mastery learning

Frustration with homework or schoolwork or child with learning difficulties.

Teachers, Are you Sabotaging your Students–and Yourself?

February 21, 2020

“I know you hate this, but let’s plow through.”

“I see lots of anxious faces out there.”

“This is really hard.”

I’ve heard many comments like these over the years. I’m sure I’ve said them as well.  Why? When we say things like this, we are probably doing some or all of the following:

  1. Trying to reassure students/show empathy
  2. Acknowledging the difficulty of the work
  3. Acknowledging some student comments.

All of that is well-intentioned.  We should find ways to put students at ease and to acknowledge that difficult work lies ahead.

But what else are we saying:

  1. “I don’t expect you to enjoy this.
  2. This is objectively anxiety-inducing.
  3. Hard ≠ enjoyable

Often, we are also saying much more about ourselves than our students.  And, as we do that, we are taking away their chance to grow self-awareness and perseverance. 

So, what can we do instead?  Here are some possibilities:

  1. Swap out “hard” for “challenging”.  We can all get excited about challenges, especially if we are encouraged to create plans to meet our goals.
  2. Instead of putting words like “anxious” into the atmosphere, use reflections to ask students how they feel about the work.   We can use reflections before during and after the work to see how habits and attitude helped us to engage with the work. 
  3. Try not to assume that all students think the same way about all work. What’s difficult or boring for one student may be thrilling and engaging for another.  (To that end, we should try not to put our own biases about any type of work on our students!)

Here’s the bottom line: The more exciting we make the work, the more students will rise to our high expectations. So, go ahead—assign very challenging work.  Tell kids it’s challenging, sure, but make sure they see how wonderful it is as well!

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3 Steps to Eliminate Fs…NO Extra Credit Required

3 Steps to Eliminate Fs…NO Extra Credit Required

September 5, 2019

“Um, Ms. Smith, is there some extra credit I can do to bring my grade up?”

Such an annoying question, right?  And yet, many teachers succumb.  They find or create something the student can do to earn a few extra points. Especially when those points are the difference between and F and a D.

No teacher wants her students to fail. 

But how did we get here in the first place?

There is no reason for students to earn Fs—or even Ds in a class.  I mean , really, why do kids ever fail a class? 

Is it truly because they are not capable? 

If that’s the case, then there’s a system problem — a need for interventions, guidance,etc. 

But, for the most part, any student sitting in your classroom is capable of earning a passing grade and of mastering what is deemed ESSENTIAL for the course.

They may not all excel, but they can and should all pass… And extra credit need not play any role.

Here are 3 steps to take to eliminate Fs—with no extra credit!

1) MAKE 50 the lowest possible grade.

If you haven’t already, do not give scores lower than 50.  Or, if you prefer, use a 0-50 point scale. 

That simply keeps the grading scale aligned. 

The zero-100 scale is flawed:

A= 90-100 (10 point range)

B=80-89 (9 point range)

C= 70-79 (9 point range_

D= 60-69 (9 point range)

F= 0-59 (59 point range)

(See Monte Syrie’s discussion of the harmfulness of this scale here.)

Of course, if you want to keep the 0-100, that’s fine, but only if you insist on  multiple retakes until the student reaches the desired level of proficiency. (See #3 Below)

2) Replace or weigh grades over time.

Have you heard the one about the parachute operator?  Let’s say you’re going skydiving and you have your choice of two instructors to jump with you.  They both received a B in parachute opening.  Instructor Jamie did really well at the beginning of class, folding the parachute correctly and doing well on quizzes about the parachute. As time went by, his grades dropped when it became clear that he couldn’t open the parachute quickly. Instructor Jody did really poorly on those early folding and multiple choice quizzes, but toward the end of the course could demonstrate her proficiency in opening the darn thing. Both averaged a B.  Which one do you choose?

In my work, we’ve used a Decaying Average so that the later grades carry more weight.  There are other options, including a Power Law or Replacing Grades.  Erin Werra describes all three better than I can in this post.

3) Allow retakes. 

Better yet, insist on retakes below a certain score.   You can apply this to everyone so that anyone with X score has to retake it.  You can also  allow students to individually determine their lowest acceptable grade—with your blessing and, perhaps, with a parent notification form.

This is a shift and there will be grumbling from students (who might prefer to just ask for that dreaded extra credit later.)

