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5 Teaching Tweaks to Make the Most of Mastery-Based Grading

To help underrepresented students succeed in organic chemistry, Dwight Williams, PhD, switched to mastery-based grading.

To help underrepresented students succeed in organic chemistry, Dwight Williams, PhD, switched to mastery-based grading.

Getting a low grade, even early in the semester when there is time to make up for it, can really deal a blow to students’ confidence. Dwight Williams, PhD, clearly saw this in his organic chemistry classes at Kalamazoo College. “When a student would get a 2 out of a 10 on a quiz, they would be demoralized and internalize, ‘I must not be able to do this,’” he says. “That is just not true.”

He was particularly concerned about students of color, who represent approximately half of the school’s population and who were consistently underperforming when compared to other groups. “I was not seeing the distribution of grades that I would like to have seen among students of color,” he explains. Even after Williams tried flipping the classroom, limiting lecture time, and adding active-learning exercises, these students continued to struggle. “That left me with, ‘OK, if it’s not the delivery mechanism, then it must be something in the assessment model,’” he says.

Williams’s new approach to grading designates four levels of mastery—Under Development, Novice, Proficient, and Expert.

“Each of these levels is based on the number of mistakes a student makes on a one-, two-, or three-question quiz that generally follows the short-answer format,” says Williams. “We did that so students would focus on the mistakes, how to fix those mistakes, and how to learn.”

Today, rather than feeling like a failure when they miss a question, they view it as an opportunity for improvement. “They think, ‘What did I miss? What do I need to study again?’” he says. “With these changes, our students are thinking much more in a growth mindset.”

Below, Williams shares some of the specific changes that have helped the mastery format—and his students—succeed in his organic chemistry class.

5 Tips for Teaching to a Mastery-Based Grading System

Changing a grading approach from A through D to U through E is not enough to reap positive results, notes Williams. In addition to making that shift in scoring, semantics, and mindset, he has adopted the following five practices to cement comprehension:

1. Lecture: Flip the classroom only when it supports mastery.

While Williams initially tried to flip the classroom for the entire semester, he soon realized that some of the material was too complicated for students to tackle at home. Today, he spends the first half of the semester—while teaching about the structure of organic molecules—using a flipped approach, but he switches to traditional in-class lectures for the second half, when the curriculum focuses on complex subjects such as how molecules function, react, and recombine. This is still a major departure from traditional O-chem instruction, he says, in which instructors typically jump back and forth between talking about chemical structure and chemical function.

2. Group Work: Introduce peer teaching as a daily warm-up.

At the start of the semester, Williams breaks each class (which can include up to 60 students) into groups of three or four. Then, before each class, he writes at least a half-dozen questions on the board, which these groups tackle when they arrive. After giving them time to discuss, he asks each group to elaborate on their answers to the rest of the class. “They run the class in terms of explaining problems to each other,” he says, laughing, “so my students will tell you that I really don’t ‘teach’ them anything.” Instead, he adds, they are learning how to learn from each other.

3. Grading: Return quizzes the same day they are taken.

Williams gives students a quiz almost every class period—then grades and returns it that very same day. This way, students can see where they erred while the material is fresh in their minds. It also allows them to get clarification during office hours before the class has progressed to the next chapter. “We can have a conversation where I can say, ‘Well, what are you doing? Tell me how you’re studying,’” he says. “And I can tell them, ‘These are the things I think you should do. Try these, and we’ll see what happens.’”

4. Office Hours: Serve big groups with mini-recitations.

One of the side effects of students gaining confidence, says Williams, is that they are much more willing to come to office hours. Sometimes, this means that he has more than he can handle during that limited time. To help more people at once, Williams has begun treating this time like a mini recitation class, having students write problems on the board, talk about them among themselves, then present the answers to Williams for review. “This way, I can deal with all the students, where I never could have helped them one by one by one,” he says.

5. Retakes: Customize quiz retakes and finals for each student.

Williams allows students to retake those daily quizzes—with a twist: He creates a second, personalized quiz for each student, based on the mistakes they made. Williams does the same thing when it comes to final exams: He personalizes them for each student.

Though it increases his workload initially, Williams says it inspires positive change as the semester wears on. “The students get tired of having to take the retake quizzes, so they start working harder, which helps them improve all that much more,” he says. “They begin to say, ‘Oh, I really need to get my grind on so I can get through these quizzes the first time!’”

Benefits of Mastery-Based Grading

All of these changes have reduced the competitive atmosphere that often dominates in challenging courses like this one, says Williams. He says that he, his TAs, and faculty colleagues in his department all notice much more collaboration among these students than previously. “We see study groups forming spontaneously. We see sharing of assignments much more readily. It’s like, ‘How can we all get to be Es?’”

This transformation does not go unnoticed by the students, either. “I’ve gotten a ton of post-term emails from students, and they are all some variation of ‘Hey, Dr. D., I know this class was very hard, but I really want to thank you for how you set it up,’” Williams reports. “‘It really helped me learn how to learn and be a better student.’”

And the grading metrics for the students of color have improved as well, says Williams. Now a greater proportion of them are earning As and Bs for the term. This is not because the course has gotten “easier,” he says. “We are confident they are earning real As and Bs because of this mastery of the material.”

“For me, it is a tremendous amount of work,” Williams adds, noting that this is in part because he needs to convince each new class that his system will benefit them. “But for those results? It’s worth it.”

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