Mastery Learning & Personalized Digital Courseware

In my last post, I talked about the importance of instructional design in promoting or inhibiting student learning. One of the benefits when you start thinking about instructional design is you discover assumptions and constraints that your course imposes on student learning. Often, these are things you didn’t really think about before. For example, traditional college courses assume a fixed term length and then students adjust their studying to fit the calendar. Or not. There is an alternative model—the variable length term where students study until they complete the work; sometimes this is called Competency-Based Learning. The traditional approach privileges students with good time management skills and/or with lots of free time, and/or with quick learning skills. I’m not arguing that this is bad, or good. Just that it’s a constraint, one which tends to lead to a bell curve grade distribution.

Several students in my introductory courses really struggled last semester. Recall that I’ve mentioned probably having fewer than a dozen students in my career who I felt couldn’t do the work. Imagine a student working a full time and a part time job, with a wife and children and going to school “full time.” That describes one of my students last semester. When I spoke with him, he seemed reasonably bright; i.e. he seemed bright enough to be successful in my course. What he didn’t have was enough time to do the work well. This is the type of student who would probably benefit from a non-traditional instructional design.

About five years ago, I became interested in mastery learning.  See, for example, here and here. Mastery learning is an approach where students study a topic, working at their own pace, but they don’t move on to the next topic until they have learned the current one at a fairly high level of expertise. The expectation is that students won’t necessarily achieve mastery on the first try. So failure is expected, but it’s not the end result; rather, it’s one step towards mastery.

Mastery learning is like a pass-fail system, but the passing level is higher than a typical C grade. Actually, mastery is a different, more subtle notion of learning than that assumed by a standard grading system. In my mind, mastery conveys an ability more than knowledge of some content. It’s the ability to use the content in an appropriate way. It’s the difference between hearing about something and actually practicing it—being able to do it.

Mastery learning seems really important for prerequisite courses. Students sometimes see prerequisite courses as nothing more than hurdles to be gotten over in order to take the courses they really want to take. Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics are the two such courses I teach. They are the entry-level courses to the economics major. If students don’t learn the fundamentals, it’s going to be much harder when they get into the upper level courses.   It’s like trying to build a house without a foundation. Can you learn SPAN 102 without taking SPAN 101? You can, but it’s harder to do.

Only a small fraction of my students go on to be economics majors, but many major in business administration, international affairs, environmental science or other disciplines that have principles of economics as a prerequisite. What that means is that the major department believes that knowing economics will help students succeed in their major. It means that not learning economics well will make the major harder.  So prerequisite courses are not merely courses students have to take, but investments in their major. In my experience, few students see this.

In this blog, I made what was, even for me, a radical statement:

What if teachers believed that all of their students could learn enough to be successful in their class? How would teaching practice be different?

(Ironically, no one commented on that post.)  Rosa Perez-Isiah points out that “Our words impact [students’] mindsets”.  Yes, they do.  Imagine how a first semester first year student, perhaps the first in their family to attend college, hears these two statements from an instructor:

  1.  This is the course that weeds out the students who aren’t serious about [this discipline]. or
  2. I believe that every student can be successful in this course at a high level.

What would a course look like that was designed around mastery? How can one do that in a system with fixed semester lengths? Do students know what it takes to achieve mastery? How can instructional design help students believe they can be successful? We are learning more about how to answer these questions.

Technologies can be part of the answer. Let me explain. From an economist’s perspective, technology doesn’t mean digital or high tech, it means methods. The existing technology is the available knowledge about how to do something. Which means that we should be talking about technologies—all the different methods, and different technologies represent different methods or tools. By this definition, lecture is a technology, as is chalk and a blackboard, as is Blackboard or some other LMS. In short, an important part of instructional design is the choice of technologies used in a course. You can’t avoid it.  Not making a choice is still a choice.  It just may not be the best one for your class.

