Mastery Based Grading

This course is designed to walk you through mastery based grading, the research behind the practice, and how this impacts our grading scale for different types of performance tasks.

The History of Mastery Teaching and Learning

Legislature to Instructional theory

Formative Classroom Assessment and Benjamin S. Bloom:
Theory, Research, and Implications

     Achievement gaps among different groups of students have concerned government and educational leaders for many years. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” focused directly on inequalities in the educational achievement of economically disadvantaged students and their more advantaged counterparts. The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964, which established the Head Start program, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which created the Title I and Follow Through programs, were specific attempts to address these gaps in educational attainment.
     More recently, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation (U.S. Congress, 2001) revived these concerns. The law requires schools to report achievement results separately for various poverty, ethnicity, language, and disability subgroups. Not only must schools identify any achievement gaps among these different student subgroups, they also must take specific steps to close them.
Over the years educational researchers have learned a lot about reducing these achievement disparities. Yet because of our tendency in education today to focus only on “what’s new,” a lot of that important knowledge is being neglected. Instead of building on what we already know, many modern proposals for closing achievement gaps simply rename well-established principles, adding to the tangled thicket of terminology that confounds progress in education. To succeed in our efforts to close achievement gaps and to reach our goal of helping all students learn well, we need instead to recognize and extend this hard-earned knowledge base.

Researchers’ Views

     Researchers do their best to view problems in their simplest and most basic form. From a researcher’s perspective, therefore, achievement gaps are simply matters of “variation”: students vary in their levels of achievement. Some students learn excellently in school and reach high levels of achievement, while others learn less well and attain only modest levels. Whenever we measure two or more students’ achievement, we also measure this “variation.”
     Researchers design studies to “explain” variation. They make educated guesses, called “hypotheses,” about what factors contribute to the differences among individuals. Then they manipulate those factors in carefully planned investigations to determine the effects. When they find a relationship between the factors that they manipulate and differences in outcomes, they succeed in their efforts to “explain” variation.
     One of the early researchers concerned with explaining variation in student achievement was Benjamin S. Bloom. In the early 1960s, Bloom’s studies focused on individual differences, especially in students’ school learning. While he recognized that many factors outside of school affect student learning (Bloom, 1964), his investigations showed that teachers have potentially strong influence as well.
     In his observations of classrooms, Bloom noted that most teachers included little variation in their instructional practices. The majority taught all students in much the same way and provided all with the same amount of time to learn. The few students for whom the instructional methods and time were ideal learned excellently. The largest number of students for whom the methods and time were only moderately appropriate learned less well. And students for whom the instruction and time were inappropriate due to differences in their backgrounds or learning styles, learned very little. In other words, little variation in the teaching resulted in great variation in student learning. Under these conditions the pattern of student achievement was similar to the normal curve distribution shown in Figure 1.

     To attain better results and reduce this variation in student achievement, Bloom reasoned that we would have to increase variation in the teaching. That is, because students varied in their learning styles and aptitudes, we must diversify and differentiate instruction to better meet their individual learning needs. The challenge was to find practical ways to do this within the constraints of group-based classrooms so that all students learn well.
     In searching for such a strategy, Bloom drew primarily from two sources of evidence. First he considered the ideal teaching and learning situation in which an excellent tutor is paired
with each student. He was particularly influenced by the work of early pioneers in individualized instruction, especially Washburne (1922) and his Winnetka Plan, and Morrison (1926) and his University of Chicago Laboratory School experiments. In examining this evidence, Bloom tried to determine what critical elements in one-to-one tutoring and individualized instruction could be transferred to group-based classroom settings.
     Second, Bloom looked at studies of the learning strategies of academically successful students, especially the work of Dollard and Miller (1950). From this research he tried to identify the activities of high achieving students in group-based classrooms that distinguish them from their less successful classmates.
     Bloom believed it was reasonable for teachers to organize the concepts and skills they wanted students to learn into instructional units. He also considered valuable for teachers to assess student learning at the end of each unit. But he found that most teachers’ classroom assessments did little more than show for whom their initial instruction was and was not appropriate.
A far better approach, according to Bloom, would be for teachers to use their classroom assessments as learning tools, and then to follow those assessments with a feedback and corrective procedure. In other words, instead of using assessments only as evaluation devices that mark the end of each unit, Bloom recommended using them as part of the instructional process to diagnose individual learning difficulties (feedback) and to prescribe remediation procedures (correctives).
     This is precisely what takes place when an excellent tutor works with an individual student. If the student makes an error, the tutor first points out the error (feedback), and then follows up with further explanation and clarification (correctives) to ensure the student’s understanding. Similarly, academically successful students typically follow up the mistakes they make on quizzes and assessments. They ask the teacher about the items they missed, look up the answer in the textbook or other resources, or rework the problem or task so that errors are not repeated.

