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Principles and techniques for student engagement in mastery as laid out in the Framework for Mastery Implementation. 

  • Students understand the set of skills and content knowledge they need to gain

Maximizing transparency allows students to be clear and purposeful about their learning. Knowing up front what learning outcomes (skills and knowledge) they must master, and what the criteria are for success, puts students in the driver’s seat for their own journey—and gives purpose and context to learning tasks and assessments.

  • Learning outcomes are the coin of trade

In a mastery-based classroom, learning outcomes (also called learning targets, goals, proficiencies, attainments, etc.) are the coin of trade for teaching and learning. Students and teachers establish and share understanding of the desired learning outcomes, and the expectations for how and when to demonstrate both progress on and independent mastery of those outcomes.

    • Effective learning outcomes are:
      • aligned to relevant standards for the course (Common Core and content standards)
      • at a manageable granularity
        • Consider how many related standards can be grouped into a single outcome.
        • Consider how many outcomes students can focus on productively over the course of one activity, project, unit, lesson, etc.
        • expressed in student-friendly academic language
  • Student friendly academic language 

Student-friendly academic language empowers students to take ownership of their learning. By using student-friendly language in articulating student objectives, assignments, rubrics, and directions, teachers ensure that their classroom is more equitable and accessible to all learners.

While acquiring Tier 2 (general, cross-cutting) academic language is vital to students’ learning across subject areas, please be sure that that students are invited to fully participate in the conversation by using instructional time to define terms, asking students to restate the meanings of terms in their own words, and giving students plenty of opportunities to practice reading, writing, and speaking so they fully understand terms they’re expected to learn and use.

Resource: Converting learning targets to student friendly language.

  • Students move at own pace to gain needed skills and knowledge

    • Flexible pacing

Flexible pacing allows learners to build mastery at the pace that works best for them. It operationalizes the mastery principle that learning is not and should not be a race, nor a competition. In order to implement flexible pacing, teachers need to plan for students working on different tasks as the norm in the classroom—while still harnessing the power of the social dimension of the classroom.  “You have to be used to 25 students doing 15 things in your class,” says Lisa Genduso of Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, a Mastery Collaborative Living Lab School.

Finding a balance between flexible pacing and moving the entire class through an entire course can be one of the thornier issues of mastery-based instructional design. It can be useful to build in regular time for coaching students one-on-one or in small groups as others work independently, and to normalize the jagged progress learners make by building in regular time (bi-weekly sessions work well) for students to revisit learning outcomes they need or want to improve on. At NYC iSchool, another MC Living Lab school, these days when students can focus on improving their outcomes are called Mastery Days. This is a best practice, by any name.

    • Blended/online learning

Blended learning refers to a combination of online/ technology-driven learning and face-to-face facilitation. Blended learning allows for the best of both traditional and online worlds: teachers can provide individual remediation where necessary, and students can also receive content from digital platforms via lessons created by their teacher or others.

Often in blended environments, stations are put to use, with some students receiving direct instruction from the teacher-facilitator, while others work on practice tasks or projects. Videos or online explorations can be used for new content delivery, or remediation. Many teachers find it useful to keep an archive of videos and resources available for students to access, go back to, and review. Many platforms, such as Edmodo or Google Classrooms have been developed to facilitate this style of instruction.

    • The video game model: scaffolding and challenge

The video game model ensures that students are working within their zone of proximal development, while breaking tasks into manageable chunks so that students remain challenged but not frustrated. Just as in video games the level of challenge increases gradually so that with practice and persistence a player can tackle successively more difficult tasks, manageable challenge engages students. The video game model is another way to frame growth mindset and constant improvement and can be demonstrated in a number of ways:

      • Students set reasonable growth goals, and work towards incremental improvements.
      • Teachers focus students on one section of a rubric, moving from a 3 to a 4 on just one particular skill on the rubric.
      • Tracking may facilitate this mindset by showing student change across time. 

For more about the video game model, see this blog post.

  • Students are actively engaged in demonstrating progress and mastery
    • From passive to active learning

Other than flexible pacing, the biggest shift in facilitation is to increase student agency by designing learning experiences that incorporate active learning. This gives students rich opportunities for building crucial skills, aligns with brain science about how we learn best—and frees up the teacher to work as a coach with students who need coaching and support to get to mastery. It takes a lot of planning and tweaking, but it can pay off in the quality of learning, and in flexibility for both students and teachers.

Mastery-based learning is a variation of data-driven instruction, wherein students are working on only learning targets they’ve yet to demonstrate mastery. Teachers may choose a variety of methods to assess where students are, from pre-tests to mastery data from previous years, so that students can use their instructional time to work towards learnings targets they’ve yet to master. This sort of active engagement gives students an active role in their learning.