Here’s a script:

In this class, it’s not okay to fail.  We are working on very important skills and concepts. I wouldn’t be doing my job if any of you failed. 

However, you all come to this class with different levels of skill, enthusiasm, etc.  So, while it would be great if everyone got an A, that might not be reasonable —or even in your best interests if you need to conserve time and effort for some other classes.

Therefore, I want everyone to share with me your highest desired grade, the lowest you can deal with and your expectation ( a best case scenario, a worst-case scenario and a realistic expectation). 

I’d also like you to share why you have this grade goal.  Might be something like:

  • This subject comes easily to me.  I think this class should be an “easy A” for me and will help boost my GPA
  • This subject has always been a struggle for me.  I know I can do the work with effort and I’d be okay with a C range grade.
  • I like this subject and can do the work, but I have to give more effort to some other, tougher classes. So while I think I could get an A, I’ll be satisfied in the B range.

As your teacher, I simply cannot accept Ds and Fs. Luckily for you, we have a retake policy in this class.  Anyone who scores below our Desired Level of Proficiency on a major assessment will have the opportunity to earn the DLP by retaking or redoing some or all of the assessment (or an alternate assessment). I have some guidelines about when, where and how that will happen.

EXTRA CREDIT Is just that..

It’s extra…beyond…unnecessary.

Don’t do it! Don’t have them do some throwaway extra something that neither of you cares about.  Instead, have them prove that they can do what’s necessary.

Listen, extra credit is additional time, work and energy for you and for your students.  So are retakes.  Which one makes more sense?

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5 Questions to Get Students Engaged

5 Questions to Get Students Engaged

August 22, 2019

Engagement.  The magic word.  I’ve conducted countless Instructional Rounds, learning walks and other observations focused on engagement. Are kids engaged? It’s a great question.  It’s really THE question. And, unfortunately, all too often the answer is no.

Why? Part of it is the sense that stuff is happening TO them—and much of it is a surprise. Many of us advocate for greater student agency—voice and choice over their learning.  But first, we’ve need to provide a roadmap.

As educators, we often have the benefit of some curricula to guide us.  So, we know what we are teaching, how we want to teach and where we want our students to end up.

Often, though, students are left in the dark.  They show up with some vague idea of what they are learning. When asked, they answer with the subject—math- or maybe even the topic (fractions) or the text (The Great Gatsby) but not much beyond that.  And we wonder why they are not more engaged, more present, more excited.

Getting kids to be cognitively engaged depends on a lot of factors and lots of hard and great work by teachers.

To start, though, they …and we should be able to answer the following 5 questions. (Templates are at the bottom of this post)

Here are 5 questions that students should be able to answer:

  1. What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?
  2. How will I show what I’ve learned?
  3. How will we learn?
  4. What do I do when I struggle?
  5. Why am I learning this?*

These questions will be familiar to those who have relied on the work of Dufour, et al, on building professional learning communities and those who have engaged in a backwards design curriculum process like Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.

1) What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?

Include your content standards—but not all of them.  If your district/school has identified power standards, use those.  If not, you determine what’s most important and let them know that’s the focus.

Also, include those life and learning skills that they will gain.  You might want to guarantee greater collaboration or problem-solving skills, for example.

2) How will I show what I’ve learned?

What are some examples of formative and summative assessments? Does the teacher assess HW? Is there a lot of writing? Is there a major project at the end of the course or each quarter? Will there be an exhibition of learning?

A grading policy is helpful here as well.  (I’ve got lots of thoughts on what that can and should look like, but the important thing is that students understand the practices up front.)

If you allow retakes and redos, a clear explanation of how that’s done and the impact on grades is useful.

3) How will we learn?

What are the usual activities?  Do we take a lot of notes? Will we participate in socratic seminar? Are we expected to explore via cooperative lab work?

What skills are needed/will be developed?  Are we expected to read, speak, explain, draw, act, sing?

Here, I would give students an opportunity to reflect on their level of comfort with each of these and some strategies to ask for and receive help.  For example, the painfully shy student or one with a speech impairment might dread public speaking.  Knowing it’s expected and how they will be supported allows students and teacher to be proactive.

4) What do I do when I struggle?

This is a great time to reinforce a growth mindset.  Let them know and discuss how anything worth doing can sometimes be difficult but that we are all in this together.

