How Mastery Checks Can Elevate Learning in Your Classroom

Breaking News / Special / September 23, 2019

 – Dan Jones –

This past week, my 8th-grade students took their first mastery check, focused on the French explorers who had come to the Americas. It should have been a fairly straightforward examination of their understanding of the content; after all, the students only had to study two explorers. My students had watched two instructional videos, one on each explorer, and I made sure that both videos were under five minutes. Each student had taken notes, but the result was…only one out of 18 passed the mastery check. Did I do something wrong? 

The truth is, the mastery check was exactly what was needed! It brought to light some impurities in my process, as well as in the students’ processes. When a silversmith checks the quality of their silver, they heat it. The impurities in the silver float to the surface and those impurities are removed. The process is repeated until the silversmith can see his reflection in the silver. What came to the surface after I gave this mastery check? I assumed that providing students with the material in a best-practice manner was all that was needed to ensure mastery of understanding. The students assumed that the mere completion of the work was going to ensure mastery of understanding. We both failed. 

Providing students with material using best-practices was not all that was needed to ensure mastery of the content; more workmanship was required. I had not taught the students what to do with the content after they had acquired it. And the students learned that just finishing the assignments did not mean they had internalized or committed to memory the content they had been exposed to. How do we remove these impurities so that our classroom reflects mastery of the content?

I began my school year on an assumption. I assumed that my students knew how to study. The reality is, they didn’t have a clue. They thought that just completing the assignment would have been enough for them to pass any sort of assessment of their understanding of the content. In order to remedy this situation, two things had to occur: I had to teach students how to learn, and they had to shift their mindset as to what it means to learn. Patrice Bain wrote an article titled The Secret to Student Success? Teach Them How to Learn. In this article, she writes that “students learn early on that my first commitment is to teach them how to learn, and my second commitment is to my course content.” Bain has a focus on metacognition, which is the act of thinking about your thinking in such a way that you are able to identify gaps in your understanding. This focus led her to arrive at the conclusion “that providing timely, effective feedback is particularly beneficial for struggling learners. It is this feedback that allows students to differentiate what they know from what they don’t—metacognition.” 

Patrice Bain also explored the concept of retrieval. My students had been exposed to content, but they didn’t know how to retrieve it. Bain writes, “it’s not until you’re asked to explain what you know that the lightbulb goes on and you realize what you don’t know. For too many students, that aha-moment happens while they’re taking the big test. And by then it’s too late.” Again this goes back to metacognition; knowing what you don’t know. If students are given short-cycle assessments (mastery checks) that carry little to no grade, the students are able to assess their own understanding of the content. This comes with a “however.” However, these Mastery Checks require a mind shift. We have to move students from “Oh my goodness, I failed!” to “Oh my goodness, there is more I need to learn.” 

Amy C. Edmondson wrote an article in Harvard’s Business Review titled Strategies for Learning from Failure. In it, she writes, “Once a failure has been detected, it’s essential to go beyond the obvious and superficial reasons for it to understand the root causes. This requires the discipline—better yet, the enthusiasm—to use sophisticated analysis to ensure that the right lessons are learned and the right remedies are employed. The job of leaders is to see that their organizations don’t just move on after a failure but stop to dig in and discover the wisdom contained in it.” Our students need to stop, dig in, and fill in the gaps in their understanding. This lesson became apparent after my Mastery Check on French explorers. As soon as a student failed the Mastery Check, he saw which questions he missed and what the right answers were, and he immediately said, “Can I take it again?” I told him that he needed to go back through the content and develop a greater understanding of it. He said, “But I know the answers to the questions, now.” I explained to him that he would be taking a different quiz the second time around, and I encouraged him to spend some more time with the content. He was more focused on getting a grade than on developing an understanding. Getting students to focus on the learning is a challenge when so much of their academic career has been spent on earning a grade. This is another impurity that educators must skim off of the top of education. 

Teaching students how to interact with their notes after they have watched your video is just as important as the information itself. I made a few adjustments to the document on which the students take notes. Below the notes is a designated area for the students to create a sketch of the content of the notes. The students are able to draw a picture or create a graphic organizer for the information they just learned. Another designated area is the question box. Students need to write down a question that they would like to address in class. I have had students say, “But what if I don’t have a question, do I still need to write one?” My response is, “YES!” I encourage them to create a test question if they feel they understood everything. This does a couple of things. First, it forces students to identify important information from the lecture. Second, it helps those that have questions because they didn’t understand the content to be more comfortable coming to class and asking questions. Students also need to develop study groups. Give students opportunities to discuss the content. I use four questions to guide this conversation: What are the big topics that we need to remember? What are the details that we need to remember? Do you have any questions that need to be addressed? And finally, how does this content relate to other things that I have learned? Active classrooms require that the students have active minds. We have to train them on how to be active with the content. 

Students miss the whole point of a lesson when they focus on a grade instead of learning. A wise friend of mine, Tony Pingitore, shared with me that “knowledge is not knowledge unless it is tested.” He continued by asking me, “How do you know you are a patient person unless your patience has been tested?” How do we know that we know something unless we use our understanding to prove it? Mastery checks allow students to test their understanding in low stake situations, spotting weaknesses without failing exams. There isn’t an academic penalty for not passing the mastery check, rather an evaluation of the degree to which the information is understood. Much of this is rooted in the development of a growth mindset. According to Marcie Hall, writer for Johns Hopkins University, writes in her article, How to get students to focus on learning, not grades, “Create evolving assignments rather than one time tasks or activities. “One-time assignments don’t illustrate how learning is an evolving process and they don’t teach students how to do more work on something they have already done.” She suggests giving feedback on each piece of the students learning and not a grade. She also suggests that educators need to give students more opportunities to reflect on their understanding. This allows students to see their learning as a continuum. 

I may not be a silversmith, but I am learning to remove the impurities of my classroom with each lesson, and reflection is critical to this process. Reflection is not about placing blame, rather it is the reward for scraping things off that surface and purifying the process. As I look into my silver today, the reflection of my students and classroom is clearer and crisper than ever before and that, after all, is the grand goal of any silversmith.  

Dan Jones
Dan Jones Jones
Dan Jones is a middle school social studies teacher at the Richland School of Academic Arts. He earned a BS in Middle Grades Education from Ashland University and a Master's Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from American College of Education. Dan is the author of Flipped 3.0 Project Based Learning: An Insanely Simple Guide. He is a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty and has earned numerous FLGI certifications including the certification Flipped Learning 3.0 Master Class Facilitator Certification Level - I.

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1 Comment

on September 27, 2019

Great!!! Thank you!!!

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