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Most teachers can relate to that sinking feeling you get when you forge ahead to a new lesson even though many of your students aren’t “getting it.” The pacing guide says it’s time to move forward, there is a planned assessment just a week away, and you feel compelled to keep pushing through. But you know that isn’t what’s best for kids. Skills build on each other. Kids can’t sprint before they walk. They can’t write a paragraph before they write a sentence.
Ultimately, every educator wants to create a classroom that honors the fact that students must first master foundational skills to access more complex content. But we don’t provide them with a blueprint for how to do it. We expect mastery from students, but don’t create the conditions that give them the time and support to achieve it.
The good news is, the final frontier of the blended, self-paced, mastery-based model we have created at the Modern Classrooms Project addresses this very challenge. In this piece, I’ll lay out the structures and systems you need to cultivate a mastery-based classroom of your own. With the growing diversity of academic and social-emotional needs as a consequence of the COVID pandemic, a mastery-based approach is not just valuable, it is necessary.
The Value of Mastery-Based Grading
Before you make the leap into transforming your classroom around mastery-based grading, it’s critical to understand why it is so valuable. At its core, mastery-based learning refers to the notion that students must meet a certain level of competence for a task or skill before moving on to the next. Aside from it sounding quite sensible, there are some core reasons why mastery-based grading is truly valuable for students:
- Prevents lingering skill gaps: Every teacher knows what it is like to start a lesson, only to realize a few minutes in that a number of students aren’t ready for it. This is the consequence of sustained skill gaps. Kids have been pushed through class after class and lesson after lesson without achieving actual mastery. We collectively sweep foundational skill gaps under the rug, knowing that eventually it is going to create challenges for students when presented with more complex skills. It also leads to enormous variability in learning levels within the same classroom, school, or district. It is no surprise that when mastery-based grading is implemented effectively it is associated with a decrease in the amount of variability in aptitude between students (Anderson, 1994; Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990). Moreover, it leads to a substantial increase in students’ ability to retain their learning long-term, thus ensuring they are set up for success when they leave your classroom (Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990).
- Builds student confidence: Mastery-based grading is integral to building students’ sense of self-worth in the classroom. Kids are not oblivious to the fact that they are being moved on from one lesson to the next without actually fully grasping the skill. In fact, every time they do get pushed forward without achieving mastery, they question whether or not they are holistically “good” at a particular subject. When this happens over and over, they question whether they are even capable of academic success. In a mastery-based setting, where students are given a true opportunity to succeed, they develop more positive attitudes toward the content being taught. (Anderson, 1994; Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990). More importantly, they start to believe in themselves as young scholars and ultimately improve their academic self-concept (Anderson, 1994; Guskey & Pigot, 1988).
- Prepares students for the real world: In my first few years as a classroom teacher, I thought the best way to support my students was to just give them everything they needed. I shielded them from productive struggle, I didn’t require mastery, and I conditioned them to believe completion and effort were sufficient. At the time, I thought I was doing what was best for kids, only to realize later I had let them down. I misrepresented how they would be treated when they left my classroom and traveled on to college or the workplace. In these settings, they felt blindsided when suddenly they were held to mastery. They needed to show competence and were expected to be self-aware enough to identify when they needed to engage in further learning or seek out additional support. When we don’t hold our students accountable to mastery, we fail to prepare them for what’s next in life. We sell them a false reality that will only hurt them in the long run and sometimes when it is too late.
Setting the Conditions Needed for Mastery-Based Grading
It can be hard to imagine how to implement mastery-based grading when you have never done it before. The core limitation is the attachment most educators have to fixed-pace learning. To implement mastery-based grading you have to challenge the status quo of traditional systems where all students have the same amount of time to achieve competence. Instead, in mastery-based learning each student continues to spend time on a skill until they achieve proficiency (Dick & Reiser, 1989).
For that to become a reality, educators need to infuse elements of self-pacing in their classroom so they can let some students work on one lesson while others move on to the next because they have achieved mastery. Instead of looking at a unit and saying students NEED to learn lesson #1 on Monday and lesson #2 on Tuesday, we need to honor the fact that learning just isn’t that rigid.
Now I could write a whole piece discussing how to build a self-paced classroom, and the good news is I have! To learn how, explore our free online course* or read my previous piece here on How to Create a Self-Paced Classroom.
The Two Stages of a Student’s Journey Towards Mastery
Once you have established the conditions necessary to grade students on mastery, then it’s time to design the systems necessary to make it happen. Reaching mastery is a journey and typically involves two stages:
Stage 1: Developing Mastery Through Practice
As soon as a student is exposed to a new skill, they need to practice that skill. The practice stage should be where they spend the majority of their class time. It is when students are truly developing their understanding of the material. Designing effective opportunities for practice should include:
- Application of the Material: For practice to be productive, it must include applied learning. This can be done through discussions, labs, readings, worksheets, and other activities. Some of the best forms of practice are driven by inquiry and constant questioning. The experience should be scaffolded so students are systematically engaging in more challenging work as the lesson builds, bringing the student closer and closer to mastery.
