Focus on the Learning: The Power of Mastery

Focus on the Learning: The Power of Mastery

We all know that learning is messy.  We’ve seen this messiness over and over again in our classrooms.  I happened across this modified image from Demetri Martin in a blog post by George Couros recently and I think it accurately illustrates the idea of learning.  

Photo Credit:  George Couros –
One of the questions I’ve asked myself over the last few years is what is the best way to ensure that every one of my students is learning, while keeping in mind that the journey towards understanding and sense making is often fraught with wrong turns, left turns, right turns and switchbacks and that every learner’s final path is different.  

This year, I decided to address the varying paths to learning through mastery learning.  Mastery learning is not a new idea.  According to “Lessons of Mastery Learning” published by ASCD, Benjamin Bloom, creator of Bloom’s taxonomy, first introduced the idea in the early 1970’s.  Essentially, in mastery learning, the learner must demonstrate mastery of a concept, idea or topic before moving forward in their learning.  Using the Schoology platform, specifically Schoology’s learning objectives, student completion rules and mastery features, I incorporated mastery learning into my classroom this year.  

We know that it is critical to begin with the end in mind.  In order for our students to master anything, they need to know where they are headed.  In our classroom, I use learning objectives to accomplish this.  Briefly, learning objectives are created in your Schoology Resources.  You can create your own customized learning objectives or access and use state and/or national standards.  I have chosen to primarily use the Colorado State Science standards as my learning objectives.  After adding specific learning objectives in my Schoology Resources, I attach them to specific assignments by adding rubrics.  While I assess student understanding using a mastery scale, my school still assigns traditional grades.  In order to merge mastery grading with my school’s traditional grading system, I have created a Mastery Grading Scale based on Marzano’s work on standards based grading.  

I customize every rubric that I create to reflect this scale.  

For student’s to move on, they must, at minimum, demonstrate “moderate command” of each learning objective.  Keeping in mind that learning is messy, I know that not all students will meet this expectation the first, second or sometimes even the third time.  To account for this, I use student completion rules.  These rules are easy to set up in each unit.  I allow students to revise their work as many times as they want to.  Ultimately, I want them to learn, I don’t care how long or how many tries it takes.  Learning is the goal, not completion!  

This brings us to the last Schoology feature that I use to ensure that learning is happening, mastery.  I approach at mastery in two different ways.  First, I use student completion rules on assignments aligned with our learning objectives.  This works great for those learning objectives that are more short-lived.  But there are also a handful of learning objectives that students are working towards mastering for the entire year.  This is where the Schoology mastery feature is critical.  If I have a learning objective that I use over and over again, I can easily keep track of a student’s progress towards mastery using this feature.

I can even look at an individual’s progress towards specific objectives in order to determine how to help her successful master the idea.  

To conclude, when we account for the messiness of learning and really focus on learning rather than completion, amazing things start to happen in the classroom.  My ability to use the Schoology platform to easily add learning objectives to assignments and to add student completion rules as well as using the mastery feature has significantly changed our classroom focus.  Students understand purpose as they work towards understanding rather than a “grade”.  This change in focus in reflected in the amount of revisions I see on a daily basis.  It is reflected in the conversations that happen among my students as they work on defining and refining their understandings. It is reflected in the smiles of both my non-traditional and traditional students who  suddenly find success in school when historically they haven’t because they have time to work through their ideas and their understandings.  It is reflected in the deep, thoughtful thinking that occurs as students realize that learning isn’t usually straightforward and although it takes hard work, it is incredibly satisfying.

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