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How to Set Up Mastery-Based Grading in Your Classroom

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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:

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: 

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: 

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. 


References

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.


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8 Comments

  1. When discussing mastery grading, you often refer back to proficiency. In my experience, mastery is rarely if ever attained by a student. To reach mastery infers that there is nothing left to learn; that you are now an expert. I suppose this is true if you define mastery that way. But to me mastery is a lifelong journey. proficiency on the other hand suggest that you have learned the skills and can in fact apply those skills in various situations. So, most of us should be content at the attainment of proficiency, the ability to move forward with a level of comfort in the concept in skills.

    • Kareem Farah says:

      Danny, you make a very valid point about the distinction between proficiency and mastery. In our model, we believe deeply in teacher customization. So an educator may consider mastery of a lesson as achieving 4/5 on a rubric. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have learned everything possible on the skill, just means they have meet the level of mastery outlined by the educator.

      It is not uncommon for educators to use “proficiency” or “competency” instead. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Kareem,

    After listening to your podcasts with Jenn and reading the accompanying blog posts, I have started the Modern Classrooms free course. For the last three years, I have been using design thinking as the problem-solving methodology my students use to create solutions for genuine challenges faced by non-profit organizations in marginalized communities across our city. This approach is grounded in both learner-centered and problem-centered curriculum designs, and I see a great deal of synergy between it and the Modern Classrooms approach. Given your expertise, I’m hoping to get your feedback on the soundness of my rationale.

    To provide a little context, the Leadership course I teach is for Grade 11 students and in an effort to provide them with experiential learning opportunities, I have partnered with a number of local, non-profit organizations who are experiencing various challenges. The students work in collaborative groups and are positioned as consultants and use design thinking to develop their solutions to these challenges. The framework of the course is a blend of learner-centered and problem-centered curriculum designs and this is where I see a great deal of similarity with the Modern Classrooms project. I would like to incorporate your approach into my current pedagogy, and before I get too far down the road, I want to make sure I have an understanding of your design.

    Using the Understanding by Design framework to work through the planning, assessment, and instruction for the course, I think there are a number of points of intersection in our programs. The planning is designed around the needs and interests of learners with lesson plans based on creating learning experiences for students. The kids are encouraged to actively construct their own understanding of the course content. This seems to align well with your application of the material phase as it is self-paced and iterative. I also think the learner-centered approach is depicted through the role of teachers as awareness makers and facilitators in classrooms that are collaborative, social environments. Furthermore, your assessment seems to fit this design as it uses self-assessment and peer assessment to develop concept mastery through the use of formative and summative assessments as well as mastery checks (this is a component I would like to add to my class). If I understand the Modern Classrooms practice correctly, I also believe that assessment guides curriculum and instruction. The challenge I see here is that the teacher has already created the video lessons. While this aids with predictability, does it also promote rigidity in content delivery? Other than students examining the coursework in a self-paced manner, how does the teacher account for different learning styles?

    As mentioned, my course also uses a problem-centered design and as such relies heavily on using contemporary social problems and positions the teacher as a facilitator or guide to help students by providing instruction based on the problem and social context. The ideas are studied in depth within a unit and then transferred to subsequent units, and I am curious how the flipped classroom approach can be transferred to this design. I try to avoid whole class lectures so I really see the value in your hybrid model, focusing more on individual discussions with each student group. I think the self-paced component works well as I use the design thinking cycle (immersion, ideation, and implementation) to delineate three distinct units and within each there are formative and summative assessments. I already use a blind, iterative assessment practice in which students receive feedback on their rubrics, but no marks. This encourages deeper engagement in their learning as they have to actually read the feedback and determine what needs to be revised. They can resubmit their work when they feel they have mastered (I will now be using this terminology) the activity, but it has to be completed by the end of that unit. Do you view this assessment practice as being in the spirit of self-paced learning? I use it to guide curriculum iterations and instruction and I use the “practice, practice, practice, graded assignment” framework you talk about on the podcast.