This is also where kids need some specifics about their access to additional help. How and when can they meet with you one on one? Do you take email questions? Are they assigned a partner to work with first?

You can keep coming back to this by asking students to reflect regularly on where they got stumped and what they did —or continue to do—to make their way forward.  Of course, a grading system that doesn’t punish kids for not “getting it right away” or indeed a PBL system that is built on struggle is helpful here, but even in the most traditional environments, this can be useful.

5) Why am I learning this?*

Arguably, this should come first,  But I recommend that you explore this together through the school year.  Students can self-assess on this as a part of reflections after summative or formative assessments. This can be a homework assignment once a quarter or every few weeks—ask parents, grandparents, Google, etc—Why should I learn this? What can I do with this now? What will I do with this in the future? How does this tie into what I already know or what I am learning in other areas of school or life?

Come back to this often—weekly, quarterly, at the beginning and end of discrete units of study.  The more students know about the what, why and how  of the lean ringing, the more they can invest of themselves in the learning.

Templates

Here’s a course overview template teachers can use for their own course planning.

Here’s a template to use with  students and families.

Please let me know if this is useful and/or how the templates can be improved.

Wishing you a great year of deep and joyful learning!

Lori

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Incorporate Retake Tickets in Your Classroom

How to Incorporate Retake Tickets in Your Classroom

January 11, 2017

In theory, most educators likely agree with the philosophy behind Mastery Learning—that there are specific standards that matter most in each course and that our goal is to make sure that each student truly masters, or reaches proficiency, on those standards.

Yet, once we move the the details of how it works, sticking points arise.

In my experience, one of the biggest was coming to agreement on the idea of “sufficient opportunity to demonstrate proficiency”. Teachers, understandably, worried about the following:

1. If students know that they can keep trying, they won’t put effort in the first time around. i.e, they won’t study hard for test on Tuesday, knowing they can just make it up on Friday.

2. Teachers will be inundated with creating multiple versions of tests in order to allow for retakes and THEN, they will have to correct all of those.

Here’s how I would address those reasonable concerns. (I would love to hear others’ thoughts.)

I do think the first concern is somewhat unfounded. Most students don’t want to keep taking the same, or similar, assessments over and over again. However, we do want to make sure that retakes aren’t just for getting a better grade, but are an opportunity to show mastery of important standards.

Therefore, I recommend using a RETAKE TICKET.

Here’s WHY:

a. It puts ownership on the student. As she reflects on her learning, she has to articulate where she’s having trouble and what she, in partnership with the teacher, can do about it.

b. It connects teacher, student and parent. Including space for parent comments and not just a signature brings the parent into the conversation about the student’s learning.

The second concern, the one that reasonably worries about teachers’ time to create additional assessments, is valid. Here are my thoughts:

1. Only have students redo work that was sub-par. If a test was designed to assess proficiency on standards 1, 2, and 3 and the student demonstrated proficiency in standards 1 and 2, then he/she now only needs to demonstrate proficiency on that 3rd standard.

2. Use the same test. At my children’s school, students are required to do “test corrections” after math assessments. It’s a wonderful practice because it forces students to reflect on what they know and don’t, where and why they made errors, and how to come at a problem differently in order to solve it correctly. Currently, “test corrections” is its own grading category, counting for far less than assessments in calculating a final grade. I would recommend simply replacing assessment grades when test corrections show proficiency.

3. Put a “hold” on the grade. Make it clear that the original assessment grade will be adjusted once the student demonstrates proficiency. That might be done via test corrections or at the next point of assessment.

 

A couple of other points about retakes. I know some teachers and schools set a cut-off grade for retakes. For example, a student who scores an 80 or better cannot retake the test. I don’t get this. Yes, we want to avoid grade-grubbing (and in my perfect world, we wouldn’t use traditional grades), but if a student wants to go deeper, self-correct, get better—then by all means let him or her. In using the retake sheet and comments, we can see if the student’s motives are about true learning. If not, that’s fodder for a conversation—but not a reason to not allow.

Also, I can hear teachers saying, What about the kid who always needs a retake? Well, this is the same problem you would have if you didn’t allow retakes—the kid who is failing class. It’s time for a conversation with student, parent and, perhaps, a learning specialist to begin to figure out why the student is either not learning or not performing.

