I’m at the Australasian Computer Science Week at the moment and I’m dividing my time between attending amazing talks, asking difficult questions, catching up with friends and colleagues and doing my own usual work in the cracks. I’ve talked to a lot of people about my ideas on assessment (and beauty) and, as always, the responses have been thoughtful, challenging and helpful.
I think I know what the basis of my problem with assessment is, taking into account all of the roles that it can take. In an earlier post, I discussed Wolff’s classification of assessment tasks into criticism, evaluation and ranking. I’ve also made earlier (grumpy) notes about ranking systems and their arbitrary nature. One of the interesting talks I attended yesterday talked about the fragility and questionable accuracy of post-University exit surveys, which are used extensively in formal and informal rankings of Universities, yet don’t actually seem to meet many of the statistical or sensible guidelines for efficacy we already have.
But let’s put aside ranking for a moment and return to criticism and evaluation. I’ve already argued (successfully I hope) for a separation of feedback and grades from the criticism perspective. While they are often tied to each other, they can be separated and the feedback can still be useful. Now let’s focus on evaluation.
Remind me why we’re evaluating our students? Well, we’re looking to see if they can perform the task, apply the skill or knowledge, and reach some defined standard. So we’re evaluating our students to guide their learning. We’re also evaluating our students to indirectly measure the efficacy of our learning environment and us as educators. (Otherwise, why is it that there are ‘triggers’ in grading patterns to bring more scrutiny on a course if everyone fails?) We’re also, often accidentally, carrying out an assessment of the innate success of each class and socio-economic grouping present in our class, among other things, but let’s drill down to evaluating the student and evaluating the learning environment. Time for another thought experiment.
Thought Experiment 2
There are twenty tasks aligned with a particularly learning outcome. It’s an important task and we evaluate it in different ways but the core knowledge or skill is the same. Each of these tasks can receive a ‘grade’ of 0, 0.5 or 1. 0 means unsuccessful, 0.5 is acceptable, 1 is excellent. Student A attempts all tasks and is acceptable in 19, unsuccessful in 1. Student B attempts the first 10 tasks, receives excellent in all of them and stops. Student C sets up a pattern of excellent,unsuccessful, excellent, unsuccessful.. and so on to receive 10 “Excellent”s and 10 “unsuccessful”s. When we form an aggregate grade, A receives 47.5%, B receives 50% and C also receives 50%. Which of these students is the most likely to successfully complete the task?
This framing allows us to look at the evaluation of the student in a meaningful way. “Who will pass the course?” is not the question we should be asking, it’s “Who will be able to reliably demonstrate mastery of the skills or knowledge that we are imparting.” Passing the course has a naturally discrete attention focus: focus on n assignments and m exams and pass. Continual demonstration of mastery is a different goal. This framing also allows us to examine the learning environment because, without looking at the design, I can’t tell you if B and C’s behaviour is problematic or not.
A has undertaken the most tasks to an acceptable level but an artefact of grading (or bad luck) has dropped the mark below 50%, which would be a fail (aggregate less than acceptable) in many systems. B has performed excellently on every task attempted but, being aware of the marking scheme, optimising and strategic behaviour allows this student to walk away. (Many students who perform at this level wouldn’t, I’m aware, but we’re looking at the implications of this.) C has a troublesome pattern that provides the same outcome as B but with half the success rate.
Before we answer the original question (which is most likely to succeed), I can nominate C as the most likely to struggle because C has the most “unsuccessful”s. From a simple probabilistic argument, 10/20 success is worse than 19/20. It’s a bit tricker comparing 10/10 and 10/20 (because of confidence intervals) but 10/20 has an Adjusted Wald range of +/- 20% and 10/10 is -14%, so the highest possible ‘real’ measure for C is 14/20 and the lowest possible ‘real’ measure for B is (scaled) 15/20, so they don’t overlap and we can say that B appears to be more successful than C as well.
From a learning design perspective, do our evaluation artefacts have an implicit design that explains C’s pattern? Is there a difference we’re not seeing? Taking apart any ranking of likeliness to pass our evaluatory framework, C’s pattern is so unusual (high success/lack of any progress) that we learn something immediately from the pattern, whether it’s that C is struggling or that we need to review mechanisms we thought to be equivalent!
But who is more likely to succeed out of A and B? 19/20 and 10/10 are barely distinguishable in statistical terms! The question for us now is how many evaluations of a given skill or knowledge mastery are required for us to be confident of competence. This totally breaks the discrete cramming for exams and focus on assignment model because all of our science is built on the notion that evidence is accumulated through observation and the analysis of what occurred, in order to be able to construct models to predict future behaviour. In this case, our goal is to see if our students are competent.
