A grade 7 teacher tries “mastery learning”


Because “mastery learning” can be a great way to coach students through deliberate practice, I am always looking to hear from teachers who are doing it. Today I came across several wonderful posts on Edublogs by a teacher named Annette, who (along with her teaching buddy) tried out mastery learning with two 7th grade pre-algebra classes, starting in the second quarter of last year.

Though Annette says they are still fine-tuning their approach, I’m reprinting her reports in their entirety here, because they’re so worth talking about. The first report, from last May, describes in detail how the class worked, and explains how her team prepared. Keep reading to the end, and you’ll find her latest post telling how these students did on their standardized test results. Then please let us (and Annette) know what thoughts you have!
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1. Students are given assignments for the chapter up front. They know in advance what is required. They also know in advance how far they must progress in the quarter to earn an A, B, or C grade. (We don’t have D’s in our district.)

2. We do whole-class instruction in the form of notes for each section, plus spiraling review or activities. Students keep a composition book with these notes, that serve as their “directions.”

3. Students complete the assignments at their own pace. Solutions and answers are available. Students self-correct.

4. Presenting notes and finished work is their “ticket” to the quiz. We have a quiz after every 1-2 sections, depending on content.

5. A student must pass a quiz at 80% or better to be considered “proficient.” They cannot move on to the next section until they have passed the current one at 80%. If they do not pass the quiz, we take the time to see what things the student needs to work on, and give them additional practice based on that need. They may retest when they have completed the extra practice and are ready. Some will repeat this process a third or fourth time. Especially until they learn that “guessing” on a test doesn’t work.

6. Assignments don’t count in the gradebook until they have passed the quiz. Once passed, all assignments and quizzes are entered into ABI (online gradebook system).

Some things we have found:

• Students took a while to figure out that if they do it right the first time, it saves them a lot of work. They also discovered that just copying answers from the solutions guides, or back of the book was futile, because they need to show their work before it’s accepted. Also, they learned that doing “bogus” work and then just putting the right answer, doesn’t mean they will pass the test.

• We need to have two to three versions of the quizzes (this wasn’t too hard to do). They are short, 8-10 questions. I have the students correct their errors as part of their practice when they don’t pass a quiz.

• It requires some maturity and responsibility for students in 7th grade to take it seriously. In the beginning, many of them thought, “Cool, no homework!” Well, no assigned homework, anyway. Students have to work at home to stay on pace with the course as it is set up. Some do, some don’t. The ones that don’t are those that usually don’t do much homework anyway.

• We found that if we tied progress to grades (i.e. “By report cards, you have to be at section 3-7 for a “C”, 3-9 for a “B”, and 4-2 for an “A”) and posted that in advance, they knew exactly how much they had to accomplish. That was a really good incentive. It did make for a lot of last-minute work at report card time, but they learned it . . . isn’t that the goal?

• We found it was way better for us not to have to constantly grade homework and record assignments. Now we just record them when they pass the test. Homework is only worth one point. The test is worth double the number of questions (8 questions = 16 points). Next year, we are thinking since grades are based on how far you have progressed, we are only going to use 0, and 1. Pass/fail for the most part. Since passing means you have accomplished 80% or better, that’s all we really need to know.

• This year, we input every assignment into ABI so parents could see them at home. Next year, we think we will only input the quizzes. We have a Chapter Assignment sheet for the kids, and will get parents to sign it that so they will be informed. Still debating that one.

• We found that grading is both easier, and more informative for us. We have to stay on top of the quizzes, daily. This gives kids immediate feedback so they know the next day where they stand. But, usually I have about a dozen quizzes a day to grade, sometimes more. It doesn’t take long, and I don’t feel like I’m slogging through 80 of the same test over and over.

• Off-task behavior is consistently a challenge.

• Students are learning more from each other! They are consistently forming little groups and working together, without our intervention.

• We let kids who pass tests put their names on the board as “Movin’ UP!” Seventh graders love this. We also post the names weekly for all to see.