- Opportunities for Collaboration: Ideally, practice time is collaborative. Students should be able work together to understand new content and ask questions to peers who may have already mastered the skill. In an effective mastery-based environment, educators are also working to build students’ ability to be self-regulated learners. Instead of running a teacher-centered classroom, students should be at the center and teachers should serve as a guide as students lean on each other through the journey to mastery.
- Constant Revision: One of the most important elements of building an effective mastery-based grading classroom is cultivating a culture of revision. Students need to internalize that to achieve mastery you should EXPECT to revise your work. This is a novel concept to many students and will result in some pushback, which is a good thing. During this practice time, students should be submitting assignments and receiving feedback from their teacher on areas that need improvement. Unlike a traditional setting, where students turn in assignments and never see them again until they are “graded,” in a mastery-based classroom, students are constantly revisiting their assignment until they understand the material enough to demonstrate their mastery. To revise effectively, students should receive clear feedback on what they do and do not yet understand. They should also receive actionable suggestions for what they should do to progress to the next phase of the learning process where they will demonstrate mastery.
Stage 2: Demonstrating Mastery Through Mastery Checks
Once a student has practiced sufficiently, it’s time for them to demonstrate that they truly are a master of the skill! To provide students with this opportunity, educators need to design effective assessments that allow students to prove their understanding of a given skill or concept.
We call these assessments “mastery checks,” and students take them at the end of each lesson prior to moving on to the next one. They emulate the function of an exit ticket but aren’t administered at the end of a class period. Instead, mastery checks are administered when a student has practiced the content adequately and feels ready to show their understanding of the content in a controlled setting. Designing effective mastery checks is integral to running a mastery-based classroom. Here are some important characteristics to consider:
- Administered Individually: Unlike the collaborative practice stage, students take mastery checks independently. It is students’ opportunity to show that they can execute the skill without the support of their peers. Mastery checks are taken whenever students are ready for them, so you will often have a number of students demonstrating their mastery on different lessons at the same time. To manage the workflow and reduce the chances of cheating, many educators create a “Mastery Check Zone” in their classroom. That area of the classroom is completely silent and reserved for students who are demonstrating mastery.
- Easily Assessed: At this point, you can probably tell that a mastery-based learning environment requires a fair amount of grading. The key is the grading is purposeful and leads to real data-driven instruction. To help manage the flow of work, it is important to build mastery checks that are easy to assess. These are ideally bite-sized and do a nice job of balancing depth of understanding with efficient assessment. We encourage educators to use a mastery check template to keep a consistent structure. Keep in mind that mastery checks do not all need to be the same format or be delivered in the same medium. They can look like a mini-quiz, a sorting activity, or verbal assessments. As a teacher, you will know best what a student needs to do to demonstrate their understanding of a skill.
- Opportunity for Reassessment: The heartbeat of an effective mastery-based grading environment is reassessments. Students and teachers should all come to the collective understanding that part of the journey to mastery is frequently falling short on assessments, reflecting on why, and then re-demonstrating mastery. To do this effectively, teachers develop a clear understanding of what constitutes mastery and then hold students to it. To support this process, a number of educators build rubrics for their mastery checks to ensure the grading process is as efficient as possible and the evidence is clear when a student needs to be reassessed.
Many educators build multiple forms of each mastery-check to allow for easy reassessment. This is highly contingent on the content area. For example, in math classes where students are learning about factors, it is quite straightforward to build multiple forms of the same mastery check. Alternatively, in an English class where students are learning about character and theme, it may make more sense to simply have students revisit the same mastery check if they did not achieve mastery.
Bear in mind that there is no one universally accepted method to executing a mastery-based grading system. You are the expert in the room and understand best what will work for you and your students. Once you have a plan, make sure to articulate it clearly to your students. Nothing should feel like a surprise.
Preparing for Pushback and Challenges
As with any important and innovative shift you make in the classroom, you should expect pushback and setbacks. Traditional practices in teaching and learning have remained in place because they are comfortable and often convenient. Don’t be surprised if students, parents, colleagues, and admin express hesitation about your vision. More importantly, expect to have your own doubts throughout the process. Prepare yourself for these common transition challenges:
1. Student Frustration
Most students have spent their educational career in environments that did not expect mastery; they are used to moving on to the next lesson regardless of competency. So when they enter a mastery-based environment, they will inevitably be surprised and quite frustrated. The first time they are asked to revise or be reassessed, they might ask why and in some cases express anger that you aren’t simply just moving them on. This type of reaction is all the more reason we need to move forward with mastery-based grading. This is good pushback, an indication we are truly changing students’ perception of learning in a way that has long-term positive impacts. The key is not to be surprised by it and to be prepared to articulate the rationale for the shift. The more frustrated your students get, the more they likely need to learn this shift before it is too late.