Really, these are just steps along the way to shifting mindsets—of students and educators. Mastery learning is a mindset, not just a set of strategies that tinker around the edges of the old system. However, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And using retake sheets is as good a step as any.

P.S. Another way to shift the burden from teachers to students is to have students self-assess. That’s another post 🙂

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One simple tip for giving students feedback

One simple tip for giving students feedback

October 4, 2016

“May I give you some feedback?”
I heard this question recently during a middle school visit.  This classroom had a markedly different feel than others I’d visited that day–and it was during the last period of the day. (During the last period of a busy middle school day, when you might expect 13 and 14 year olds to be antsy for the day’s end…) This teacher was using lots of great instructional strategies–greeting kids at the door with a handshake, bringing everyone’s attention to the posted agenda, clear objectives and outcomes, (written as “How I Know I’ve Learned It” and the expectation of a self assessment exit ticket).

What really struck me, however, was the tone of the room–respectful and warm throughout the class and exemplified by that one question.

A student had just taken a turn leading the group–literally conducting a performance–and the end result was not as sharp as it could have been.  The student first acknowledged that with a shy smile and the teacher asked the group if anyone could give him pointers. A few did, respectfully, but none of them quite gave him enough for meaningful improvement.

That’s when the teacher asked, “May I give you some feedback?”

Clearly, it was time for the teacher to step in to make sure the student had a full understanding of how to perform this activity.  And, of course, she had to give him that feedback–so one might wonder why she phrased it that way. But she communicated was, “You own your learning.  I’d like to help you deepen it.  Would you like to hear my feedback so that you can do that?”

Of course the student nodded yes, tried again, and got it right.  Similar versions of the same ensued as other students made attempts, mistakes and more attempts.  Students get feedback it all the time–via assessments, via comments, non-verbal communication, etc. But getting isn’t receiving—it doesn’t always stick or help them grow.

Perhaps the simple trick is asking them if they are ready and willing to receive it.  When they do, they can own their own learning and truly take off as learners.

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The Key to Lessening Pressure AND Increasing Rigor

The Key to Lessening Pressure AND Increasing Rigor

January 10, 2016

David Aderhold, a superintendent in New Jersey recently put an end to HS mid-term and final exams in a well-intentioned attempt to ease pressure on increasingly anxious kids–pressure also discussed in this recent NY Times opinion piece and the film Race to Nowhere.

Aderhold’s decision led to a vigorous debate in his community–with one side firmly standing with the superintendent, led by concern about their children’s mental health. Those on the other side worried that the superintendent was dumbing down education.

It’s possible that neither side is completely right or wrong and that there’s a way to satisfy both camps: standards-based learning (and grading).

What we really want to do is focus on learning, not grades. At the same time, we want to ensure that what kids are learning and how they demonstrate that learning is rigorous and prepares them to take on deeper and tougher material as they proceed through high school and beyond. Done right, SBL satisfies both sides. It takes away the singular focus on grades and GPA and it provides a rigorous pathway.

Using SBL, courses have clear standards–what students must know and be able to do to prove that they have successfully completed a course. Instead, each of the course’s power standards are clearly unpacked, so that any teacher teaching the course, any student learning in the course and any parent what mastery looks like, what approaching mastery looks like, and what it looks like to exceed mastery. It’s then up to the learning community to support students to reach for mastery and beyond, while supporting students who struggle by clearly showing what’s needed to get to the next level.*

Getting to SBL takes time and work and consensus building as it’s a change from what we’ve always done. I truly hope we’ll all get there someday, but until then, I have a few suggestions for schools who want to both ease pressure and promote rigor.

  1. Don’t throw away mid-term and final exams: Large scale displays of knowledge are important for students, they allow students to cohesively package what they have learned over the course of several weeks or months and show what they know and can do
  2. Do rethink what a mid-term or final looks like: Ensure that mid-terms and final exams are largely performance based and the expectations are shared ahead of time–so that students are thinking, consciously and subconsciously, about how they will pull the standards and the work together to a culminating piece
  3. Do allow retakes to the greatest extent possible and practicable BUT make sure the purpose of retakes is to allow students to learn from mistake and have additional opportunities to demonstrate mastery . That way, students will believe us when we tell them “It’s Not About the Points”

It is actually possible to have kids love rigorous learning. SBL could well be a key.

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