Classroom Strategies

Creating and Implementing Mastery-Based Assignments

This is the third blog post in my Mastery-Based Grading series. The first post, My Journey to Mastery-Based Grading talks about the why’s and a little bit of the how’s, and the second post, Tracking Data in Mastery-Based Grading discusses how I keep track of student data.

Many have asked about example Mastery Tasks, and what this looks like in my classroom. I’ll be entirely honest that this post is a little intimidating to write, knowing I’m not the only one who does Mastery-Based Grading, and I still have a lot to learn. But, you know what, that’s the best part! I model a growth mindset for my students in that I am always learning and finding ways to improve.

Day-to-day in the Classroom

Our day-to-day doesn’t look too much different than it did before. However, I am more focused on the end product as we do lessons, labs, and activities. In my first post, I detail the overall Mastery-Based workflow in classroom instruction.

Since I don’t grade anything other than Mastery Tasks, many have asked how I hold my students accountable for their classwork and homework. For homework, that’s easy–I don’t assign homework (except on the very rare “if you don’t finish it in class, it’s homework!”). For classwork, I do a mix of stamping and checking work before students can leave. Even the prospect of being dismissed 30 seconds after their friends is enough to motivate students to get work completed correctly before the bell. Additionally, after a while, most students realize that what we do in class is directly related to our Mastery Tasks, and therefore will benefit them.

Playing “Oh Deer!” in science, in preparation for a mastery task!

If you’re thinking, “this will never work for my students/my school!” please stop for a moment to reconsider. My school is one of the lowest performing in our district, we have attendance and behavior challenges, and parent engagement is almost non-existent. But. My students work hard, because I believe in them and we have created a classroom community where they are safe and supported. I rarely have behavior challenges in class, simply because my students believe they can succeed.

Planning for Mastery Tasks

With my PLC, we start with our Next Generation Science Standards, and try to distill down exactly what my students need to know and do. The Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices guide us to the “how” of mastery. Since writing Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) paragraphs is one of our essential skills in science, many of the Mastery Tasks have students write a CER based on a lab or activity. Other Mastery Tasks are videos, lab reports (usually using Google Slides), or digital/analog creations such as comic strips or mini posters.

The rest of my 7th grade science PLC has not implemented Mastery-Based Grading…yet! They are interested, and are hoping to introduce it next school year. The 8th grade science teachers are using it, so thankfully I’m not entirely alone.

That being said, many of my Mastery Tasks are still common assessments, even though they are graded slightly differently.

Example Mastery Task

Below is a screenshot of a Mastery Task on Google Classroom. Attached to the assignment are instructions, the Doc students will edit, and sentence frames to support struggling students (provided on the day of the lesson to specific students, then added to the assignment later to help students with revisions).

Screenshot of a mastery task on Google Classroom

Students did a lab on the Law of Conservation of Mass, where they mix baking soda and vinegar in a flask with a balloon over the top. This lab was glued in students interactive notebooks, and students wrote the first draft of their CER in their notebooks.

Then, students traded notebooks with a partner, and used 3 colors to underline the claim, evidence, and reasoning. They also identified how their partner did based on the rubric. This was both an informal assessment of the partner’s CER and of the grading student’s ability to identify claim, evidence, and reasoning. When students received their notebooks back, they then went to Google Classroom and typed their CER into the Mastery Task Google Doc.

This Mastery Task came about a week after another CER on chemical reactions, where almost every student initially earned an In Progress grade. This led us to add in the additional draft, peer feedback, and finally their Mastery Task draft.

I love mixing in analog projects as well, such as One Pagers and 11×17 mini posters. While watching “The Lorax” movie, students analyzed it for how humans impact ecosystems and created a One Pager based on what they learned. You’ll notice there’s a spot in the corner for a stamp. This allows me to check the One Pager in class and stamp it. Then, students take a picture and submit it to the Mastery Task. If I see a stamp, I know it’s automatically Mastery. If there isn’t a stamp, then I know I need to check it (zoom in a bit, usually), and provide feedback either way.

The Lorax one pager, student example

Some Mastery Tasks are entirely skill-based. I have chosen to include notebook checks as Mastery Tasks because my students are working on their organization skills. They self-check their notebooks and answer a few reflection questions, then turn in pictures of both. I know some teachers may disagree with this, but it’s what works for me and my students.

Each 18 week semester comes down to about 20 Mastery Tasks. It’s not always one per week. Some weeks have none, while others have two.

Advice for getting started

Don’t be afraid to jump in and try! Use an assessment you already have, add a mastery rubric, ask students to complete the assignment, provide feedback, and allow them unlimited opportunities to revise and resubmit their work. Take it one step further by asking students for feedback on how to improve the assignment, and what lessons or activities were helpful in preparing them for the mastery task.

As I said in my first post, one of my next big steps is using One-Point Rubrics, simplifying the feedback process, and allowing me to give more targeted and individualized feedback. I love that I can grow as a teacher as my kids grow as students!

What was do you use to assess mastery in your classroom?

Classroom Strategies

My Journey to Mastery-Based Grading

There are many grading methodologies out there, and I’m sharing what is working for myself and my group of students. Remember, we are all working to do what is best for our students!