Best thing . . . we know our kids really well. At any point in time, we can tell you who struggles with what, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And the kids know what they know . . . isn’t that what we want?

What about teacher preparation?

Much work went in up front. I had to determine exactly what I was going to cover, and how I was going to assess it for each section. Based on the assessments, I made a list of assignments for each section, usually two or three, some of which were done in class. To facilitate students keeping up or working ahead, I had to be at least two sections ahead of the highest kid.

I also put copies (PDFs) up of any assignments that were not in the textbook. This was made easier by using the CD-Roms that came with the textbook and uploaded easily. The supplemental materials had to be scanned and uploaded. A bit time consuming, but again, as long as I was a few steps ahead of the highest kid, it wasn’t too bad.

Grades: the same had to be done for the gradebook. All the assignments for the quarter were entered into the electronic gradebook in advance. This gave students and parents the list for working on assignments in a centrally located place kids can’t “lose.”

For kids who successfully finished early, it’s easy. Move on to the next section, use the examples from the book and try to figure it out on your own (which many could do) and I helped when possible, and they taught each other.

For the kids who were lagging behind, I tried to work with them in small groups or have advanced students work with them. But no matter what system, some kids just don’t do squat.

The Results Come In

As it turns out, my teaching partner and I had the HIGHER scores in the 7th grade department. Compared to the district as a whole, we were slightly above the average in every category. Not way above the average, but enough to be significant. And compared to our fellow teachers’ kids, we were significantly higher in several areas.

Because we started the model in the second quarter, mandating that some students start back at square one, we didn’t get as far in the curriculum as we were “supposed” to, but we felt we got through the stuff that was most important for the Algebra 1 concepts they needed as fundamentals. It was another reason to expect that we might be the cause of the decline in scores. To our surprise, the “Honors” Pre-Algebra class, which was whole chapters ahead of where we were all year, had the LOWEST scores on the state tests. We were floored.

On a personal level, my individual kids did OK. Almost all of them remained at the level they came in at, meaning they learned a year’s worth of material in the year that I had them. I had about a dozen who went up a level, and one kid went up two. I had two who went down one level, and I’m not sure why, as they were excellent students during the year. Four others went down, but I know why — they didn’t do a lick of work most of the year. My partner had very similar results for his class. Our colleagues had fewer moving up a level, and a few more moving down.

While it’s really too soon to make definitive statements, we feel like we did what we set out to do. We are still fine-tuning the system (more on that later) and are hoping that starting off at the beginning of the year will show more dramatic results on this year’s tests. Plus, we are anxious to see how our kids adapt to the Algebra I curriculum and if they were prepared enough to be successful as 8th graders. So while the jury is still out on that, we are thrilled that our kids didn’t go down, or cause the majority of the decline department-wide, and it has strengthened our resolve to continue improving how we teach and how kids learn.

(photo courtesy of Will Okun)

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8 thoughts on “A grade 7 teacher tries “mastery learning”

  1. I am really intrigued, impressed, and inspired by this idea, its practicality, and how it appears it has (in most ways) really worked! As a pre-service social studies teacher doing my student teaching in a middle school, I am particularly interested in taking this framework and ‘imagining’ it onto my students. I can easily see students at either end of the achievement spectrum maintaining their roles — those at the top stay there and those who ‘don’t do squat’, as you say, will continue to do (or, perhaps not do) just the same.

    What I am most interested in, though, is my students in the middle. The ones that are skating by do the minimum on worksheets and get C’s on tests. Would they be motivated by this framework, or would they fall behind? While I really do believe that every student, inherently, wants to do well and to succeed – I wonder how this freedom, presented to my 8th graders -could be empowering and liberating for some, and chaotic and detrimental to others.

    I think it does make big advances, however, in treating students as they want to be treated – as little adults. I don’t think we are preparing students for their next steps (college was by and large a shock for me in my work load and interactions, or lack there of, with instructors.) Putting the responsibility on students to do their work and do it well would help prepare them for the shift that will come in high school. By giving students guidelines upfront, they are aware of what is required for the grade they desire, which forces them to be motivated to obtain any particular grade (since they know exactly what to do).