I can never be 100% sure that my students will be able to perform a task but what is the level I’m happy with? How many times do I have to evaluate them at a skill so that I can say that x successes in y attempts constitutes a reliable outcome?
If we say that a student has to reliably succeed 90% of the time, we face the problem that just testing them ten times isn’t enough for us to be sure that they’re hitting 90%.
But the level of performance we need to be confident is quite daunting. By looking at some statistics, we can see that if we provide a student with 150 opportunities to demonstrate knowledge and they succeed at this 143 times, then it is very likely that their real success level is at least 90%.
If we say that competency is measured by a success rate that is greater than 75%, a student who achieves 10/10 has immediately met that but even succeeding at 9/9 doesn’t meet that level.
What this tells us (and reminds us) is that our learning environment design is incredibly important and it must start from a clear articulation of what success actually means, what our goals are and how we will know when our students have reached that point.
There is a grade separation between A and B but it’s artificial. I noted that it was hard to distinguish A and B statistically but there is one important difference in the lower bound of their confidence interval. A is less than 75%, B is slightly above.
Now we have to deal with the fact that A and B were both competent (if not the same) for the first ten tests and A was actually more competent than B until the 20th failed test. This has enormous implications for we structure evaluation, how many successful repetitions define success and how many ‘failures’ we can tolerate and still say that A and B are competent.
Confused? I hope not but I hope that this is making you think about evaluation in ways that you may not have done so before.
I’ve reached the conclusion that a lot of courses have an unrealistically high number of evaluations. We have too many and we pretend that we are going to achieve outcomes for which we have no supporting evidence. Worse, in many cases, we are painfully aware that we cause last-minute lemming-like effects that do anything other than encourage learning. But why do we have so many? Because we’re trying to fit them into the term or semester size that we have: the administrative limit.
One the big challenges for authenticity in Computer Science is the nature of the software project. While individual programs can be small and easy to write, a lot of contemporary programming projects are:
- Large and composed of many small programs.
- Complex to a scale that may exceed one person’s ability to visualise.
- Built on platforms that provide core services; the programmers do not have the luxury to write all of the code in the system.
Many final year courses in Software Engineering have a large project courses, where students are forced to work with a (usually randomly assigned) group to produce a ‘large’ piece of software. In reality, this piece of software is very well-defined and can be constructed in the time available: it has been deliberately selected to be so.
Is a two month software task in a group of six people indicative of real software?
Yes and no. It does give a student experience in group management, except that they still have the safe framework of lecturers over the top. It’s more challenging than a lot of what we do because it is a larger artefact over a longer time.
But it’s not that realistic. Industry software projects live over years, with tens to hundreds of programmers ‘contributing’ updates and fixes… reversing changes… writing documentation… correcting documentation. This isn’t to say that the role of a university is to teach industry skills but these skill sets are very handy for helping programmers to take their code and make it work, so it’s good to encourage them.
I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.
from John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed”, School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897)
I love the term ‘continuing reconstruction of experience’ as it drives authenticity as one of the aesthetic characteristics of good education.
Authentic, appropriate and effective learning and evaluation activities may not fit comfortably into a term. We already accept this for activities such as medical internship, where students must undertake 47 weeks of work to attain full registration. But we are, for many degrees, trapped by the convention of a semester of so many weeks, which is then connected with other semesters to make a degree that is somewhere between three to five years long.
The semester is an artefact of the artificial decomposition of the year, previously related to season in many places but now taking on a life of its own as an administrative mechanism. Jamming things into this space is not going to lead to an authentic experience and we can now reject this on aesthetic grounds. It might fit but it’s beautiful or true.
But wait! We can’t do that! We have to fit everything into neat degree packages or our students won’t complete on time!
Let’s now look at the ‘so many years degree’. This is a fascinating read and I’ll summarise the reported results for degree programs in the US, which don’t include private colleges and universities:
- Fewer than 10% of reporting institutions graduated a majority of students on time.
- Only 19% of students at public universities graduate on-time.
- Only 36% of state flagship universities graduate on-time
- 5% of community college students complete an associate degree on-time.
The report has a simple name for this: the four-year myth. Students are taking longer to do their degrees for a number of reasons but among them are poorly designed, delivered, administered or assessed learning experiences. And jamming things into semester blocks doesn’t seem to be magically translating into on-time completions (unsurprisingly).
It appears that the way we break up software into little pieces is artificial and we’re also often trying to carry out too many little assessments. It looks like a good model is to stretch our timeline out over more than one course to produce an experience that is genuinely engaging, more authentic and more supportive of long term collaboration. That way, our capstone course could be a natural end-point to a three year process… or however long it takes to get there.
