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mastery based learning
In a mastery-based fourth-grade math classroom, students review concepts until they learn them, regardless of how long it takes. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

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In Molly Nealeigh’s fourth-grade math classroom at Piney Grove Elementary School in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, students spend most of the time studying at their own pace on skills they identify that they need to improve.

Every 12 weeks during the school year, students here take assessments to gauge their progress toward mastering all of the standards in the fourth-grade curriculum. While all students take these tests, Nealeigh’s pay more attention to the results than average. For her fourth graders, the test results offer a picture of their strengths and weaknesses, revealing specific skills they need to sharpen.

Nealeigh helps them glean this understanding. She makes a chart, listing each test question under the standard it relates to (like “use place value understanding to round multi-digit whole numbers to any place”). Students calculate a percentage for each standard based on how many related questions they got right or wrong. When students get 80 to 100 percent of questions related to a given standard correct, Nealeigh considers that mastery, and the students don’t have to do any review. Less than that and students either have to work on the skills by themselves or, if they got fewer than 60 percent of the questions correct, with a teacher.

“The mindset is ‘Give students their own data and let them choose what to work on themselves,’” Nealeigh said.

Nealeigh’s classroom uses mastery-based learning, where student skill acquisition is the priority. More traditional classrooms proceed through a curriculum based on class time. One day is spent teaching one skill to the entire class, for example, and the next day, the teacher moves on. Students who miss something do poorly on the next test, and everyone charges ahead. In Nealeigh’s classroom, students keep going back to a given topic if they don’t quite understand it, proceeding only once they’ve mastered the related skills.

Because she has a two-hour math block in her school, Nealeigh said she teaches new content every day for the first 45 minutes and then students are free to work on their own for the remainder of the period. She created online “pathways” for each standard in the fourth-grade math curriculum and students decide every Monday which pathways they’re going to tackle that week. Once they work through the pathway, watching videos and practicing problems to learn the skill, they take a quiz. If they pass it, they can move on.

Related: A school where you can’t fail – it just takes you longer to learn

She said students got so absorbed with completing their pathways last year that they worked on them at home, during school breaks and even into summer vacation. Nealeigh recorded one of her students explaining his thoughts on the new system and he described a sense of empowerment at being able to choose which pathway to try on any given day. He liked the freedom to move at his own pace, whether it takes a day, a week or more.

“The mindset is ‘Give students their own data and let them choose what to work on themselves.’”

Nealeigh, meanwhile, gets more time during her two-hour class to pull aside small groups of students who are struggling to master certain standards and give them a more intensive lesson.

Nealeigh saw such impressive results with her students in just one year that other teachers are already beginning to implement her system in the high-poverty school. Third- and fifth-grade teams are working together to create pathways for all the standards covered in their curricula as well.

For teachers who don’t have the luxury of two-hour blocks, Nealeigh said the system could still work. She recommends spending a couple days per week teaching new material and giving students the rest of the week to work on pathways individually.

For teachers who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of a radical shift, Nealeigh recommends taking small steps.

Romain Bertrand helped Nealeigh design her system last year. He is the manager of blended and personalized learning coaching for BetterLesson, a company that offers teacher coaching and curriculum resources. He said teachers shouldn’t feel obligated to do all or nothing when it comes to mastery-based learning.

“If students have full awareness of what their testing data means, if they can say ‘Oh I need to work on this, I could get better at this’ – even if you’re not building out other things, they’re self-advocates,” Bertrand said, referring to teachers who help students use test results to understand what skills they need to sharpen but don’t create self-paced pathways or other elements of a mastery-based system. “In other classes, they’re in the dark. If someone is able to go halfway, it’s already huge.”

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