2. Working with Traditional Gradebooks
Often at the Modern Classrooms Project we field questions regarding whether a mastery-based grading approach can work with a traditional gradebook. I can assure you the thousands of educators who have implemented our blended, self-paced, mastery-based approach do so in traditional schools and districts that require A-F grades quarterly. The shift you are making is largely centered around how you actually treat grading each individual assignment and mastery check.
Take the example of a unit with 5 lessons and a summative assessment. Let’s assume each lesson has an associated assignment (scored out of 10 points) and mastery check (2 points) and the summative assessment is a test (50 points). In a traditional fixed-paced classroom where students aren’t graded based on mastery, a student might get the following grades:
The problem with a structure like this is students and teachers alike don’t actually know what lessons have been mastered. The partial credit grades tell us very little about a student’s competence of skills. It ultimately leads to a letter grade that is hard to explain.
Alternatively, in a mastery-based grading system, you can use the exact same grading structure, but simply only award students with credit if they have achieved mastery. Therefore, a student might get the following grades:
The beauty of this approach is both students and teachers know exactly what skills kids do and do not understand. In this example, the student mastered Lessons #1-4 but not #5. Naturally it will also be reflected in the summative assessment where the student scored an 82%, which is expected given they mastered 80% of the lesson.
One thing to note is that most educators we support through our model only self-pace within each unit of study and still give summative assessments at a scheduled time. They usually grade those “traditionally” and use them as an opportunity to reflect with their students and craft a plan for addressing students’ gaps in understanding.
3. Keeping Up with Grading
As an educator who spent my first 3 years in the classroom teaching traditionally, I HATED grading. It was certainly mundane, but worse, it didn’t feel purposeful. I wasn’t using the information to drive my instruction. By the time I passed back work, my students had already forgotten about what they did. It felt like busy work that took up way too much time.
In a mastery-based grading environment, there is a fair amount of grading. Teachers often express that keeping up can be challenging. But the grading actually matters. It drives the discussions you have with students in small groups and individually. It triggers revisions and reassessments where students use your feedback to revisit skills to build competence. There isn’t a silver bullet to reduce the grading load. Some teachers leverage tech-based assessment to accelerate the grading. Others spot check assignments and focus their energy on mastery checks for efficiency. Ultimately, you will strike the right balance, and will derive relief and excitement from the fact that grading actually feels purposeful! (Listen to our podcast on managing grading here.)
Where to go to learn more
Creating a classroom built around mastery-based grading is challenging! It requires thoughtful planning, detailed grading and a commitment to doing what’s best for kids even when there is pushback. I can assure you the benefits outweigh the challenges. Both I and the teachers we have trained at the Modern Classrooms Project can attest that the transformation to a mastery-based grading approach has lasting impacts on students’ perceptions of learning and their sense of self-worth. For students to believe in themselves, they need to be given the time and space to truly demonstrate their excellence.
If you’re interested in launching a mastery-based classroom of your own, a great place to start is our free online course. The course provides an in-depth overview of our blended, self-paced, mastery-based instructional model packed with templates, tutorials, exemplar units and other useful resources. Additionally, you can hear from real Modern Classroom teachers and mentors as they share about their experience by listening to our Modern Classrooms Project Podcast.
Finally, if you’d like more structured support as you make the leap into mastery-based grading, consider enrolling in our Modern Classroom Mentorship Program. As part of the program, you’ll be paired with a mentor and receive 1-on-1 coaching, feedback on instructional materials and plans you create, and ongoing support from the broader Modern Classrooms community. Most importantly, you’ll leave the program ready to launch a mastery-based learning environment of your own.
Regardless of your next step in your professional learning journey, challenge yourself and the many assumptions we have made about grading practices in education that don’t contribute to learner understanding. More importantly, work to hold your students to mastery because they deserve nothing less. When we hold students to high expectations, they rise to the occasion.
Anderson, S.A. (1994). Synthesis of research on mastery learning. Information Analyses (ERIC Reproduction ED 382 567).
Dick, W., & Reiser, R.A. (1989). Planning effective instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Guskey, T., & Pigott, T. (1988). Research on group-based mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Research, 81(4), 197-216.
Kulik, C., Kulik, J., & Bangert-Drowns, R. (1990). Effectiveness of mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 60(2), 265-299.
* Cult of Pedagogy has an affiliate relationship with the Modern Classrooms Project. Although the Modern Classroom Essentials course is free, if you purchase one of their paid offerings through the links on this post, Cult of Pedagogy will receive a percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.