• James Dunseith

Mastery-Based Grading: It's All About Relationships

James Dunseith teaches math at North High School in Worcester, Massachusetts.

In many traditional grading systems, an assignment often culminates with the teacher assigning each student a grade, which is at its root an exertion of power.

No matter how strong, productive, and compassionate the relationship between a teacher and a student is, the power dynamic resulting from traditional grading systems can undermine the fact that teachers and students are members of the same learning community and must work together to achieve common goals.

My experience is that mastery-based grading systems add a third "actor" to the teaching, learning, and assessment transaction. When I share a set of learning targets with students at the start of a unit of study, it becomes imperative for my students and me to be on the same team. It's us versus the learning targets. I can say to my kids, "I want you master these, you want you to master these, and we can't argue with the targets, so let's get to it."

The relationship between students and teachers is changed in a way that builds community. Students own their learning - and know darn well that they've learned something - independent of the teacher. This means that roles can blur. The teacher has to be a student of the students, learning what they know, listening carefully for what they can explain. Students can also teach each other; once knowledge exists, it can be shared. It doesn't matter how a student learns something, just that they do.

For example, right now I'm teaching an algebra unit about linear and exponential functions. Here are two of the learning targets:

  • 4.3: I can interpret the parameters in a linear or exponential function in terms of a context.

  • 4.4: I can construct linear and exponential functions, including arithmetic and geometric sequences, given a graph, a description of a relationship, a table, or two input-output pairs.

An activity my students are working on involves looking at a linear function that represents saving up for a big purchase. After students complete some introductory exercises, I ask them to change the parameters in the context of the situation, either by changing the cost of the item they'd like to buy (the starting value or y-intercept) or changing the amount of money they save toward it each month (slope). Next they graph a set of newly generated lines on the same plane. By doing so, they see how changes to each parameter affects the graph, and they can interpret what they see. Students naturally progress at their own pace, and each can get to the same part of the task at different times.

As they work, I might observe that Angie has become an expert on the role that slope plays in changing the graph of a line and then a little later that Kyle is having a hard time understanding the same part of the task. At this point, I can say, "Hey Angie, Kyle has a few questions about what happens when you change the monthly savings amount. Would you mind showing him how that works?" Angie gets to play the role of teacher, which helps her master the concept in greater depth, not to mention that it boosts her self-esteem. Kyle gets to hear an explanation other than mine (which is probably better than what I could provide, anyway) and to see a classmate model mastery of the learning target. I get to relinquish power over the classroom and passing judgment on who knows what. Both of them know without my input where they stand on learning target 4.3, and I'm free to continue cultivating conversations like the one they're having.

As Kyle returns to his seat, I'll ask him, within Angie's earshot, how Angie did, and he'll get to thank her and compliment her on the work in a way that makes everyone feel like they're part of something. I'll ask Angie if she thinks Kyle can explain it to the other students at his table, and the cycle can continue.

Of course, many factors influence the building of a classroom culture that makes students want to come and be a part of it each day. I've found that reconsidering grading structures in a way that puts power in the hands of students and helps them build new relationships is a great place to start.

(Please see this related blog post from JumpRope's Sara Needleman, one that she called Getting to Know All About You.)

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