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: More

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De-Grading, part 4: Curving Grades

“Curving” grades is supposed to be a no-no, but many of us have ways to adjust grades, particularly on tests. Because teachers have many things to do, we often choose the simplest method of adjusting grades, even though (if we had time to think about it) it isn’t the fairest or most logical method.

Here are some examples:

Watch for Hidden Curves

Scenario: I give a test to my class. When I start grading, I realize that the test was much harder than I intended. The class average works out to 48%, the high score 88%.

I don’t want this one test to skew their grades for the quarter. Some teachers would call the high score an A and raise the rest by the same number of points. Not exactly a curve, but it’s a common way to adjust scores. To make a true curve, I’d have to make 48 a C and spread the rest of the scores above and below with most of the scores in the middle range.

But I’m opposed to curving grades, so I decide that instead I’ll make the next test much easier, and the scores will all even out. That way, nobody’s grade will be hurt by the one ‘bad’ test. The next test is much easier; the average is 88%, the low score 74.

But my decision has the opposite effect from my intention. The ‘bad’ test ends up being the determining factor for every student’s grade. Using a curve would have been fairer.

Ninety percent of what?

Why is 90% an A, anyway? Where does the idea that a certain percentage is ‘passing’ come from, while one percentage point lower is ‘failing’? Does this reflect some innate organization in the human mind? Obviously not.

Grading practices in other countries vary, but few use a rigid percentage scale. American teachers are obsessed with percentages, though. More

De-Grading, Part 3: Zero

Less than Zero

I weigh myself every day so I can catch myself if I gain a pound or two. Here are my numbers for the week: 120, 121, 120, 0, 119, 0, 120. My average weight over seven days is 85.71 pounds.

Zero? How did I manage to weigh in at zero pounds on Wednesday and Friday? Well, I forgot to weigh myself on those days. No number = Zero. Right?

Giving kids a zero for missing assignments makes about as much sense. Teachers argue that if kids don’t do the work, they should get no points, which makes sense if you’re talking about money. Assuming I have no sick days left, if I don’t go to work for 2 days, I get zero dollars for those days. That’s fair.

But grades are supposed to represent skills and knowledge, not work. A student who averages 45% because he didn’t hand in a couple assignments and forgot to make up the quiz might actually know a lot. He might have A’s on all the quizzes he took, and handed in all but those two assignments. His grade doesn’t reflect what he knows. It reflects his poor organizational skills or forgetfulness.

Say I’m giving a quiz. Ralph hasn’t been keeping up with the class; he’s missed a lot of days and hasn’t mastered the material, but he’s filling in an answer for each question as well as he can. Renee is a B student, but is having a bad day. Her best friend has revealed her innermost secrets on Facebook and everybody at lunch made fun of her. She puts her head down and refuses to do the quiz. If I tell her to get her head off the desk, she will get up and walk out. Both students get an F: Ralph gets 59%, Renee gets 0%. If I average them as letter grades, both have a zero. If I average them as percentages, there is a 59% difference in their scores. What is fair? More

De-Grading, part 2: Rubrics

Points and “Points”

Rubrics are used for many kinds of assignments. Instead of using letter grades, a rubric uses numbers, each representing a different level of skill or knowledge. It’s a more holistic way to grade, valuing the student’s performance as a whole, rather than examining the nickels and dimes of each assignment.

Rubric scores are not ‘points’ in the sense that most teachers use the term. They don’t correspond to a percentage scale unless you make some way to convert them, which you will have to do in order to assign a letter grade on the report card.

A popular rubric scale has 4 as the high score (excellent, beyond proficient) and 1 as the low score (not proficient). In between are 2 and 3, which cover the ground between ‘barely proficient’ and ‘proficient.’ Because there are four levels in this scale, most teachers and students simply regard 4 as an A, 3 as a B, and so on — which defeats the purpose of using a rubric.

Doing the Math

There are teachers who do not like math, aren’t very good at math, and would rather think about it as little as possible. This leads to another set of problems.

On that 4-point rubric, there are usually several columns representing such areas as Content, Organization, Support, Style. Are all columns weighed equally? Is Style as important a part of the grade as Organization or Content? How much should Mechanics be worth? All of this is up to the teacher, who might make each column a quarter of the total grade just because it’s easier to figure out.

Next, each level 1-4 must be assigned a percentage or points value. 4 represents the highest possible score, 20 points. What about 1, 2, and 3? Because it’s easier, a teacher might make 4 = 20, 3 = 15, 2 = 10 and 1 = 5. But what if a 2 is supposed to represent the minimum passing grade? A student who gets a ‘2’ in each column will have a score of 50%, not passing. If 4 = 20, 3 should probably = 17, 2 = 14, and 1 = 11; then the student with all 2’s would have 70%.

I tried to explain this to a colleague once, but she liked her way better.

Tomorrow: Zero

De-Grading, part I

There is a saying in education, “Grading is degrading,” meaning that grades shouldn’t be used as an punishment or a reward. Obviously the people who came up with this notion didn’t realize that teachers have to give grades, and no matter what grading scale or method you use, they become incentives. Students care about points, not learning.

There isn’t one best way to grade; all methods are subjective, based on a teacher’s own philosophy and habits. But unless a student understands how a teacher grades, any number or letter on the paper means nothing.

The most common methods of grading are neither rational nor objective. This bothers me; numerical scores imply some precision or at least consistency. The problem is that most teachers were not trained to grade. We know all about assessment – formative and summative, norm-based and criterion-based, formal and informal – but when it’s time to put numbers on paper, we sometimes end up with unintended results or unrecognized errors.

What follows are a few observations about the way grading is practiced in many American Schools.

57 Currencies

You go to CVS and see a bottle of shampoo for $2.79. At Target you see the same bottle marked 229. When you go to pay for it, the cashier says, “That will be two hundred and twenty-nine yen.” How much is that in dollars? She doesn’t know. Is 229 yen a better deal than 279 cents? To find out, you need to convert yen into dollars.

What if every store used a different currency – Euros at the grocery store, pesos at the gas station, rubles at McDonalds? Confusing, to say the least.

There are 57 teachers at my school. All of us use points, but ‘points’ means something different in each classroom. More

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