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In this episode, we are back with an update on how mastery-based learning is going in our classrooms. We are now a couple of weeks into the semester, and thought it was a good time to share what’s working, the challenges, and how we have been changing our approach.

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bitmoji of Rachel and Katie smiling and chatting while drinking a cup of tea.

Show Notes

This week, we are chatting a bit about mastery-based learning. It’s been a little while since we discussed this topic, and so we figured that since we have started to implement it in our classrooms, now would be a good time to share our progress so far.

Rachel has started implementation of mastery in her science courses. Katie and her team are just finishing up some language diagnostics, but a lot of changes have been implemented already to prepare for mastery. With that in mind, we thought it was worth sharing what we have learned so far since it has been such a steep learning curve.

Despite the steep (very steep!) learning curve, the changes are worth it! Rachel loves what she is seeing, and how students are engaging. This style of classroom has already created a classroom culture where the grading conversations aren’t happening! Instead, she has repeatedly stressed that the focus is on learning, and that the grades are not what ultimately matters.

Already, it has really helped students to focus more on the learning, and engaging with the curriculum.

Getting to Know the Students

For Katie, a lot of what they have learned so far with their mastery-ESL has been focused on teacher development. The team has sat down and really looked at the diagnostics, checking it against the latest language reports, and seeing where students are at in each of the individual strands of language: speaking/listening, reading, and writing.

By verifying the English proficiency level of each strand, we have been able to show students what levels they are at, and what they are working towards, and it has felt so much more intentional and productive. The one-size-fits-all approach of the past wasn’t working.

It goes back to the conversations we have had in the past about not looking back on past grades, and trying to look past our biases and focus on the student in front of us. It ultimately doesn’t matter how they did in their last year’s courses. Instead, we are able to get so much more information about where they are at, what supports/scaffolds that they need, etc. This individual student data is so much more apparent in this style of classroom.

In our Board, we have not been able to look up past marks due to transitioning to a new student information system (SIS). And the attendance is more complicated in this new system as well, so the default doesn’t show us what course code they are in, which was important in ESL classrooms where the levels are all mixed A through E. It forced teachers to focus on the student in front of them and the skills they are able to demonstrate.

We are really learning who our students are and what they know – a whole student approach.

Rachel has just recently begun teaching ESL science – which is such an exciting change! She has been working hard and making changes as needed based on the learners in her classroom and the language needs.

Being open to shifting and making changes is such an important mindset in a mastery classroom.

Student Engagement

Another positive outcome in a mastery classroom is that students are engaging across language and culture groups, and those with more language are naturally supporting those peers that are not as far along in their language journey. It has been a lot of fun to watch! This is happening in both Katie’s ESL classes, as well as Rachel’s ESL science class. It’s even happening in Rachel’s other courses too!

The level of engagement has been a great outcome so far. Students may not always be successful after a first mastery attempt, but they are going back, rewatching videos, asking questions and really putting in the effort to further their learning. Students are even working together to support and quiz one another!

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel standing around a water cooler. Text: Let's discuss

Mastery checks – Digital vs Paper

While it may sound controversial, Rachel has discovered that she despises digital mastery checks. She tried them out during the first few weeks – here are some of the reasons why she did not like them:

  1. Formal Process
    • With mastery being digital, some students would try to skip all the learning and go straight to the mastery check. Paper made the process a little more formal, and students were compelled to work their way through the lessons before attempting the mastery.
  2. Tracking
    • Digital mastery checks can be very difficult to track for the teacher. You have to navigate to wherever the digital file is stored, find the student and their submission, etc. Digital submissions get messy quickly, so paper makes it easier! As soon as students are done, they can hand it in, you can see and mark it, and feedback is accomplished more quickly
    • Using coloured paper for mastery checks is a great way to keep the teacher aware of what students are working on. Each lesson can have a different colour, which helps the teacher to sort and assess the work. These colours could then translate to the tracker you are using so that it’s all colour coordinated and easy to follow.
  3. Translations
    • While it is okay for students to translate content sometimes, our ultimate goal in ESL programming is to develop English skills. If students are able to easily translate the mastery checks, and their answers, it is very difficult to figure out if students are actually building the English skills! Even in an ESL science course, language development is still an important aspect to the course, and students need to focus on the language learning while learning content.