    I am also looking to build out a Grade 12 course that is an open-source, interdisciplinary class in the model of Don Wettrick’s Innovation and Open Source Learning class. Have you used the Modern Classroom Project’s approach in this manner? From what I have read, it seems it is being incorporated into subject-centered curriculum designs that focus on comprehending and conceptualizing content. I understand that this approach is more manageable, but is it is not also counterintuitive given that it doesn’t allow for individualization and deemphasizes the learner?

    I look forward to your insights and suggestions.

    • Kareem Farah says:

      Everything you have described is certainly in line with our model. We believe deeply in teacher customization. Every lesson doesn’t require a video. Every unit doesn’t need to be linear. Every assessment can be evaluated and delivered in different ways. As long as students aren’t listening to live lectures, are given the flexibility to spend more or less time on a given skill than their peers and you are providing feedback through the lens of mastery then you are making it happen.

  3. Thanks for this article, Kareem.

    How does the Modern Classrooms project determine the order of skills it assigns for students to progress through?

    Do you find any challenges in assigning a linear path for students to achieve and demonstrate mastery? This has been one of our stumbling blocks in the past.

    • Kareem Farah says:

      Hi Adam,

      The Modern Classrooms Project doesn’t make that determination, the educator does. Plenty of educators we support use non linear approaches to implementing our model. Instead of requiring students to master one lesson before the next, the teachers requires students to master a set of skills (in any order) within a given timeframe. Hope this helps.

      Best,
      Kareem

  4. Good morning,

    I read this post and chewed on it overnight. I noticed a few issues of concern that perhaps merit consideration. After all, when making systematic changes in complex systems it is common that a new problem, greater in negative outcomes than the original problem, is inadvertently created. We have a LONG history of such outcomes in education!

    The article pointed out powerful contributing factors that hamper optimal student performance. The author cites, but doesn’t name, social promotion as a key problem. The author then suggests that changing the grading structure will correct social promotion. I think this should be considered carefully. Is our current grading system what causes social promotion to occur? If the answer is no, then how does changing a grading system address the root causes of social promotion? If it fails to, then social promotion will still exist. The positive end of the trade off on this account might not exist at all.

    The second issue is the claim that we teach to mastery. That’s what we say we do, but it is entirely untrue. We teach to a level of proficiency, not mastery. Mastery, even academic, requires years of practice and review. Our goal has never been to develop mastery. This is not merely a semantic argument. I’ll not get into that right now. However, it is fair to say that if we don’t carefully articulate our direction and goal, then we cannot succeed. We have never aimed at mastery, so to cite failures of achieving mastery as the impetus for change is ill-founded. Again, as with social promotion, the author correctly describes a problem but then promotes solutions that likely fail to address the issue cited.

    The author further claims that resistance to this new protocol is rooted in two things, comfort and convenience. To me this is a dirty statement rooted in arrogance. It is the voice of a bad actor. It categorizes those that might question or push back as being stodgy and lazy. This does not foster the type of civil disagreement that needs to occur when considering large changes. Further, teachers are very ready for meaningful changes in education. What veteran teachers are tired of is the rebranding of stale ideas that don’t work.

    Solutions that don’t address the root source of problems are bound to fail. Maybe I misunderstand his direction and perspective. I’d be glad to hear other views and reconsider my own.

    • Philip, everyone is entitled to their opinions. I personally think Kareem and the Modern Classrooms Project are really on to something, and I chose to feature his ideas on my site three different times this year as a result. All educators have been having conversations about what’s wrong with education for years and years, but very few schools make any big changes. If the method presented here has flaws or you take issue with the way Kareem is describing it, that’s your prerogative, but calling someone arrogant or characterizing their ideas as “stale” is counterproductive. I featured a similar method years ago from another teacher, so clearly I’m a big believer in the self-paced method, as are many of the teachers who have since adopted this same approach in their own classrooms. But what I try to do on my site is share ideas that are working, not push them out as the end-all-be-all. If it’s not for you, then feel free to share what IS working.

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