The problem:

A few years ago, I switched from a traditional points-based grading scale to standards-based grading. Our district had recently adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and a couple of us realized we needed to adapt our grading practices to better meet our students’ learning needs. Standards-based grading went just fine because students were accustomed to the 4-3-2-1 grading scale from elementary school. What was factored into their final grades was only standards-aligned assessments.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable with standards-based grading. Our online gradebook worked off a traditional platform, and I still needed to report a letter grade on progress reports and report cards.

An even greater issue was that my students would turn in anything in order to make their missing assignments disappear. They would turn in half-finished work just to get their parents and teachers off their backs for the red “missing” next to an assignment. (Honestly, the parents were conditioned to coerce their student to do anything to get rid of “missing assignments” too!)

Science 7 students building molecules and writing chemical formulas as part of a Mastery Task.

With standards-based grading, I’d give my students thorough feedback, ask them to resubmit their work, and even provided time in class for revisions. But, hardly any students took advantage of this! They saw a grade, and stopped there.

I knew I had to make a change.

Trying out Mastery-Based Grading:

I got hooked on the idea of mastery-based grading after playing around with Badge List, and online badging platform that allows me to issue microcredentials for mastery of a subject or skill. I decided to try it out with my students last year. At first there was some confusion for how to submit work, but students quickly got over that, and learned to read through their feedback, then resubmit.

This year, I ultimately decided to switch to Google Classroom to stay consistent with other teachers at my school.

Benefits to my students:

Almost immediately, I noticed a fundamental shift in how my students approached both classwork and “Mastery Tasks.” When students didn’t earn a “Mastery” grade on a Mastery Task, they willingly went back to work to make revisions and resubmit their work.

They adopted a growth mindset without much external encouragement!

And, I saw some of my struggling students working even harder, knowing that it wasn’t too late to prove that they had mastered our science content. By the end of the semester, I saw my students believing in themselves and their academic abilities!

Additionally, I found it much easier to make accommodations for students. It was easy to hand a student some extra sentence frames or a cloze paragraph template or allow students to pick a different way to show mastery. Some of my students with IEPs rose to the top because finally they were being assessed against their current abilities, rather than one set standard for the whole class.

As for the students who would submit anything just to have that “missing” disappear. They quickly learned that an “In Progress” grade showed up in red too!

About 2/3 of the way through the spring 2017 semester, I received multiple emails from an angry parent wondering why her son was not passing science. “He turned in all his work!” she kept saying–it took both myself and our Community Relations Facilitator to show her that her son was turning in work far below his ability level, receiving detailed feedback (each time with the date of feedback), and making only minimal changes with each revision. Suddenly, her son began turning in work at his ability level, and I didn’t hear any more from her!

How Mastery-Based Grading is implemented in my classroom:

I use Google Classroom to push out Mastery Tasks to my students. They are all enrolled in the “Mastery Tasks” class and then each class period is in their own “Science 7” class. The only thing posted in the Mastery Tasks class is Mastery Tasks. The Science 7 class is used for announcements, period-specific assignments, and classwork.

Science 7 students working on a lab in preparation to write a CER on chemical reactions for their Mastery Task.

Just as with standards-based grading, each Mastery Task addresses one standard. Some larger standards are separated into multiple assessments.

Additionally, we have a heavy focus on skills (Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) writing, analyzing graphs, and organization)

The general workflow is as follows:

  1. Classwork, including direct instruction, station work, activities, and labs.
  2. Students work on and submit their Mastery Task in class. Mastery-Tasks can include CER paragraphs, videos, pictures of work in their interactive notebook, Socratic Seminar discussions, Slides presentations, etc.
  3. I review students’ work and provide detailed feedback. On Google Classroom, a Mastery = 1 point, and an In Progress = 0 points. Please note, this is not a point value, but rather a binary on/off for mastery.
    1. If students earn a “Mastery (M)” grade, they don’t need to do anything else.
    2. If students earn an “In Progress (IP)” grade, they use the feedback to revise and resubmit their work. Sometimes this takes multiple cycles before they finally achieve mastery.


Mastery Workflow
My Mastery-Based Grading workflow.

In the gradebook, I report M for Mastery, IP for In Progress, and / for Missing. These are set to “info only” rather than point values.

Students are able to calculate their current grade with the following formula: A = 0 In Progress or missing | B = 1 In Progress or missing | C = 2 In Progress or missing | F = 3+ In Progress or missing.

As the semester goes on and we end up with 18-20 Mastery Tasks, I expand the B and C ranges to be 2-3 and 4-5 respectively.

Next steps:

As a teacher, I’m always learning! My students recognize this, and respond back with loads of empathy as I try new things. They readily give me feedback to help us improve our class.

As I grow with Mastery-Based Grading, here are two of my goals:

  1. Use more effective and regular student self-feedback and peer feedback before students turn in a Mastery Task. (Got an example? I’d love to see it!)
  2. Try out Single-Point Rubrics. I’ve used 4-3-2-1 to be consistent with department and district rubrics, and switched over other assignments to a simple Mastery/In Progress rubric. Single-Point Rubrics seem to be everything I am trying to do. Thanks Ben Kovacs for the nudge!

How do your grading practices seek out the best in your students? I’d love to get some new ideas to push me further!

Love this post, here’s how I track data & create Mastery-Tasks (coming soon!).