teacher standing with hand on hip in front of a whiteboard and behind a table; a handful of students are sitting at the table
May 04, 2023

Understanding the “Why” of School Change

Using action research to help students make sense of Competency-Based Mastery Learning at Miss Porter’s School
by Nelle Andrews
A post from the Tang Action Research Program*
Context & Background

The last few years at Miss Porter’s School have been marked by major changes: developments in our programming, updates to our curriculum design, modifications to our schedule, and most significantly, a shift to a mastery learning model for assessment and reporting. This approach focuses on helping students to “master” specific learning outcomes so that they can meaningfully transfer and apply their knowledge and skills to new situations, problems, or conditions, and it involves a continuous cycle of learning, feedback, application, reflection, and evidence of growth. These changes were in motion long before the pandemic—but instead of disrupting our work, the global crisis propelled our institution forward with even more confidence in our vision to more effectively educate young women to become bold, resourceful, and ethical global citizens.

We have modified our approach to curriculum design and academic programming to ensure that our students have opportunities to develop the interdisciplinary skills they need to navigate an ever-changing world — a priority highlighted in our school’s mission. Changing our approach to teaching and learning has significantly shifted our assessment and reporting practices. We have transitioned from subject-specific standards-based assessment to a school-wide competency-based approach rooted in mastery learning. This means that our students are working to demonstrate and master a body of skills within 5 cross-disciplinary competencies: Critical Thinking & Reasoning, Problem Solving & Creativity, Global and Civic Engagement, Leadership & Collaboration, and Communication & Expression.

Although these changes to our programming and practices are intentional, valuable, and meaningful, they have required a shift in mindsets for both teachers and students. While teachers have been focusing on modifying and aligning course materials accordingly, our students have been most concerned about their grades. This, of course, is not really all that surprising. For most of us, grades have served as measures of success, indicators of intelligence, and pathways to future opportunities. But grades really don’t tell us that much about a student as a whole learner. In fact, at most institutions, grading processes can vary dramatically by course and by teacher, and there are often inequities and biases built into the process; grades can be based on effort, behavior, tardiness, etc. rather than skill and application of content. Instead of authentic presentations, performances, or project-based demonstrations of learning, student skills are measured by formal tests and exams, which often require little more than a regurgitation of memorized knowledge. These traditional measures of content can be very stressful for students, and some may even lose interest in learning as a result.

With a desire to reduce stress for new students and give them time to adjust to our school culture and programming, we removed traditional grade reporting for our 9th graders as of the 2021-2022 school year. Instead of receiving an A, B+, etc. as a final grade for a course, our 9th grade students receive a summary mastery rating for each competency (Advanced, Proficient, or Developing).

With the support of the Tang Institute Action Research Program, I decided to investigate the 9th and 10th grade student experience with different grading/reporting systems. The current 9th graders are our second cohort to use standards and competencies. The current 10th graders were the first to experience this change, and they are now in classes that are converting competencies to traditional letter grades at the end of a course. I wanted to better understand how students are making sense of our feedback, assessment and reporting system, and determine how to improve their understanding of our mastery learning approach.

Research Steps & Findings

Most students entering Miss Porter’s come from schools which use traditional grading and are completely new to the practice of using standards and competencies for assessment. This past October, I and our chief academic officer, Tim Quinn, surveyed 9th graders who were just starting their year in the new assessment system. We also surveyed the 10th graders who had experienced both competency based and traditional grade reporting. To better understand the students’ backgrounds, we asked them about their experiences with grading and feedback at previous schools and about how they thought grades had impacted their learning. A large number of survey responses indicated that grades had been a source of stress, (71% for 10th graders and 86% for 9th graders), but many students also noted that grades had been a source of motivation for them as well.

When they were asked about how grades affect their learning, their responses were quite varied. Some stated that traditional letter/number grades are “very systematic” and “accurate,” and they believed that “seeing my results in numbers or letters helped me know what I could do better the next day.” Others mentioned that it was “stressful to get something wrong,” and “it only helped me learn when I studied a lot for a test but that contributed to stress and no sleep.” One student noted, “It motivated me to work harder because I had a goal and that goal was to get good grades.”