Mastery further promotes active learning, as students must be demonstrating their learning for each learning target. Multiple pieces of “evidence” of learning, or projects/assignments should be completed to demonstrate mastery. Students are actively engaged in this transparent process.

    • Using self-direction to promote engagement 

In mastery systems students are empowered by moving at their own rate and pace in addition to having voice and choice in activities they pursue to demonstrate mastery. These methods have been shown to increase student engagement. Visual tracking may be an additional external motivator that increases student engagement.

Self-directed, or autonomy-supportive, environments have been correlated to students higher levels of skill attainment and perceived competence.

  • Assessment is primarily formative; timely and meaningful feedback leads to student action
    • Formative versus summative assessment 

Outcomes-based feedback and coaching allows teacher/student conversations to focus on precisely what is most important for that student to get to the next level of mastery. Using outcomes as the basis for conferencing, feedback, and coaching makes learning more clear and meaningful, and makes coaching moments focus on high-leverage next steps

Formative assessments occur throughout the learning process and help you and the student gauge their progress towards mastery, whereas summative assessments occur after learning has taken place in order to determine whether or not a student has mastered a given learning target. Responding thoughtfully and specifically to formative assessments is what allows students to understand how they will perform on a summative assessment. Ideally, students will not participate in a summative assessment until they are confident they will demonstrate mastery.

Formative assessments may be traditional exit tickets, questioning, or independent practice activities, whereas summative assessments may be essays, projects, or presentations.

    • Formative assessments and mastery grading policies 

In a mastery grading system, students would not be penalized for not  yet demonstrating mastery on a formative assessment. Instead, that assessment should guide next steps for the student. Furthermore, a mastery system may require that teachers allow students to re-take even summative assessments. When grading is based on student competency, why should a student be penalized for learning material in November instead of October? While learning is iterative, many teachers find it useful to enforce a system in which students must “earn” a re-take opportunity by studying for a certain amount of time, or completing additional assignments. This ensures that teachers are not continually grading and re-grading without sufficient student effort. It does not mean, however, that the highest grade a student can earn is a 90, or some such equivalent. Students may be required to put in additional practice, but mastery-based grading should only be evaluating student competency.

    • Techniques for providing meaningful, actionable feedback

      • Peg feedback and coaching to outcomes - Feedback and coaching should align to the outcomes students are working to master.
      • Be specific - Tell students what they did well, where they need to improve, and what step comes next.
      • Be consistent - Provide feedback regularly.
      • Use multiple mediums for feedback - Conferencing, emails, post its, Googledocs all work.
      • Make feedback visible - Signs can hang in the classroom tracking student progress, or just list the necessary steps.  Once a student finishes activity 4, they know what comes next without having to ask. Give students rubrics that they can understand and use for self-assessment.  
      • Give students time to ask questions - Make sure they understand your feedback and let them clarify what should happen next.  
      • Allow students to give feedback to each other - This is again part of having your students work harder than you.  This allows them to engage with higher level Depth of Knowledge.

  • Language and grading focuses mostly on skills/content and away from letters/numbers

One of the great gains of a mastery-based system is a focus on actionable next steps to get to the next level of mastery. There is a growth mindset model at work here—students hear “not yet” instead of “no.” Most Mastery Collaborative schools track performance on individual outcomes in each course, and then translate an aggregate single grade at the end of a course, to be reflected on students’ transcripts as they move through high school and apply to college. However, higher education institutions increasingly support mastery-based learning. For example, Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Wellesley were among 67 schools in New England to issue a joint statement of “support for proficiency-based learning and stating – unequivocally – that students with proficiency-based grades and transcripts will not be disadvantaged in any way.”

    • Growth mindset 

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Carol Dweck

Mastery is premised on a growth mindset—believing that the more you apply yourself to a task, the more you build capacity, rather than a fixed mindset—in which a learner believes his or her capacity is fixed. “I am not a math person.” “I can’t write to save my life.” “You’re smarter than me.” Those are all fixed-mindset statements. Mastery-based shifts are based in the idea that every learner can progress towar

d full independent mastery. The destination is the same for every student—it is the path toward mastery that is personalized.

Mastery meets students where they are and supports them to grow their academic capacities over time. Students tend to see traditional letter and number grades as a verdict on their degree of ability—traditional grading encourages a fixed mindset. With a growth mindset framework, students who have not demonstrated evidence of mastery hear “not yet” or “approaching mastery” instead of “you failed.”

