Mastery My Way

I really want to try mastery in my biology classroom. Based on my previous post, I think there are a lot of benefits and it will help students develop 21st century learning skills. However, I will have to make some serious modifications to tailor it to the needs of my students and to make it work with the IB program. And I still have tons of questions. Below I describe my initial thoughts. Keep in mind I haven’t actually tried it yet!

1. Every student must master the whole course.
In some mastery courses, students may get to the end of the year and have run out of time to complete all the units. There are teachers who feel comfortable with that. I do not. I have to find a way to make this work so that all students can be successful on the whole course within the time frame. In April they have to write a final exam worth 30% of their grade and there is no way I am making 20 individual exams based on where each student is the course. That’s just impractical. Also at the end of 2 years they have to write the same exam as everyone else in the whole world that is worth 76% of their grade. Luckily my students are motivated enough that I don’t really see this being a problem. And I have a small class size too. If it means a few remedial sessions after school or on weekends for those who need it, then so be it.

2. Mastery will be done within each unit within the time frame allotted.
It has to be this way at my school for lab and assessment purposes. We only have limited equipment for labs so I can’t still be using the gas pressure sensors if it’s the chemistry teacher’s week to use them. Also we have an assessment calendar between departments so that a major English essay isn’t due the same week as a biology lab. So here’s how I think it will have to work. Students will have a maximum of x amount of weeks to complete a unit. They will then all sit the unit test on the same day. The students who need the most support to master the content work on that unit for the whole time. Possibly not every student will master every single concept within the unit. But I imagine that if I time things correctly, they should ALL be able to master at least 80% minimum. The students that get it right away cannot move on to the next unit yet. Instead they can either complete enrichment activities within the unit OR they are free to work on other course work from different subjects. As long as they are learning and actively engaged, it’s ok with me. I will have to stay on top of them to make sure they are using their time wisely.

3. Some activities will be required and must be completed within a certain order
In order to ensure that inquiry is still at the heart of my class and that I can use the learning cycle in the way that I want, students will have a plan that they will have to follow. The plan will be FULL of choice and learning opportunities. But there will be some required activities that they must do.
(a) The first of these will be the “explore” activities. For example, let’s say they are learning about the properties of water. They must start with the P.O.E activity where they do some hands-on experiments and try to explain their observations. After they have completed this required inquiry activity, they can then CHOOSE how they want to learn about the properties they have observed and can then construct their own knowledge. They can then take the formative quiz, demonstrating their mastery (or not) and move on (or not).
(b) They will also have lab reports that have to be completed. This is because part of their grade is based on very specific lab reports that are externally moderated. Therefore, these assignments must be submitted where necessary. I think I will allow multiple submissions though just like for the quizzes as these lab reports in the first year of IB are really quite formative.

4. I will have students create digital portfolios. I am going to use Kelly’s idea of unit plans (with checklists, deadlines, learning opportunities listed) and a weekly calendar to guide students through the learning process. All of this will be available on the class MOODLE. Every day they will come to class and start the first 5-10 minutes by writing their goals for the day in their portfolio. They will use their portfolios to record their learning – answers to practice questions, reflections etc… I will check their portfolios as often as I can during the unit. I think will also assign some kind of grade for the portfolios as well. But I’m not sure about that yet…I have to read through this document (Digital Portfolios Guidelines) more carefully to get a full grasp on how this can work. I also somehow want to see if there is a way to sync an eportfolio (such as Mahara) to MOODLE. Another thing to discuss with the LTT department at school.

Specific details I will still have to work out:

a) What defines “mastery” of a topic? 80% on a quiz?
b) What activities will I use as “learning opportunities” for each topic? I have loads already, but I will have to design/find more for some topics where I’ve mostly relied on lecture.
c) How will I break down the units into sections that must be mastered? By assessment statements?
d) How will I gauge the success of this endeavour? I only teach one grade 11 bio class and even if I had two, it would be unfair for one to use this model and the other to be the control group!
e) How will I explain this to students, parents, and administrators? I need to work out an effective way of introducing the idea and convincing a set of very traditional people that it could work.
f) How will I model self-directed learning for the students? I can’t just throw them into this – they are totally not used to it and might find it hard at first. I need to find a way to show them HOW to do it.

I’ve probably overlooked several things that I won’t think of until I actually start planning the course, but this is what I’ve got for now. I realize it’s not “pure” mastery – maybe it’s just more differentiated instruction than anything else. But I think I’ve taken from the model what works for me and it’s still a significant improvement over what I’ve been doing in the past. The key thing is that I am still providing opportunities for diverse learners, an inquiry based and constructivist approach, immediate formative feedback and self-directed learning.

If there are any other IB biology teachers out there using a model similar to this, please get in touch! I’m interested to know how it’s working for you.

Next blog post…Layering the Curriculum: Point/Counterpoint

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