Focusing on Mastery Over Marks

I came across this interesting article on, titled, “Goodbye to Grades? Mastery-Based Learning Is Becoming the New Standard“, and thought it was great that an outside education site was talking about changes in education in mostly a positive way.

Some swear that learning based on mastery instead of grades, or a “one size fits all” approach to teaching, has changed kids’ lives. It makes sense that when kids are allowed to learn at their own pace, they can thrive. Not having to learn something just to get that “A” also takes the pressure off, which may also help foster favorable conditions for learning. And it’s true that kids are still being graded in some way, but on specific skills instead of entire subjects, just lumped together.

It also showed one of the arguments against this change, which you often hear in education (bolded parts below are my emphasis):

Understandably, some parents worry that mastery-based learning will adversely affect their kids. Does it put children at a disadvantage for when they go out into the real world, where concrete results rule? Is it just another example of the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality that marks a major departure from how you and I grew up?

When you get into assessments and how it is done in schools, there are massive debates (as there should be) on how we move forward.  Here is something that I would challenge though…If you are asking students to achieve “mastery”, the expectations are actually higher, not only for students but for educators as well.  To move students towards “mastery” doesn’t mean just saying they have done something well, but getting them to that point.  I have never been about the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality because although on a short-term basis it might be “nice” for a student, long term it can be damaging.

In a recent conversation I had with an educator, I discussed the idea of not having the whole year entirely mapped out before you even meet your students. This is not to say that you shouldn’t have an idea of what you are teaching and you ignore the curriculum, just that you should not know exactly what you are teaching on September 23 at 9:12 am.  If you are teaching a concept and all your students have mastered it, do you move on or stick to the schedule? If students don’t understand the concept, do you move on or stick to the schedule?  It is impossible for all students to be at the same point at the same time (which is part of the point of mastery based assessments) but I think that the point I was trying to make is that moving on from a topic or conversation should be based more on where your students are.  This is not an indictment of educators because many are put into a tough situation of helping their kids understand a concept deeply versus getting through a curriculum that is often more focused on breadth than depth in a constrained amount of time.  Too often educators are put into a tough situation of doing what is right versus doing what is considered their job. The two are, unfortunately, not always aligned.

This is a complicated topic that is not black and white.  What the “real world” actually does, what colleges and universities accept for students, how schools are accountable, and how we move to this new type of assessment in a system that doesn’t seem to support it, are all conversations educators are having, and I am thankful they are doing just that; having conversations.  Simply doing something because we have always done it is not a good argument for anything.

Many have argued that if you are focusing on “mastery-based” assessments that you are using grades already.  In response to that, the problem that many educators face is that they will spend a significant amount of time giving feedback to help students move forward, but once a mark is posted, the feedback is disregarded and the “number or letter” becomes the focus. In this great article, “Delaying the Grade: How to Get Students to Read Feedback“, talks about the frustration teachers feel when students solely focus on the grades, and also gives an awesome idea on how to get students to focus on feedback over grade:

In English I ask my students to write a lot. I don’t grade everything they write, but when it comes to the “big essays”—the graded, polished drafts—what grade they will receive becomes the sole motivator for their writing. This frustrates me, and, in my opinion, distracts them from what they should actually care about: writing.

…The solution was remarkably easy and accidentally originated out of my laziness (score one for being a little lazy!). Last year, kids had turned in essays on Google Classroom, but rather than pasting a completed rubric into their essay as I usually did, I made hard copies of the rubric and wrote on them. This meant that I could return papers with comments but without grades.

And from this a whole new system was born: Return papers to students with only feedback. Delay the delivery of the actual grade so student focus moves from the grade to the feedback.

The simple act of delaying the grade meant that students had to think about their writing. They had to read their own writing—after a few weeks away from it—and digest my comments, which allowed them to better recognize what they did well or not so well. The response from students was extremely positive; they understood the benefit of rereading their essays and paying attention to feedback. One boy said, “Mrs. Louden, you’re a genius. I’ve never read what a teacher writes on my essay before, and now I have to.”

I encourage you to read the whole article, as it provides an awesome way to focus on “mastery” while being within a system that still uses grades.  This is a beautiful example of “innovating inside the box“.

The assessment conversation is a critical one and something that we should have keep having in service of our students.  Not because expectations should be lowered for our students, but that we expect more from and, more importantly as educators, for them.

Source: George Couros

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