Activities to establish growth mindset: “You Can Grow Your Intelligence”, Michael Jordan’s statistics activity, growth mindset bulletin boards, Growth Mindset Stories-Michael Jordan & others,

    • Grading scales

Teachers in mastery-based classrooms are used to assessing depth of their students’ understanding through frameworks like Bloom’s Taxonomy, or Marzano’s scales. Many teachers are used to matching words from standards like “summarize” or “analyze” or “explain” to levels of these taxonomies in order to understand where students need to be. This is the work of competency education. Traditional models use an additional step of translating understanding into arbitrary marks like “A” or “90,” but mastery-based grading systems retain the levels of competence for the student mark.

In a competency-based model, instead of distinguishing between these words, teachers may be deciding what it looks like to “approach mastery,” “demonstrate mastery,” or “exceed mastery.” Many teachers knew to competency education find it easiest to map this mastery language to a familiar taxonomy. For example, “remember” and “understand” in Bloom’s, is equivalent to “approaching mastery.” In order for students to demonstrate mastery of most standards they likely need to be able to “apply,” “analyze,” and “evaluate.” Students who can “create” likely exceed mastery on a given learning target.

Because standards frequently dictate the level of mastery required, it may be that students need only be able to “understand” in order to demonstrate mastery. This tends to be the case in content-related learning goals, more so than in skill-based learning targets. The most advanced mastery systems often rely exclusively on skill-based learning targets, which simplifies this issue.

    • The final grade

Competency-based grading means letting go of the idea of snapshot assessment which penalizes students who have not yet mastered content. In order to advocate for your students, know your school’s grading policies and understand what grade-change processes look like. This information should be transparent for students. While this may create more work for teachers, being upfront with students and designing policies that incentivize students to enter re-takes before the end of the grading period when possible can save you time and energy later. However, ultimately “final grades” should reflect student’s overall learning to date and not measure their compliance or learning speed throughout the year. Being able to alter final grades is one way teachers can make school more equitable for all students.

  • Students have multiple opportunities to build and demonstrate mastery

    • Designing multiple opportunities 

Designing multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery can take two forms: 1) giving students voice and choice in how they present their understanding to you, and 2) providing an opportunity to re-do a mastery check.

A workable rule of thumb for demonstrating mastery reliably over time is a system of three “at-bats,” or summative chances to show independent mastery, in multiple contexts over time. Of course while students are still building toward mastery, they need and should have many chances to learn and practice each skill.

    • Voice and Choice

For summative assessments, providing students with options as to how to demonstrate their mastery is a simple way to improve student engagement and allow students to select a modality that they feel meets their skill set. Providing a few structured choices as well as an open-ended option (pending teacher approval!) is a great way to encourage student creativity. Students can still be assessed with a common rubric.

    • Retakes

Because learning targets should contain transferable skills, students may have an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery again down the road without completing a separate assessment. For example, while a student may submit a piece of writing that is being assessed for having a clear argumentative thesis statement and not demonstrate mastery, perhaps on their next assignment they can be re-assessed on this learning target as well as their ability to complete the next target, such as providing supporting evidence.

    • Helping students understand multiple opportunities 

Teaching and enforcing growth mindset is one way to help students understand having multiple opportunities to complete work. Another useful mechanism is some sort of visual tracking, whether it be via an online platform or physical chart in your classroom. Students should be able to individually check their progress and identify which standards they have and have not yet mastered.

Some teachers find it useful to have a “mastery catch-up” day once every few weeks for students to identify which learning targets they need additional practice on, and spend time practicing or revising projects related to that target. In order for this to be successful, students must be able to individually navigate their learning progress.

Evidence 2.jpg
    • Incorporating multiple opportunities into grading policies

Competency-based grading means letting go of the idea of snapshot assessment which penalizes students who have not yet mastered content. In order to advocate for your students, know your school’s grading policies and understand what grade-change processes look like. This information should be transparent for students. While this may create more work for teachers, being upfront with students and designing policies that incentivize students to enter re-takes before the end of the grading period when possible can save you time and energy later. However, ultimately “final grades” should reflect student’s overall learning to date and not measure their compliance or learning speed throughout the year. Being able to alter final grades is one way teachers can make school more equitable for all students.

    • Multiples opportunities in departmental context 

Schools that implement competency-based systems at a high level understand the way that their learning targets overlap between departments, and may even have school-wide outcomes. This sort of understanding allows for student skills to be assessed across departments. An English/Language Arts teacher may have a lot to learn from seeing that her student who has not yet mastered thesis statements in her class has mastered that target in Social Studies. This information, as well as an understanding of the commonalities and differences in this skill between content areas, can guide her in coaching that student. This sort of highly specific and targeted feedback can help students transfer skills between and contexts.