(Gusky, 2005)

At Locke, we believe in designing multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery (MODM). Where does this fit in Bloom's instructional cycle? (access the content below for additional details)

Bloom’s Mastery Learning

    Benjamin Bloom then outlined a specific instructional strategy to make use of this feedback and corrective procedure, labeling it “learning for mastery” (Bloom, 1968), and later shortening the name to simply “mastery learning” (Bloom, 1971). With this strategy, teachers first organize the concepts and skills they want students to learn into instructional units that typically involve about a week or two of instructional time. Following initial instruction on the unit, teachers administer a brief “formative” assessment based on the unit’s learning goals. Instead of signifying the end of the unit, however, this formative assessment’s purpose is to give students information, or feedback, on their learning. It helps students identify what they have learned well to that point and what they need to learn better (Bloom, Hastings, & Madaus, 1971).
    Paired with each formative assessment are specific “corrective” activities (known as multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery or MODM at Locke) for students to use in correcting their learning difficulties. Most teachers match these “correctives” to each item or set of prompts within the assessment so that students need work on only those concepts or skills not yet mastered. In other words, the correctives are “individualized.” They may point out additional sources of information on a particular topic, such as page numbers in the textbook or workbook where the topic is discussed. They may identify alternative learning resources such as different textbooks, learning kits, alternative materials, CDs, videos, or computerized instructional lessons. Or they may simply suggest sources of additional practice, such as study guides, independent or guided practice activities, or collaborative group activities.
     With the feedback and corrective information gained from a formative assessment, each student has a detailed prescription of what more needs to be done to master the concepts or skills from the unit. This “just-in-time” correction prevents minor learning difficulties from accumulating and becoming major learning problems. It also gives teachers a practical means to vary and differentiate their instruction in order to better meet students’ individual learning needs. As a result, many more students learn well, master the important learning goals in each unit, and gain the necessary prerequisites for success in subsequent units (Bloom, Madaus, & Hastings, 1981).
     When students complete their corrective activities after a class period or two, Bloom recommended they take a second formative assessment. This second, “parallel” assessment covers the same concepts and skills as the first, but is composed of slightly different problems or questions, and serves two important purposes. First, it verifies whether or not the correctives were successful in helping students overcome their individual learning difficulties. Second, it offers students a second chance at success and, hence, has powerful motivational value.
    Some students, of course, will perform well on the first assessment, demonstrating that they’ve mastered the unit concepts and skills. The teacher’s initial instruction was highly appropriate for these students and they have no need of corrective work. To ensure their continued learning progress, Bloom recommended these students be provided with special “enrichment” or “extension” activities to broaden their learning experiences. Such activities often are self-selected by students and might involve special projects or reports, academic games, or a variety of complex, problem-solving tasks. The figure below illustrates the instructional sequence.

Mastery teaching is not.....

Misinterpretations of Mastery Learning

     Some early attempts to implement mastery learning were based on narrow and inaccurate interpretations of Bloom’s ideas. These programs focused on low-level cognitive skills, attempted to break learning down into small segments, and insisted students “master” each segment before being permitted to move on. Teachers were regarded in these programs as little more than managers of materials and record-keepers of student progress.
     Nowhere in Bloom’s writing can the suggestion of this kind of narrowness and rigidity be found. Bloom always considered thoughtful and reflective teachers vital to the successful implementation of mastery learning and continually stressed flexibility in its application. In his earliest description of the process he wrote:

     There are many alternative strategies for mastery learning. Each strategy must find some way of dealing with individual differences in learners through some means of relating instruction to the needs and characteristics of the learners. ... The alternative high school schedule … is one attempt to provide an organizational structure that permits and encourages mastery learning. (Bloom, 1968, pp. 7-8).

