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Distance Learning: Mastery Learning Fosters Formative Feedback and Growth Mindset

by Anna Gabriel

When first introduced to mastery learning, it reminded me of coaching. I coach gymnastics part-time, and we spend most of our days drilling the same skills until gymnasts master them. They are not penalized for not knowing how to do a perfect back handspring on the first try; instead, athletes are given corrections on each attempt, and they apply the corrections because they want to do well. They continue to learn and improve during practice as they focus on their coaches’ feedback. Gymnasts do not perform skills at a competition until they have practiced many times, and only then do they receive scores for their performances.

As its name suggests, mastery learning allows students multiple opportunities to practice a skill until they have mastered it. Formative assessments enable teachers to provide students with feedback and evaluate their progress towards a learning goal. Additionally, teachers reflect on the data and offer further review and enrichment as necessary. Once students have successfully met the learning target, they complete the summative assessment, which evaluates how much students learned throughout the unit.

Just like the gymnasts I coach, my students want to be successful. They want to master their academic skills, but most need teacher feedback to do so. In addition, students must fail in order to receive valuable feedback. Thus, I realized that I must put my students in a position where they feel comfortable taking risks. I must put my students in a position where they focus on my feedback rather than their grades. I must put my students in a position where they believe that they can improve. But how can students feel comfortable failing knowing that their grades will suffer as a result?

Central Bucks School District, where I taught this past year, offered a solution: formative assessments should not count towards students’ final grades; only summative assessments should be counted in the gradebook. This grants students the freedom to fail without being penalized. Instead of hyper focusing on their formative assessment grades, students turn their attention to the feedback provided on the assignments. They reflect on this feedback and use it to guide their learning. Finally, when presented with the summative assessment, they have mastered the content because they used teacher feedback to focus their review.

Therefore, I subscribed to the mastery learning framework and started adopting it in my classroom. I took inspiration from a fellow coworker, and as students worked on major essays, they submitted a draft of each paragraph through Canvas, our district’s learning management system. On each paragraph, I left specific comments that contained positive feedback and constructive criticism. Admittedly, students did earn a writing process grade—just a few points—for submitting their drafts for feedback; however, they did not lose points for missing criteria. Rather, I noted the missing components, suggested ways to develop craft techniques, and pushed students to think further about their ideas. Students had time to read and apply my feedback before the final submission. After reading the drafts, I designed mini-lessons to address the needs of each class. I also used the drafts to differentiate future instruction and writing conferences; I often split students into small, homogenous groups based on the results of their drafts. This allowed me to focus my small-group writing conferences and use class time more efficiently.

Distance learning was a great opportunity to further implement mastery learning. In my district, students were still expected to submit assignments, but they earned credit for doing so. Essentially, we asked students to shift their mindset about learning; learning was no longer about earning grades, but it was now about receiving feedback and using this feedback to grow. Many students stepped up to the challenge and learned for the sake of learning.

My distance learning class structure mimicked my in-person class: students read independently for 10 minutes, completed a virtual reading conference, reviewed a mini-lesson, practiced the mini-lesson skill in a Canvas quiz, received immediate feedback, and were then given a long-term assignment to further hone their skill. Quizzes with automatic feedback were vital to asynchronous learning, as students could take the quiz at any time and receive instant feedback.

I provided specific feedback on all long-term assignments, and students were expected to review this before completing the following week’s tasks. Assignments often built on each other, so the feedback helped students perform well the following week. For example, in week 6 of distance learning students were asked to submit a script for their video presentation. I provided feedback on the script, and students reviewed this feedback before filming their video presentation in week 7. When reflecting on their distance learning experiences, many of my students noted that they appreciated the frequent and focused feedback provided, and none of my students mentioned the grading practices. This demonstrates a shift in their learning mindset: instead of focusing on fixed grades, students focused on the feedback and their potential to grow. One of my students further demonstrated their growth mindset in a thank you email:

“I have always appreciated the feedback given to me on essays. Seeing these pieces of constructive criticism and positive feedback has opened my eyes to view my writing differently and see what I can improve. It continues to motivate me as I write, so thank you so much for helping me in a big part of that journey. Thank you for genuinely caring about my growth; it has REALLY helped, and I am so grateful!”

I want to help my future students focus on their learning experiences and not the looming grade. Regardless of what the 2020-21 school year looks like, I will develop growth mindsets by providing frequent formative feedback. If I continue to show students that I believe in them, then they will believe in themselves.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What did distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? How will distance learning change or enhance your brick and mortar routines and best practices? What does Fall 2020 look like for you, your classroom, your school, and/or your district?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email LF879590@wcupa.edu if you are interested or would like to find out more information.