Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Teaching Science Through Mastery Learning

Mastery learning is not a new concept.  It has been alive and well since the 1970's.  In a nutshell, it allows students to only move on when they have mastered a concept. How do you know when they are ready?  You test them. If they don't pass the test then they must go back and review until they pass.  Unfortunately, it isn't utilized enough in public education. This may be due to time constraints in the classroom, as well as, the amount of planning it requires at home.  Why would a teacher want to attempt this?

The benefits to teaching using a mastery learning model are many.  If you let your students choose the activities they want to do, your engagement in your class will skyrocket.  This only really works if you have many activities that are exciting and varied.  Science lends itself well to this because teachers can integrate hands on projects into the unit along with written activities. In addition, students actually work harder using this model.  What?  That can't be right!  Amazingly enough, it is.  My students actually had more work to do during our mineral unit this year, but got more accomplished in a shorter amount of time.  I believe it is something to do with control.  If they believe they are in control, they work harder and are more motivated.  That leads us to a wonderful side effect of teaching in this way, higher grades!    If students have to pass a test to move on then guess what, they pass!  My students have higher grades and a deeper understanding of relatively difficult concepts when I teach expecting mastery learning.

Now comes the hard part....planning.  I would start with one unit at a time.  Maybe not all of your units will work using this type of model.  I started with my minerals unit which I am very passionate about.  I used a menu type plan which I called Menu O' Minerals.
Everything in the Appetizer category must be done.  These are mostly teacher directed activities.  In my case it was mostly notes and a reading activity using a thinking map.  The main course has different expectations.  I kept one mandatory activity in this section called mineral ID lab.  After they finished this lab they were required to complete 4 other activities and then take a test.  If they passed the test they earned a grade of a 3, which is "meeting standards" in our district. If they did not pass they did two more activities and retested. Students who had passed the test then had a choice to do two additional projects (dessert) to earn a 4, which is an exceeding score.  The difficultly lies in choosing activities that motivate and move students to a deeper understanding of the topic, and at the same time, managing a myriad of projects at once.

My initial thought was that students would stop when they passed the test, but miraculously this was not the case.  Most students passed the test and went on to complete the final projects.  In fact, when asked what their favorite topic in science was for the first semester, a majority of students chose minerals.  This may be the answer to the "inch deep and mile wide" teaching  that is so prevalent in most science classrooms today.  In any case, the benefits of increased motivation, higher grades, and deeper understanding far outweigh any planning obstacles.  In fact, mastery learning could be modified to fit any grade level or content area.


penny said...

I also used Mastery Learning to teach science and math. I felt it was more honest and upfront with my students. I love the menu idea you present, well done! And if it doesn't work for eah unit that is okay, keeps this experience fresh.
I can see your planning increase, but your ability to conference or work one-on-one also must increase and that would be tremendously satisfying I would think.

Akevy Greenblatt said...

Thanks for posting
Yes Mastery Learning is very powerful. I also had a experience when students were given a project and they truly spent their time productively and when time was up they didn't want to stop until they had it finished and done right.

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