    Additionally, I really resonate with how this approach would aid me as a teacher in getting to know my students. As it stands now, I am only in the school two days a week and I am struggling to make the relationships I know are so important stronger, so this way of learning about strengths and weaknesses is really intriguing.

    Annette, I wonder if you would be able to speak about those middle kids — I know you say that most of your students stayed on track academically. But did you see changes in motivation or dedication?

    Thanks for sharing this — a great thing to think about as I start my career.

  2. I am currently a pre-service teacher at a high school that practices mastery learning in a similar way. Grades are broken into two categories: Process and Mastery. Mastery (critical assignments, tests/quizzes) constitutes 80% of students’ course grades while Process (homework) is the remaining 20%. For a student to pass a course he or she must score an 80% or above on every master assignment. If a student does not reach mastery, he or she must retake the assignment until they do so.
    For the most part, mastery learning in this school works well. It creates a classroom environment that accommodates for differentiated learning and tells students that failure is okay and not everyone gets it the first time. It gives students incentive to learn critical content they may have missed the first time around. And it ensures that every student who passes a course has shown mastery in all critical content of the course.
    I have, however, seen some problems with mastery learning. Some students take advantage of the system. They choose to disengage in class because they know that they’ll have the option to learn the material and take the assessment on their own time. Some students decide not to do any assignments that are labeled under Process because they know that they don’t need to do them to pass the class. Some students choose not to engage in class because they know that their teacher will probably teach them one-on-one when they come back to makeup a mastery assignment.
    The biggest problem that I’ve seen with how mastery learning is implemented at this particular school is that no formal time is set aside for students to makeup/retake mastery assignments. Teachers must take time from their planning periods, lunches, and after school in order to accommodate for students to retake mastery assignments. That means that there is less time that teachers can spend on planning/adjusting lessons to fit their students, providing adequate feedback on students assignments, and collaborating with other teachers – all practices that are also beneficial for students.
    Another point of concern is that students must take time out of their well deserved midday break from class (lunch) and after school in order to make up assignments. Some students aren’t able to stay after school due to transportation or work schedules bringing in the potential of a socioeconomic factor that could be keeping students from reaching mastery.
    Therefore, I think it is important that schools who implement mastery learning should set aside formal times for teachers and students to retake mastery assignments.

  3. One of the strategies implemented at the school in which I serve as a student teacher is Mastery Teaching and Learning. The goal is to ensure that students reach a level of mastery of each concept before proceeding to the next one; this does not mean that students are expected to master each instructional explanation provided by the instructor on that specific day, but the way I am seeing it is achieving mastery on every test. The idea behind mastery teaching and learning is to give students all the time they need to master certain concepts while providing them with constant help and feedback. What is happening actually in everyday setting is totally different from the theoretical and philosophical perspective.

    In our math classes, students have to score 80% or higher to achieve mastery learning of the concepts that they are tested on. The only feedback that is given to them is the grade divided to two or three parts based on how many concepts that specific test is assessing. If a student did not get mastery on one of the parts, then this student has to retest on that specific topic in a way or another. If the student scores 70%-79%, they do a worksheet as extra practice instead of retesting on the material. If the student scores less than 69%, s/he has to retest on the material. The time is left up to the students on when they want to do their retake. Now, it is getting more chaotic because the instructor has to keep track of all the small parts that students are expected to retake, find the time for them to take, and grade them before the end of the trimester. A lot of the students seem to be discouraged and have worries that they will get incompletes as their final grade. The reason is that after the end of the trimester, most of these students will be switching classes, some of them will be taking math with a different instructor and others are not even taking math for the second trimester.

    Personally, I do not think that students are getting the chance to learn properly. Students who do not master a certain concept are struggling to get the next one and are worried about the time that they will get to master the one they missed. I think it is wrong to leave it up to the students to choose their own time for the retake and that we should establish a system in which, students who do not achieve mastery have to retake within a week max. Also, we should ask these students to come during tutoring time for a re-teach moment on the concepts that they missed.

