Another Look at Mastery Learning

Some years ago I attended a professional development inservice which, like all such events, was selling the ‘flavor of the month’ teaching method. At that time, it was Mastery Learning.

What they said made sense to me. Students should not be left in the dust as we march through the curriculum, but should proceed at their own pace, not moving ahead until they demonstrate that they have mastered material.

After several hours of indoctrination, another teacher raised her hand. “It’s all very well to allow students learn at different paces. But how are we to teach such a class? What’s today’s lesson? That’s what I need to know when I walk into the classroom each day and face thirty students.”

Another added, “And how do we grade them?”

These were very good points. Our presenters couldn’t give us a very good answer. They talked about enrichment activities and remediation, differentiated instruction and layered curriculum.

A teacher can remediate and enrich, but what happens when it’s time to send home grade reports? Are students graded on how much material they cover, or how thoroughly they master it?  Should a student get an A because she finally mastered Chapter 1, even though the rest of the class has mastered five chapters?

And what does ‘mastery’ mean when we talk about grades? Is a “D” — the lowest passing grade — enough?

Because I have always taught a few mixed-level classes, I was interested in finding a way to implement Mastery Learning. After many years of rejecting it as impractical, I have begun to figure out a way to do it, and have applied some of the principles to all my classes.

The greatest improvement I have seen is in students’ attitudes. In a traditional classroom, much of the responsibility is on the teacher’s shoulders. Students complete tasks, but rarely take ownership of their learning. To them, it’s just a points game.

Mastery Learning puts responsibility back on students. If they get D on tests, they can’t just push on, understanding less and less, becoming more and more alienated until they give up. They may choose to give up, but now they understand that they’re responsible for that choice. There is no reason to give up. A poor grade is not failure, but the first step towards mastery. Behavior improves.

The basic elements required to make this method work are flexibility, structure, and choice. Teachers must be prepared to have students working at different rates, while providing a structure that holds it all together. And students should have some choices; this gives them ownership of their learning.

If you are interested in this method and want the details, here is how I have organized my Latin classes:

In General: It is helpful to have daily warm-up activities that are done by the entire class, as well as time for students to work in class while the teacher circulates, offering help and assessing progress. There will be some students who do little work during class; as long as they are making satisfactory progress, I think this can be tolerated. If too many students are doing this, consider increasing your expectations.

Units: Divide the material into fairly short, assessible units. Whatever can be ‘covered’ in about a week works well. Students must remain engaged; it’s easier for them to see their own progress with short units.

Pacing: Decide how many of these units an average student can cover in a grading period. Based on my experience with past classes, I decided on five chapters.

Assessment: Figure out how each unit will be assessed. I use the same three-part format for all tests: vocabulary, reading, grammar. Students can finish the assessment in one period.

Decide how tests will be given. In my class, Thursday is test day. Not every student is taking the same test, but all are given the opportunity. I also allow students to come in during lunch or after school to take or retake tests.

Note: every chapter test may be retaken as many times as a student wants. In Latin, this doesn’t require many versions of each chapter test because students already know what to study, and a large part of ‘learning’ the material is memorization.

At first students may avoid taking tests until they feel they have mastered the material. Eventually they learn that a poor grade allows them to see what they have mastered and what they need to work on. It is feedback, not a statement of personal worth.

Instruction: Create assignments for each unit. I use a combination of book exercises, workbooks and supplemental worksheets I have written over the years. I turned these into packets. Most textbooks come with a lot of materials; use them.

Students work independently in my class, or in informal groups, for thirty minutes each day. More advanced students help others. During this time I never sit at my desk and grade papers, but walk around look over their shoulders, offering assistance, making informal assessments and pushing them when needed. This is true individualized, differentiated instruction. Students who tune out during whole-class instruction pay attention when I’m talking to them as an individual.

We do a few things as class activities. One is the daily warm-up, which covers any grammatical topic we need to review. Another is cultural activities. Right now we are working on a food unit. Doing these activities helps class unity; they are more than a group of students being tutored.

Feedback: Informal feedback is necessary, but getting tests and packets graded quickly and back into their hands is also important. I make a lot of notations on their packets, especially for students who are less assertive in asking for help. If a student appears to have copied their homework, I talk to them privately, but most of them quickly realize that cheating doesn’t help them pass the tests.

It helps that I have just twenty-five students, but I think it could work with a larger group. There are, as in any class, students who do little work and try to distract others, but this doesn’t happen as much as it used to.

Giving Grades: Figure out how you will assign points. I use a small points economy because it’s simpler for all of us. I don’t keep a traditional gradebook with columns and rows. Instead I have a page for each student with scores and notes for each chapter they are working on. This takes no more time than entering a column of scores, and it allows me to focus on each student individually.

Tests are worth up to 5 points; an A earns 5 points, a B earns 4, etc. A student gets 1 point just for attempting a test (i.e. they tried to fill in every item). They get just one grade for each test, no matter how many times they take it, higher scores replacing low ones.

Packets are worth 2 points if complete. If they have skipped some parts, I give them 1 point. I don’t grade packets, but I do mark all errors. Packets must be completed by Tuesday if they want to take a test on Thursday. At first I was rigid about this, but now I let them take a test even if they haven’t done the packet, because most will want to retake it.

We do a daily class warm-up which counts as a participation grade. They get two participation grades for each grading period, each equivalent to a test (5 points).

Decide how you will assign grades to points earned. It is better not to use a standard 10% scale, but instead figure out the maximum points possible and the minimum passing points.

The basic questionWhat should a student have to do to show the most basic mastery and get a passing grade?

In my system, 45 is the maximum a student can earn by completing five chapters, achieving an A on all tests.

I decided that the lowest passing score would be 21; to earn this, a student would have to complete at least three units, passing each test with a C, and get a C for participation. This student would have mastered enough material to receive a passing grade.

21 – 45 points is the passing range. Divide this by four to set the ranges for an A, B, C, and D. A student can earn a C by completing five chapters with test grades of C, or three chapters, earning A on each test.

Passing and Failing: A student will fail if he or she does not complete at least three chapters in a grading period. When I used traditional methods, a student who failed a grading period was generally so far behind that it would be impossible to catch up. Now, a student can do no work at all for nine weeks, get an F, but still start the next grading period with a blank slate. It doesn’t matter what chapter they are on, as long as they make progress from that point.

This means that right now I have students spread out over ten chapters. I never thought this would work, but it does.

Initially, my problem was figuring out how to teach two classes at once. I’ve done that, but I’ve also begun to solve other problems: how to help students who fall behind, how to keep quicker students from getting bored, how to get all students to see learning as more than handing in worksheets. Now they understand that worksheets mean nothing if they have learned nothing by doing them.

Be prepared to be flexible. Stay organized, establish procedures. Observe how students are doing, keep an eye on the class average and the high and low grades. Make adjustments; be generous the first year, until you have a feel for how it’s going.

Be generous with yourself too. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but that’s how we learn, isn’t it?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. theteachingwhore
    Feb 05, 2011 @ 15:45:12

    Your column (and your style) remind me of something I heard once–that good teachers must be organized. My colleagues often comment (sometimes not too kindly) on how organized I am, and I have to be because I teach with a similar approach to what you do here. Students have individual score sheets and can see their daily progress on them. Great post!


    • escher dax
      Feb 05, 2011 @ 15:56:12

      I have never forgotten how difficult it was to travel from building to building, room to room, and try to find a place to set my stuff on another teacher’s messy desk. Organization rules! – it keeps me sane, keeps my classroom out of chaos, and my students appreciate knowing where everything is and what’s next.


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