     Bloom also emphasized the need for instruction and assessments in mastery learning classrooms to focus on higher level learning goals, not simply basic skills. He noted:

I find great emphasis on problem solving, applications of principles, analytical skills, and creativity. Such higher mental processes are emphasized because this type of learning enables the individual to relate his or her learning to the many problems he or she encounters in day-to-day living. These abilities are stressed because they are retained and utilized long after the individual has forgotten the detailed specifics of the subject matter taught in the schools. These abilities are regarded as one set of essential characteristics needed to continue learning and to cope with a rapidly changing world. (Bloom, 1978, p. 578).

     Modern research studies show mastery learning to be particularly effective when applied to instruction focusing on higher level learning goals such as problem solving, drawing inferences, deductive reasoning, and creative expression (Guskey, 1997). The process helps teachers close achievement gaps in a broad range of learning goals from basic knowledge and skills to highly complex cognitive processes.
     In addition, some secondary teachers worry about the constraint of class time. With only limited time available, they fear the introduction of feedback, corrective, and enrichment procedures will reduce the amount of material they will be able to cover. As a result, they will have to sacrifice coverage for the sake of mastery.
     The first few mastery learning units typically do require more time than usual. Students must be provided with some orientation to the process, and class time usually needs to be set aside for the teacher to direct students in their corrective work. Teachers who try to have correctives completed as homework or during a special study session before or after school find that those students who most need the extra time are the least likely to take part. As a result, it’s not unusual for a mastery learning class to be somewhat behind a more traditionally taught class during the first two or three units.
After students become familiar with the mastery learning process, however, most teachers find that they can pick up the pace of their instruction. Mastery learning students tend to be engaged in learning activities for a larger portion of the time they spend in class. Hence they learn more and learn faster in later units than do students in more traditionally taught classes (Arlin, 1973; Fitzpatrick, 1985). As students catch on to mastery learning, they also tend to do better on first formative assessments. With fewer students involved in correctives and a reduced amount of corrective work required, the class time allocated to correctives in later units can be drastically reduced. Furthermore, because mastery learning students learn well the concepts and skills from early units, they are better prepared for later, more advanced units. This means that less time needs to be spent in review activities. Thus most teachers find that with slight changes in the pacing of their instruction (slightly more time spent in early units but less time in later ones), they are able to cover just as much material, and in some cases more, as they were able to using more traditional approaches to instruction (Block, 1983; Guskey, 1983, 1987).

  • Mastery teaching & learning is relating
    instruction to the needs of the learners
  • Mastery teaching & learning is accessing
    higher level learning goals
  • Mastery teaching & learning is problem solving and
    application of principles/ analytical skills/ creativity
  • Mastery teaching & learning is not
    low level cognitive skills
  • Mastery teaching & learning is not intended for teacher to be
    record keepers

Mastery Grading

Formative and Summative Assessments

What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?

Formative assessment

The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

  • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
  • submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
  • turn in a research proposal for early feedback
  • exit slips
  • structured conversations during pair-share or group time

Summative assessment

The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.

Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a high point value. Examples of summative assessments include:

  • a midterm exam
  • a final project
  • a paper
  • a performance task

Information from summative assessments can be used formatively when students or faculty use it to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.

Define formative v. Summative assessments

  • Formative Assessment
    provides information to the teacher that will help to improve student learning
  • Summative Assessment
    involves a judgement about the success of the educational process as a whole

Student-centered grading guidelines

Take a look at this Ted Talk by Rick Wormeli and continue forward to consider.....

After viewing the video, think about how student-centered grading considers the following four components:

a) how the student will view it

b) adequacy of feedback to the students

c) minimum standards of performance

d) make-up or retesting possibilities


What are your priorities?

If you haven't watched the video by Rick Wormeli in the previous section, please do so now.  Rick points out that the mean is no longer the appropriate way to determine an appropriate grade for a student. Rather, the central tendency should be considered.  In other words, you are looking for a preponderance of evidence that a student has mastered a clearly defined skill. 