    At the beginning, I thought that the idea of mastery learning is great. I still think it is great but it seems like it adds more overhead to the instructor, leaving them with more papers to grade and more grades to keep track of. In fact, it is becoming more of a burden on my mentor especially since not many students are achieving mastery. Now, we are trying to come up with different ideas on how to assess and how to establish an online system through Google Forms that allows students that need to do worksheet or retakes to perform such a task online from their computers instead of them staying after school or taking their lunch time to do such a thing. In addition, we are trying to establish a system in which students practice the concepts online until they achieve mastery then come to class to do the retake. This will take a lot of time and I do not know if we will be able to get such a system up and running before the end of this year.

  4. I am currently student teaching at a newly-established high school in the subject of 10th grade physics and have come across an issue in terms of grading and assessment that you addressed partly, but not in full.

    Our class has been working recently with forces and energy and are finishing the trimester with an all-encompassing project. With what you refer to as ‘Asking the Experts’, we have asked a local engineer from an automotive company to come in to talk to the kids about what he does as a crash test engineer. For some of the students, the presentation is very intriguing, while for others, they seem to not care as perhaps this is not of interest to them. Following, we have developed a project for the students to do in their groups (Chpt. 9: School Projects That Build Expert Habits) to design, build and test a bumper system that will decrease the force of impact for a given car. The whole process I think will be valuable for the students, but the struggle for me comes in the assessment.

    We have a system of evaluation that we call “mastery learning” in which students receive 80% of their grade from their quizzes and tests since according to state standards, they need to have “mastered” certain content. The project that is referred to above, though elaborate and helpful learning, is still accounted for in the remaining 20% of the student’s grades since it does not explicitly address a state standard. For the students that are focused on getting good grades to get into college in the future, the projects that I believe will engage them and give more purpose to their learning is put on the backburner in exchange for studying for the tests that will give them the good grade. On the flip side, the students that are willing to put the time and effort and learn from the projects may not receive a grade that says that since they don’t have the “formal knowledge” or simply don’t do as well on tests. So my dilemma is how do you balance the time and work in the classroom to “teach to the test” per se and have the students learning formal knowledge rather than from the project where students are learning more informally?

  5. I co-teach a full-inclusion class. I have several students who are seriously at about a 2nd-3rd grade level…sitting in a Pre-Algebra class. Granted, it’s about 4 students in one class. Others in the class are about a 5th grade level, and others are probably 6th-7th grade level. Any suggestions on how to approach this with mastery learning?

  6. This is the first year I am trying to implement a flipped-mastery learning 6th grade math class. I am the only teacher in my district trying it. After the first 8 weeks of school, about 70% of my students are failing in each class, due to not viewing the instructional videos, not working very hard in class, and most likely not doing any homework either.

    We just had parent conferences, and while most who met with me face to face understood my reasons for trying this system, many apparently went to my principal and said they wanted to write letters to our district office about me and my ineffective instruction.

    Can anyone who has had success with this model reply about how they caught up the students who were not motivated to do the work and how they handle whole-class or small-group instruction when students are all working on different topics due to moving at different paces?

    Thank you

  7. I am interested in trying this too and my main concern echos that of Miss N. How do you deal with off-task behavior?

  8. I recently wrote two linked articles in Ed Week about how Springfield Renaissance School, a 6-12 district magnet in Massachusetts and a member of the Expeditionary Learning network, addressed this important question by focusing on building support and trust. They actually use common checklists for classroom teaching and learning, behavior norms, teacher collaboration, and other school-wide practices—though developed with hospital safety in mind, the checklist approach also helps build a school culture that makes it safe for everyone to learn. You can read the two articles at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning_deeply/2015/05/how_miners_survive_and_why_that_matters_for_educators.html and http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning_deeply/2015/05/how_a_checklist_manifesto_can_take_school_culture_deeper.html — I hope they start you on a path to finding out more about how great schools address this important challenge that every teacher faces!

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