Mastery Learning Can Help You Stop Taking Papers Home to Grade
By Jon Bergmann, Educator and Flipped Learning Pioneer
Are you like me? When I have a big stack of papers to grade, they produce instant anxiety. Yeah, I know how important it is to give quality and timely feedback, but the daunting pile of papers overwhelms me — or, at least, it used to.
As I was developing the Flipped Learning model with Aaron Sams, we came up with teaching methods that saved us huge swaths of time. Since we weren’t “teaching” from the front of the room, we netted time to interact with students. Much of my time is now spent purposely roaming around my classroom. One of the primary purposes of my “roaming time” is to do formative assessments.
Mastery Learning with Mastery Checks
In my science class, we practice Mastery Learning: Students must master objectives before moving on to the next topic, and they know that they must demonstrate mastery via what we call a “mastery check.” To that end, they know that for them to get a learning objective checked off, they must come to me with evidence of mastery. So when they are ready to get checked off, this is when I “grade” their work.
For example, a student will come to me with their notes, a worksheet, and a lab that all demonstrate they have mastered a particular objective. I look over their worksheet and ask them to explain how they did problem number three. If they give an adequate answer, then I’m confident that they have mastered that portion of the objective. I will do the same with the experiment they show me. If they have not mastered the objective, I give them very specific feedback on what needs to be done for them to master the objective. Later, they will come to me for a second mastery check.
One advantage of this technique is that students have to actually master the content. Before Mastery Learning, my typical workflow was to collect the same assignment from all the students at the same time. I would then grade it and assign some points. If it was a ten-point assignment some would get ten points, others eight, and others four. You know what I used to do? I just entered all those points into the grade book and kept teaching. But did the students who only earned four points really master the objective? No! So if a “four-point paper” is turned in during a Mastery Check, I simply tell students to go back and fix it. If it is an issue of a misunderstanding, I give them appropriate feedback so that they will be successful on their next attempt.
How to Use Mastery Checks in Your Classroom
One hack that has helped with my more math-heavy classes (Chemistry and Physics) is that students do only half of each assignment. They choose to complete either the even or the odd questions. The questions are scaffolded such that the early questions are easier and they get progressively more difficult. So when a student does a mastery check and I find there are gaps in their learning, I will ask them to do a few of the odd questions (if their first attempt was the even questions). That gives them plenty of practice which will enable them to demonstrate mastery.
If you teach something less process-oriented, this method still works. In my Geology class, students are working to understand how the world works. I would describe the course as more of a descriptive course, and my Mastery Checks are more of a conversation around how and why a volcano erupts, for example. These types of conversations could just as easily be about the causes of and effects of World War II on the global economy or a similar topic in a Social Science course.
Giving feedback in this way is supported by significant research. Kulik and Kulik (1988) conducted a meta-analysis of fifty-three studies on the efficacy of the timing of feedback. They “found immediate feedback to be more effective than delayed [feedback].” So if you need to save time, and want to follow best practices, stop taking papers home to grade and do your “grading” in class with students present.
I have especially found this works in the context of a Mastery Learning classroom, but it works in any classroom. The key is for you to have enough time during class to roam and use the roaming time to have purposeful conversations with your students. In order to have these conversations with students, it is important to time-shift the direct instruction. To that end, I have created or curated a combination of both instructional videos and texts that I assign to students using Actively Learn.
But running a Mastery Learning class is logistically challenging. If you want to know more about Mastery Learning and how to implement it in your classroom, you should check out my new book, The Mastery Learning Handbook — A Competency-Based Approach to Student Achievement. (ASCD)
Jon Bergmann is one of the pioneers of the Flipped Classroom Movement and is leading the worldwide adoption of Flipped Learning. He has worked with governments, schools, corporations, and education non-profits. Jon has coordinated and guided Flipped Learning projects around the globe. Locations include: China, Taiwan, Mexico, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, India, South America, and the United States. Jon is the author of ten books, including the bestselling book: Flip Your Classroom which has been translated into 13 languages. He just completed a new book, The Mastery Learning Handbook: A Competency-Based Approach to Student Achievement.
Jon has been an educator for 35 years, with 27 years as a classroom teacher. In 2002, Jon received the Presidential Award for Excellence for Math and Science Teaching; and in 2010, he was named Semi-Finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year. He serves on the advisory board for TED-Education.
Besides writing and speaking about Flipped and Mastery Learning, Jon teaches full time science and leads staff development at Houston Christian High School. You can learn more about him at jonbergmann.com.
Kulik, James A., and Chen-Lin C. Kulik. “Timing of Feedback and Verbal Learning.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 58, no. 1, 1988, pp. 79–97., doi:10.3102/00346543058001079.