When students were asked about how they are feeling so far about receiving standards ratings instead of grades in 9th grade at Miss Porter's, their responses were mixed. Comments ranged from statements such as, “I like the way Porters grades things. I get a lot of feedback and it is a lot less stressful than having percentages,” to “I feel a little more pressured because it's out of no evidence or mastery and it's stressful when you don't know what your daily grade is…I prefer the letter grades because it makes me want to work harder and it overall describes how I am in class.” Survey results confirmed that student perceptions of grades and their value influence several aspects of the student experience (motivation, sleep, identity, stress, etc.), but more importantly, they revealed dramatically different levels of understanding about the purpose behind our reporting practices.

To better understand the gaps in student knowledge in our system, we set up focus groups with our 9th and 10th graders. In the focus groups, students’ comments revealed inconsistencies in the ways that teachers defined and implemented feedback and competency ratings. While many students lauded the value of a competency-based, “gradeless” system, they also voiced the desire to know exactly where they stood in a class, mostly because of pressure (from parents and/or themselves) to impress colleges with familiar symbols of success (i.e. traditional letter grades). Another important finding related to a lack of understanding about what teachers are actually assessing (evidence of skill), and students expressed frustration about not being explicitly rewarded for the time and effort they invest on assignments in this system.

Based on the surveys and focus group feedback, we are facing a complex challenge. We are asking students and teachers to think differently about what they are doing in their classes each day. We are also asking students to take ownership over their own learning by adopting a growth mindset and having a sense of purpose in their work. We are committed to doing what we believe is best for our students, and that means that we need to help them define their role in their own educational experiences. Through this improvement research, we have identified ways that we can leverage systems we already have in place to build student literacy related to learning, feedback, agency, growth, and overall purpose. We believe that greater literacy will help them to develop the intrinsic motivation and purpose they need to make the most of their learning opportunities.

Our own research, learning, and experience as educators has brought us to these important beliefs about the value of deep learning and competency-based assessment and reporting. But our recent action research shows us that we have not adequately introduced our students to the “why” of our system. As a result, our students’ understanding is limited and their focus is guided by outcomes rather than experiences and growth.

Next Steps

We have decided to design a short 10-session learning workshop that will help students better grasp the purpose of competency-based assessment and help them construct a personal understanding of the mastery learning philosophy. This workshop will be incorporated into our 9th grade Seminar course, which, as of this past year, is required for every incoming student in the fall trimester of their freshman year (10 weeks). This seminar includes a health and wellness curriculum that alternates two days a week with a course called Intro to Inquiry, which is designed to ground students in an attitude of inquiry, curiosity, and open-mindedness in order to provide them with a foundation for success at Miss Porter’s. One day a week is reserved for student conferencing and asynchronous work, and we have realized that this time could be used more effectively.

We plan to build this 10-session workshop over the summer, and it will give students a chance to engage with a variety of research and thinking related to educational philosophy, particularly focused on assessment. We are in the process of identifying topics, texts, and activities that will best support our students in their journey to understand their educational philosophy and purpose. We are also exploring portfolio tools that would help to support this learning journey starting in the 9th grade. We will be mapping backwards from a final summative task, either a “learner statement of purpose” or “educational philosophy” statement, which would be the cornerstone of a digital 9th grade portfolio. Through this work, we hypothesize that our students will develop a clearer understanding of the purpose of our competency-based mastery learning approach. This understanding of our “why” will help them to reflect on and identify their own purpose as learners, which we predict will have a positive effect on their intrinsic motivation and overall performance.

When we run this in fall 2023, we will utilize survey tools to assess student perceptions of learning and grades in the beginning of the year, and at the end of each trimester. We will ask students to document their thinking about these topics through journaling, discussion, and formal reflection responses. The summative statement that students craft for the final session will give us insight into their thinking about their learning purpose. We anticipate that students could use this as an introduction to new teachers each trimester, and they could continue to add to it throughout the year as their experiences shape their thinking. We are also planning to integrate this work with the goals of the 9th-grade advisory process so that students will have opportunities to work with their advisor to reflect on their thinking and learning experiences, setting and revising goals as needed throughout the year. Documenting student thinking over the course of the 9th-grade year through surveys and other means will help us to determine how effective this intervention has been and we will be able to use this data to inform future enhancements. __________________________________________________________________________

Nelle Andrews is a participant in the Tang Action Research Program, which provides a year of training and support to educators who wish to improve an area of their school. Educators apply the principles of Improvement Science, using rigorous inquiry and testing to guide development. Nelle is the dean of curriculum and instruction at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., where she also teaches English and coaches field hockey.

Image courtesy of Miss Porter's School

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