again. This cycle will continue until the learner accomplishes mastery, and may move on to the next stage.”

Mastery-Based Grading

Mastery Learning ties logically to an alternative approach to assessment and grading. There is a call in some education circles to do away with traditional grading and tests. Tests don't really explore what a student can do with what they've learned. Of course, some subjects (think basic arithmetic) can be very effectively tested with a test, but so many really can't. Just because a student can memorize and recall a bunch of facts doesn't mean he can apply them in a useful way (or that he or she isn't bored to tears in that class).

The recent article, “Is This for a Grade?”: how Mastery-Based Grading is Changing our School“, provides a good view into how mastery grading can work.

At Tri-County Early College, they use a mastery-based grading approach, and here is an explanation of two of the key elements in their grading system:

“1. All assignments must be completed at a level of competency and are in-play as long as that takes (i.e. grades are never used as a punitive measure and zeros are never given).

By insisting that all assignments be completed, we address the learned behavior many students who come to us have developed in the traditional model: one that says it’s okay to simply opt-out of an assignment and take a zero. Our students learn early on that (1) we don’t give just “busywork” assignments and that (2) all assignments must be completed in order to obtain credit for a given course. We also realize that all students do not learn key concepts at the same pace and thus allow them to redo assignments as often as is necessary to prove a minimum level of proficiency.

2. Grades are indicated in terms of relative mastery opposite learning goals rather than arbitrary letter grades.

The second key attribute of our grading system takes square aim at the mindset of focusing only on the grade and not the learning process. This is done by eliminating the A – F scale in favor of one that is simply an indicator of student growth: in-progress, mastery or high mastery. As mentioned above, the student is expected to continue working to attain “mastery” per clear learning goals established at the beginning of each project/unit of study.”

For those wondering, this article also explains how this can be mapped back to the essential A – F grades required by most of our grading systems, and expected by parents, colleges, and other stakeholders.

Wrapping it Up

How exciting it is to see how a good idea (the flipped classroom) has served as a cornerstone for building a deeper and more active learning experience that can also be assessed in a better way than the outmoded, uninformative grading system still so widely in use in our schools. Let's use that valuable class time to help students solve problems and create, to construct and master their own learning, to change how they look at learning, and to take ownership of it.

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