Mastery-based grading: from minimum mindset to a growth mindset

Understanding mastery-based grading graphic

As educators, we know that students don’t all learn at the same pace. They come with a variety of academic and social and emotional learning needs. Plus, there may be learning gaps that we need to address. While differentiated and personalized instruction are solutions, mastery-based grading can also give learners the support they need.

What is mastery-based grading?

Mastery-based grading is a system for assessing students while promoting deeper learning. Instead of earning a certain score or letter grade and moving on to a new curriculum, mastery-based grading gives learners the time and flexibility to focus on mastering a standard. 

Learners don’t transition to a new skill or standard until they can show mastery of the current one. Instead of the entire class moving on to a new lesson or unit, students learn at their own pace. They get several attempts to show mastery, and unsuccessful attempts do not count against them. 

Research suggests that when mastery-based grading is done well, it sets learners up to retain skills. As a result, teachers don’t need to spend as much time bridging learning gaps when they head into a new school year.

How does mastery-based grading encourage a mindset shift?

How many times have learners asked you about the minimum grade they need to pass a test or the class? Students ask this question because they are working with a minimum mindset. Instead, they need a growth mindset to help them feel comfortable tackling challenges. So how do you transition them to a growth mindset?

One way to help learners build a growth mindset is through mastery-based grading. In this grading system, student choice reigns, giving learners: 

  • the flexibility to choose how they demonstrate mastery
  • the chance to attempt mastery as many times as necessary 

This helps learners:

  • be self-aware and understand their own abilities
  • figure out when they need to ask for help
  • be comfortable not succeeding at first and trying again

Next, we’ll take a look at how to make the switch to mastery-based grading and its benefits for learners.

How do you implement mastery-based grading?

Break down learning targets

It is crucial to know your destination to effectively approach your plan of action. Good luck getting in your car and driving to a brand new destination without typing the address in Google Maps! The same concept applies to the path learners need to take to succeed.

It all starts with understanding what it means to achieve mastery. Breaking down the standards into learning targets makes goals clearer and more attainable for students. 

Often learners will grab on to broad concepts from a unit without fully understanding the specific standards or what it means to successfully demonstrate mastery. This lack of understanding can lead to frustration and increased remediation time as learners fall further behind. 

Instead, ask students to collaborate to create learning targets. At the beginning of each unit, have students work in groups to put standards into their own words. Afterwards, ask the class to come together and share their ideas. Then work together to create one student-friendly class set of standards adapted into learning targets. 

Developing these shared understandings is the first step in transforming your grading system because you’ll have buy-in from learners.

Use single-point rubrics

One way to support learner understanding is to spend the time creating a single-point rubric for each standard. The rubric will explain each element learners must demonstrate to accomplish mastery, with a label that says “meets expectations.” 

This explanation makes creating a rubric easier and simpler to understand because any work that does not meet that criteria is considered “below expectations.” Anything that goes above and beyond what is outlined in the rubric “exceeds expectations.” 

To avoid confusion, make sure that your rubric only includes the elements from the standard and not extras like “grammar” or “spelling” that are not explicitly outlined in the standard. 

Hāpara Workspace makes it simple to digitally share mastery-based learning rubrics with students, alongside activities, lessons or units.

Educators can add a single-point rubric to their Workspace rubric column. Then learners will be able to access it digitally any time as they are working in a school or at home. Not only does it provide clarity for learners, but it also saves a teacher’s most precious resource . . . time!

Below is an example of a single-point rubric for sixth-grade language arts. If learners master the standard, you’ll select “Meets expectations” or “Exceeds expectations.” If they have not mastered the standard yet, you’ll select “Does not meet” and give learners more time to achieve the skill before they move on. 

Teachers can use Workspace to efficiently give differentiated or personalized instruction if learners need more time. In Workspace, educators can access thousands of activities and lessons and quickly share them with a group or an individual student. In addition, it makes it much easier for educators to support mastery-based grading and learners’ unique needs.

Does not meet Meets expectations Exceeds expectations
Learners do not meet expectations if they are not able to demonstrate the learning targets outlined in the “meets expectations” column.

Learners meet expectations on the standard if they are able to demonstrate the following through various methods. 

Standard RL.6.2:
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments. 

Learning target:
I am able to identify a theme based on evidence from the text. I am able to give specific details and evidence from the text to support the theme I identified. I am able to give a summary of the text in my own words based only on information from the text.

Learners exceed expectations if they are able to demonstrate the learning targets outlined in the “meets expectations” column and are able to apply their learning to real-world situations.

What are the results of mastery-based grading systems?

Mastery not minimum

As mentioned, one important development of mastery-based grading is that learners will stop the “minimum grade” mindset that often keeps them from developing a deeper understanding of the material. Instead, they will transition into a true growth mindset. 

With the new grading system, learners will also stop placing so much emphasis on the letter or number that appears on their report card. As a result, they will spend their energy zoned in on leveling up their learning based on the mastery rubrics they receive for each standard. 

A tool that supports the transition to a growth mindset is Hāpara Teacher Dashboard. It provides visibility into learner work, allowing teachers to give timely, actionable feedback. As learners complete their assignments, they can use the feedback from their teacher to reflect on and improve their work. Learners ultimately become more active and engaged in their success, and more likely to achieve mastery. 

Authentic learning

Mastery-based learning also lends itself to project-based learning because students are given the choice to demonstrate mastery in a way that fits their learning style and interests. Teachers can be more prescriptive in guiding learners on a personalized learning journey, which helps students dial in on their strengths and weaknesses. 

One way to achieve this is to build or find a Workspace with a playlist of real-world problems or challenges aligned to the unit. Educators can then curate content within each Workspace and create personalized resources for individual learners or groups. 

The curated content can include videos, reading materials, edtech games, teacher-created lecture screencasts or other digital resources. Workspace gives students the flexibility and transparency to access materials at all times. In conjunction with the single-point rubric, learners have the freedom to develop artifacts that demonstrate true mastery of the standard and even build an impressive student portfolio.

District Leader one page guide

Workspace enables students to work at their own pace and helps teachers meet every learners ‘unique needs.

Student agency

A mastery-based grading system is only successful when students are the drivers of their own learning. When students take ownership of their learning, it gives them a greater understanding of how they learn and why they learn. 

Learners should work on developing solid executive functioning skills so they can manage their digital environment and track their progress. 

They don’t arrive at school with the innate ability to successfully manage their work. Without proper guidance, the absence of executive functioning skills can become a point of frustration for learners and a barrier to success. 

A tool like Hāpara Student Dashboard, though, helps them be successful so they can work on mastering standards. It allows learners to develop executive functioning skills while taking control of their learning.

Student Dashboard brings together everything students need for learning so they can stay organized and manage their time. In one hub, they can access Google Classroom assignments, Workspace, Google Drive files, email and announcements. It also gives students flexibility in how they want to view and filter their resources.

For learners to thrive in a mastery-based grading environment, they must have true agency over their learning and develop a growth mindset. Hāpara tools help educators support learners throughout each step of mastery-based grading and create deeper learning experiences.

The #1 K12 Chromebook Monitoring Software | Hāpara Highlights example (classroom management software)

To learn more about how Hāpara powers awesome learning, sign up for a free demonstration with a Hāpara team member.

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