Student-centered grading includes the following four components.  How would you rank them? Which is most important? Why? How do you plan to implement the component you view as most important. 

a) how the student will view it

b) adequacy of feedback to the students

c) minimum standards of performance

d) make-up or retesting possibilities

Note that the components above are not ranked by a level of importance. Your answer is intended to inform your perspective and give you talking points when planning with your colleagues. (There is no right answer, you don't have to feel the urge to choose C)

Grading Logistics

Locke has established four grade book categories for all teachers and all subjects. Students are prepared to understand these categories through advisory lessons at the start of the year and during reset days following winter break.  This standard for grading is also reinforced when students see consistency in all courses and through grade checks during advisory.  Your administrator will be auditing grade books every two weeks to ensure they are set up in the following manner:

•Summative Assessments (SA) = 50% of the Semester Grade

•Formative Assessments (FA) = 30% of the Semester Grade

•Classwork (CW) = 10% of the Semester Grade

•Homework (HW) = 10% of the Semester Grade

Expectations for Classwork and Homework:

•One classwork and one homework assignment per week entered into grade books (approximately 15 per semester each)

•Letter grades are entered for the assignments into the grade book

•A+, B, C, D,F or I  (no pluses or minuses accept for the A+)

Types of assignments, the frequency and relative weight of the assignments in each category are normed across the members of each subject-team

Mastery Teaching

Arrange the components of lesson design in order according to Madeline Hunter....

     Dr. Madeline Hunter‟s research showed effective teachers have a methodology when planning and presenting a lesson. Hunter found that no matter what the teacher‟s style, grade level, subject matter, or economic background of the students a properly taught lesson contained eight elements that enhanced and maximized learning. She labeled eight elements and began two decades of teacher training. The elements referred to as Lesson Design, Target Teaching, or Critical Teaching, have stood the test of time – still used today in many teacher colleges and as reference for judging teacher effectiveness in many school districts.

     Within each element of Lesson Design, there are many sub-skills, methods, and techniques – each demanding training, practice, and review in order to attain mastery of the Hunter model. Simply knowing about or reading about Lesson Design will not produce flawless performance, but will form a basis for decision making.

Basic Hunter Vocabulary

1. Anticipatory Set
The teacher focuses the students‟ thoughts on to what will be learned (Tie in yesterday‟s lesson with today‟s lesson. Get them interested.)
Anticipatory set is defined as a shot activity or prompt that focuses the students‟ attention before the actual lesson begins. Uses when students enter the room or in a transition, anticipatory set might be a hand-out given to students at the door, review questions written on the board, two short problems presented on a transparency on the overhead, an agenda for the lesson written on the chalkboard, etc
2. Objective and Purpose
Students learn more effectively when they know what they are supposed to be learning and why. Teachers also teach more effectively when they have the same information. (Tell what/how/why/the students are going to learn.)
The purpose or objective of the lesson includes why students need to learn the objective, what they will be able to do once they have met the criterion, how they will demonstrate learning as a
The Madeline Hunter Model of Mastery Learning
result. The formula for the behavioral objective is: The learner will do what + with what + how well?
3. Input
The new knowledge, process or skill must be presented to the students in the most effective manner. This could be through discovery, discussion, reading, listening, observing, etc.
Input includes the vocabulary, skills and concepts the teacher will impart to the students, the information the students need to know in order to be successful.
4. Modeling
It is important for the students to ”see” what they are learning. It helps them when the teacher demonstrates what is to be learned.
The teacher shows a graphic or demonstrates in a concrete way exactly what the finished product looks like. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words.
5. Checking for Understanding
It is important to make sure the students understand what was presented. One way this can be done is by asking the students questions.
The teacher uses a variety of questioning strategies to determine “Got it yet?” and to reflect on the pace of the lesson: “Should I move forward or back up?”
6. Guided Practice
The students practice the new learning under direct teacher supervision.
The teacher leads the students through the steps necessary to perform the skill using a trimodal approach: hear/see/so.
7. Independent Practice
When the teacher is sure the students understand the new material, they assign independent practice.
The teacher releases students to practice on their own based on learning that has occurred during the previous steps.
8. Closure
At the end of each lesson, the teacher reviews or wraps up the lesson by posing a question for the class: “Tell me or show me what you have learned today.”
Closure is not necessarily an end point, but more of a final “check for understanding” used at

  • Anticipatory Set
  • Objective and Purpose
  • Input
  • Modeling
  • Checking for Understanding
  • Guided Practice
  • Independent Practice
  • Closure

Reconciling Mastery teaching & Mastery learning

Check out THIS ARTICLE to remind you of the components of Bloom's and Hunter's work.


How do you think Bloom's mastery learning and Hunt's mastery teaching fit together, if at all? Please type your response below.