Progress Trackers

While Katie still feels lost in the world of trackers, Rachel has many opinions!

Last year, while doing coaching work, Rachel worked with teachers in creating a student-led tracker that students could see all of the tasks, and could edit their progress; they could indicate if they are working on it, revising it, or they’ve finished it. This tracker had a lot of success, and it seemed to minimize the work of the teacher.

Rachel decided to go ahead and implement this tracker with her own classes this year. After the first week, she discovered that she ended up creating her own little spreadsheet tracker to see where students were at – this seemed silly.

So, she went to the Modern Classrooms Project website, and made a copy of their auto-updating pacing tracker. There are so many different formulas built in, and when it breaks it can be challenging to fix. However, you can put in each of your students, the lessons, the classifications, etc. The teacher then has a sheet where they can mark off an ‘x’ for mastered, ‘r’ for revising, or ‘o’ for optional. It then auto-populates a bunch of tabs.

Rachel takes the simpler tracker, and posts that to the web. This public tracker, and actually putting it up at the beginning of class, it tends to keep students motivated!

Katie’s struggle is how to use a tracker when teachers are co-teaching students. Students are divided on the attendance into classes, however the goal is to get students working in groups with the different teachers based on teacher strengths. It’s tempting to use a single tracker, however there’s a lot of students for one tracker. It seems to make the most sense to keep the trackers based on the attendance list – this way students can see where they are at, and what they need to work on at the beginning of class, and then they can go and work with their different groups as needed.

Building Resources

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel with cheerleader pompoms, jumping in the air and smiling. Text: T-E-A-M  W-O-R-K

One of the biggest challenges has been the time required to create resources. There’s a desire to create slides that have images, animations, variety of fonts, etc. This takes a lot of time! It is so overwhelming.

If working as a team – use one another! Divide things up so that each person is responsible for creating lessons, and don’t try to do it all yourself.

The building and development of resources is by far the biggest challenge in implementing a mastery-based classroom. This will (hopefully) be the most difficult part of this year. However, once these resources are made, it should get a little bit easier.

Rachel is developing one of the courses on her own, which comes with challenges. However, she has been doing a flipped classroom for a while now, so many of her videos have already been created; she just has to create a few, or edit as needed to fit a mastery classroom.

Once the first year has been created, you just tweak and make changes as needed. Having a bank of resources to start with makes such a big difference! Use quizzes, assignments and tests that you have used in the past in order to build your mastery checks. There is no reason why you need to reinvent everything!


Rachel heard about this idea of a template on a podcast recently, and created one for herself. This lesson template slide deck can be used for each lesson! She uses this template as a set of instructions for each lesson, similar to a hyperdoc. She simply makes a copy of the slide deck, and pops in all of the information for that particular lesson.

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel smiling. multicoloured text: SMART!

This template includes a title slide for the lesson number and title, as well as the learning goals. From there, she has a slide for vocabulary, and then the various tasks for students to complete. It’s also colour-coded for ease of navigation.

This has been a great way to keep all of the lessons and activities organized for her students. It has also reduced the amount of thinking that she has had to do.

Another option is to build a notebook style slide deck template that can be copied for each student, and even individualized based on their individual needs or scaffolds.

It’s also worth considering setting up a template for mastery checks as well. It is a much easier way to stay organized for the teacher!

Overall, even though we aren’t very far into the semester, we are very happy with the changes that are happening in our classrooms already! Giving students more control over their learning, and reducing the grade conversations has been such a powerful change. This model naturally builds in an aspect of intrinsic motivation.

Mastery-based learning also gives all of our students a chance to be successful and to more effectively develop skills. With this in mind, it will very likely lead to higher overall grades, which is always something that is important to students and families, and to some extent the teacher too. While it’s a lot of work, it’s worth it for the end product: student learning and achievement.

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