Diving Into The Deep End: Goodbye Grades, Hello Mastery Learning!

Last year my school began the shift towards Mastery Learning.  I was keen on the idea of mastering skills or content rather that simply working from assignment to assignment- seeing how a kid did and moving forward with out revision or truly looking at the why of the learning.  I had some frank conversations with my AP Lang students last spring about what they thought class would be like for them if they didn't have the pressure of grades.  Their thinking was insightful and eye opening, confirming much of my own thinking about student learning.  When they are not working for a grade, but on a skill, they will invest in a different way, working to improve the skill.  Students don't work to improve grades on individual assignments in traditional classrooms.  They look at the grade on the paper, cheer or cry, and move onto the next assignment with the hope of improving the overall grade for the course by bringing the average up.

Mastery in motion: Theatre Arts

I also teach theatre.  It is a required course for all students at our school.  One of the units, solo performance is where students have to select, learn/memorize, create character and blocking and ultimately perform their monologue for their peers.  It is a big deal.  Some kids come in and blow it out of the water.  Other kids melt down and cry.  I have two rules though.

1. Everyone has to try. If you are absent you go to the end of the list, but everyone has to get up and make an attempt.  This is what makes a student eligible to do a make-up and try again.

2. If you have tried, and you are not happy with your score, you are eligible to try again and you can earn up to FULL credit.  There is no penalty for trying again the incentive being improvement.  They get the rubric back after the first try, they have time to rehearse and revise, work on the skills that needed improvement.

I would say 75% of students try again.  It's usually a range of make-ups: kids who failed and kids who did well and want to eek out those last few points.  This is mastery of skills with room for revision and improvement to demonstrate a higher level of mastery. Every time I do this unit I see the same results and impact on student growth and learning.  I knew it worked.  It was about moving to put the theory into practice across the board.

The AP Pilot

Numerous conversations have taken place since the spring when I read Assessment 3.0  by Mark D. Barnes.  With the blessing and support of my administration team I, along with another teacher (who will be doing a similar pilot with struggling math students to determine a different POV of data points on Mastery learning).  

  • I have created a series of rubrics on an assortment of Mastery Standards based on the language from College Board and the learning objectives students will need to work to master over the course of the YEAR.  
  • In starting with all the skills I am better able to plan and support student development.
  • Students will be required to come to office hours twice a month to conference with me about their development and revision of work, a non-negotiable. 
  • At the end of each semester, because we are a public high school with traditional transcripts, we will have to come to a decision on a semester grade for fall and spring.  Students will be required to present a Defense of Learning to a small group of peers and adult mentors where they will have to present their learning and development of Mastery and propose a numerical grade that they believe represents their learning. Then a conference with me...

This year...

I am going to use this space to reflect on my process this year of throwing out grades and seeing where it takes me.  


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