The key question for instructional design is what combination of technologies or design features work best for a given course, with a given group of students with a given instructor? Instructional designs that work well for one course, may not work as well for others. Instructional designs that work well for one group of students may not work as well for another, and instructional designs that work well for one instructor may not work well for another. In short, effective teaching is a tapestry, not a single recipe or bulls-eye.

Anya Kamenetz had a recent post on NPR, which offers an instructive example, or rather, counter-example. Her post explores personalized learning, which offers one philosophical approach to teaching and learning, one element of instructional design. I don’t object much to anything Kamenetz said, but rather to one of her underlying assumptions. Someone unfamiliar with personalized learning might think that Kamenetz’ definition of personalized learning is definitive, but it’s not. Personalized learning is a version of what teachers have long known as differentiated instruction. Is there only one way to offer differentiated instruction? Of course not. Kamenetz suggests that personalized learning is the entire learning design for a course. That certainly fits the examples she profiled.  But that’s like asking which tool is the toolbox? Personalized Learning isn’t or need not be the entire course. It can be simply one component .

One of the conclusions I’ve come to is teachers need to teach all students as individuals. One of the problems with schools focusing on aggregate metrics is that individuals can become left behind. Some students need different help than others. Some need more help than others. It’s not enough to raise the mean grade, if in the process we leave some individuals behind. What would this look like in practice? How can we make this a both/and, raising the mean grade but without leaving anyone behind. Given a finite amount of time and energy, how can one differentiate instruction in a college course?

Returning to my thesis, suppose there was an instructional design that could improve learning outcomes for most students. Could the instructor reallocate his or her time to focus on helping those individuals who otherwise would fall behind so that with both of these innovations all students could be successful?

LumenWaymaker-400x80Digital courseware could help in certain courses. Lumen Learning’s Waymaker is a type of digital courseware, based on mastery learning. It can also be described as personalized. There are other types of personalized & adaptive courseware, but Waymaker is the one I know best so that’s what I’ll talk about here. I am an unabashed proponent of Waymaker. I helped develop the content, and I have worked with it for more than 5 years. Most importantly, it has worked well for my students, better than a traditional textbook. I’ll report on my latest statistical results in another post.

Waymaker is best understood not as a course replacement, but as a text replacement. What does Waymaker do? It helps students learn more effectively and it identifies those students who need instructor help.

Assessment in Waymaker is integral to the learning process. It’s not just, or even primarily, about grades. Rather, assessment is designed to make students interact more deeply with the content & interact in a more intelligent way.

Waymaker is divided into modules that are analogous to chapters in a book. Waymaker embeds assessment in the content at a very granular level. The student reads a bit of text, or watches a video, or engages in a simulation, and then is immediately confronted with a short formative quiz. If the student achieves mastery on the quiz–the default mastery rate is 80%, but the instructor can adjust that–the “gate” opens and the student moves forward to the next section of content. If they fail, they are encouraged to review the content again before retaking the quiz. They can take the quiz as many times as they wish, but each time, the quiz draws random questions from a test bank so they questions are different.

At the end of each module, the student takes a longer module quiz.  If the student fails to achieve mastery on a mastery quiz, the instructor is notified. This allows the instructor to reach out to offer help & encouragement to students who need it. In any given week, Waymaker allows me to know which students are struggling – so I can reach out to only those students who need my help; and also what topics the class is struggling with – so I can spend scarce class time on the material students need help with, rather than the material they already know. In short, Waymaker gives me a better feel for the effectiveness of my teaching & student learning.

So what is the punch line? It’s that Waymaker provides another model of personalized learning, which is only part of my course

Yesterday, I’m spent time in class explaining how Waymaker works and explaining the ideas behind mastery learning. Waymaker isn’t magic or marketing-speak. It’s a combination of instructional design, learning science and regular assessment of the courseware and improvement. This is a very different way of learning, but those students who buy-in to the program and follow Waymaker’s recommendations will find it makes them successful in my course. I told them I believed this.

You may be skeptical.  But if it works, what will you think?

Image Credits:

A.Davey The Battle of Grunwald 1410-2010 via Flickr

Lumen Learning

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *