Gaining Experience Toward Mastery

One of the problems the current education environment is suffering from is how we decide when a student has adequately learned material. At the moment, we assign a percent that’s supposed to describe to what degree a student has mastered the presented material, but it’s often based on a few snapshots in the form of quizzes and tests. I don’t know about you, but I can name classes I’ve taken where my grade didn’t reflect how well I had actually mastered the material. I got A’s in classes I have the barest memory of, and C’s in classes where I then went on to teach the material in another setting.

So then, we reframe the current grading schedule to claim it reflects the effort the student put into the course. But again, I can name classes where I killed myself to get a C, and skated my way to an A, and I’m willing to bet most of you can, too. Regardless of whether we’re claiming the numbers and letters represent content mastery or student effort, we muck things up even farther in some classes by throwing in a bell curve to satisfy somebody else’s statistics.

Meanwhile, neither we nor the student has any idea how well he really knows the material, or if he could apply it in a real-world situation…the actual goal of education.

Some teachers, recognizing the need for grades that provide some actual feedback to the student and that promote real effort over gaming a class’s grade, have changed their approach to their assessment process. Professor Lee Sheldon switched to a method where students come in with no grade, and earn experience points (XP) throughout the semester through various projects and assignments. The student’s grade is then based on his XP. While this does keep the grade tied in to the student’s effort, it’s also based on the student’s decisions about how and when to participate, and how well the student prepared assignments and projects, where the practical practice is (theoretically) happening.

Sheldon isn’t the only teacher who has tried to make the grading system more accessible by incorporating game elements. Mike Skocko developed a system where students leveled up when they demonstrated their understanding at various levels. Each level provided a certain amount of XP toward the student’s final grade. What’s really interesting about Skocko’s system is that lower levels give students a safe space to begin their learning journey while higher levels encourage students to become peer teachers and to take risks.

More recently, the Quest Schools in New York and Chicago have incorporated XP and badges into their curriculum to not only show where a student is in their understanding of the material they’re working on, but to also help a student organize and pursue specific learning interests. There is then a profile system students can look at when they’re building projects for teams, allowing students picked to work even more on a skill they’re trying to master.

The point is, the grading system should be about providing feedback to learners about where they are in their learning journey, and to help them make decisions about next steps in that journey. The current system isn’t giving students that, so we need something that does.

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