An Apprentice in Mastery (Part 1)

In addition to creating a new course this past semester, I also took on another creative teaching endeavor by implementing mastery-based grading in one of my courses for the first time. I’m going to write a short series of posts talking about my approach and my experiences:

  1. Motivation guiding my design (this post)
  2. Implementation of my system
  3. Reflections and moving forward

If you’re reading this, I’m not assuming you have any background in what mastery-based grading is, but I don’t want to spend too much time explaining the various components because they will mostly be revealed through my reasoning and approach. However, it is important that I would describe the key tenets of such a system as (a) assessment and grades are based on the understanding (“mastery”) of learning objectives rather than a traditional numerical scale, and (b) there should be a way for students to have additional attempts to demonstrate mastery.

So why did I want to do something like this in the first place?

  • Giving grades more meaning. When you give a final grade in a course, how does it correspond to what the student actually has accomplished? For example, in a traditional grading system a B could translate to (i) getting everything correct the entire semester but missing a few assignments, (ii) getting B’s on the vast majority of assessments, or (iii) having a wide variety of grades that average to a B in the end. A mastery-based approach treats a course like a license or certification in that you have to demonstrate certain skills to earn the license. Grades then translate to how many of the skills you have demonstrated mastery in and no matter the grade, you will have a tangible list of objectives that you have learned as a result of taking the class.
  • Student mindset. It is always important to attend to students’ mental dispositions and a mastery-based system (in theory) has the ability to make positive impacts on the mindset and anxieties of our students. It is one thing to preach the value of a growth mindset and it is another to align your practices with this value. Allowing students additional opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of learning objectives embodies the growth mindset philosophy of encouraging productive struggle and that learning (especially at the level of mastery) can take different amounts of time for different types of learners. In addition, such a system would hopefully reduce test anxiety where students would know that it is okay to not understand everything at the time of an exam and that they won’t be penalized or judged as inferior for attempting some of the objectives at a later time (and hopefully with additional motivation to achieve mastery).
  • Discourage academic dishonesty. When reading perspectives of others who have utilized mastery-based grading, you probably won’t see this as a reason to employ the system, but I try to be as transparent as possible about my own thought process. In math, homework traditionally counts for 15-30% of your final grade and in my opinion, this only encourages the academic dishonesty that is rampant today (this could be a whole blog post on its own). From a student’s perspective, imagine sitting down the night before a homework assignment is due and not knowing how to do half of it. If the homework is graded for correctness, you would ask a friend for the answers or Google them too, wouldn’t you? For the record, I’m not faulting the student at all for doing this, especially given their stress associated with courses, extra-curriculars, and social life. So academic dishonesty is probably the wrong term, but why use a system that encourages a strategy that is not conducive to making progress towards actually understanding course content? I think it is fair to say that we would like final grades to be (as much as possible) associated with a student’s level of understanding and not the understanding of their friends or people online. We should be encouraging the use of these resources as a means of developing understanding rather than having students feel anxious because they are “cheating” on their homework.
  • Instructor time? In reading perspectives of others, “saving the instructor time” is a commonly cited reason for implementing a mastery-based system, but in my opinion, this isn’t a reason to make a pedagogical change. Yes, as professors we have a lot on our plates and would like to be more efficient, but I would never prioritize this over doing something because I believe it will benefit students in one way or another. In reality, any changes we make will take a lot of time initially and take less time as we gain experience and fine-tune our approaches. I will be expanding on this in one of my next posts, but for now I will say that my implementation this semester added time on the front end in determining objectives, took less time to grade during the semester, and added time in administering retakes.

With these motivations in mind, here were the initial principles I had in mind for designing the structure of my mastery-based grading system:

  • Separating procedural and conceptual thinking. I believe that being explicit about the cognitive demand level we expect from our students is important and I wanted to honor the way in which the mathematics education community differentiates procedural (following steps) and conceptual (displaying reasoning / non-routine problems) thinking.
  • Simple and transparent. The last thing students want is a complicated grading system, especially when it is different from what they are used to, so I wanted to make sure that it was easy to understand how their understanding of objectives would translate to a final grade and that they could see (online) at all times which objectives they have (and have not) mastered.
  • Retake system. This is a key feature of mastery-based grading, so I knew I wanted to incorporate a retake system with a personal goal of trying to find the “sweet spot” of not having too few opportunities for retakes (wouldn’t alleviate the test anxiety issue) and not having too many opportunities for retakes (could take away initial motivation to learn).

I also wanted to figure out a way to incorporate my existing assignments into the system, either as a category or as their own objectives. This is a good time to mention that I did this in a course I had taught the previous two semesters and I think it is much easier to go through the challenging process of identifying learning objectives if you have taught the course before so that you are closer to the content and student outcomes.

In my next post, I will talk about the course, the specifics of the mastery-based system that I created and used, and how the system played out during the semester. Thanks for reading!

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