Finally, in the middle of all of this, we need to think very carefully about why we keep using the semester or the term as a container. Why are degrees still three to four years long when everything else in the world has changed so much in the last twenty years?
There was a time before graphics dominated the way that you worked with computers and, back then, after punchcards and before Mac/Windows, the most common way of working with a computer was to use the Command Line Interface (CLI). Many of you will have seen this, here’s Terminal from the Mac OS X, showing a piece of Python code inside an editor.
Rather than use a rich Integrated Development Environment, where text is highlighted and all sorts of clever things are done for me, I would run some sort of program editor from the command line, write my code, close that editor and then see what worked.
At my University, we almost always taught Computer Science using command line tools, rather than rich development environments such as Eclipse or the Visual Studio tools. Why? The reasoning was that the CLI developed skills required to write code, compile it, debug it and run it, without training students into IDE-provided shortcuts. The CLI was the approach that would work anywhere. That knowledge was, as we saw it, fundamental.
But, remember that Processing example? We clearly saw where the error was. This is what a similar error looks like for the Java programming language in a CLI environment.
Same message (and now usefully on the right line because 21st Century) but it is totally divorced from the program itself. That message has to give me a line number (5) in the original program because it has no other way to point to the problem.
And here’s the problem. The cognitive load increases once we separate code and errors. Despite those Processing errors looking like the soft option, everything we know about load tells us that students will find fixing their problems easier if they don’t have to mentally or physically switch between code and error output.
Everything I said about CLIs is still true but that’s only a real consideration if my students go out into the workplace and need some CLI skills. And, today, just about every workplace has graphics based IDEs for production software. (Networking is often an exception but we’ll skip over that. Networking is special.)
The best approach for students learning to code is that we don’t make things any harder than we need to. The CLI approach is something I would like students to be able to do but my first task is to get them interested in programming. Then I have to make their first experiences authentic and effective, and hopefully pleasant and rewarding.
I have thought about this for years and I started out as staunchly CLI. But as time goes by, I really have to wonder whether a tiny advantage for a small number of graduates is worth additional load for every new programmer.
And I don’t think it is worth it. It’s not fair. It’s the opposite of equitable. And it goes against the research that we have on cognitive load and student workflows in these kinds of systems. We already know of enough load problems in graphics based environments if we make the screens large enough, without any flicking from one application to another!
You don’t have to accept my evaluation model to see this because it’s a matter of common sense that forcing someone to unnecessarily switch tasks to learn a new skill is going to make it harder. Asking someone to remember something complicated in order to use it later is not as easy as someone being able to see it when and where they need to use it.
The world has changed. CLIs still exist but graphical user interfaces (GUIs) now rule. Any of my students who needs to be a crack programmer in a text window of 80×24 will manage it, even if I teach with all IDEs for the entire degree, because all of the IDEs are made up of small windows. Students can either debug and read error messages or they can’t – a good IDE helps you but it doesn’t write or fix the code for you, in any deep way. It just helps you to write code faster, without having to wait and switch context to find silly mistakes that you could have fixed in a split second in an IDE.
When it comes to teaching programming, I’m not a CLI guy anymore.
Earlier, I split the evaluation resources of a course into:
- E1 (the lecturer and course designer),
- E2 (human work that can be based on rubrics, including peer assessment and casual markers),
- E3 (complicated automated evaluation mechanisms)
- E4 (simple automated evaluation mechanisms, often for acceptance testing)
E1 and E2 everyone tends to understand, because the culture of Prof+TA is widespread, as is the concept of peer assessment. In a Computing Course, we can define E3 as complex marking scripts that perform amazing actions in response to input (or even carry out formal analysis if we’re being really keen), with E4 as simple file checks, program compilation and dumb scripts that jam in a set of data and see what comes out.
But let’s get back to my first year, first exposure, programming class. What I want is hands-on, concrete, active participation and constructive activity and lots of it. To support that, I want the best and most immediate feedback I can provide. Now I can try to fill a room with tutors, or do a lot of peer work, but there will come times when I want to provide some sort of automated feedback.
Given how inexperienced these students are, it could be a quite a lot to expect them to get their code together and then submit it to a separate evaluation system, then interpret the results. (Remember I noted earlier on how code tracing correlates with code ability.)
Thus, the best way to get that automated feedback is probably working with the student in place. And that brings us to the Integrated Development Environment (IDE). An IDE is an application that provides facilities to computer programmers and helps them to develop software. They can be very complicated and rich (Eclipse), simple (Processing) or aimed at pedagogical support (Scratch, BlueJ, Greenfoot et al) but they are usually made up of a place in which you can assemble code (typing or dragging) and a set of buttons or tools to make things happen. These are usually quite abstract for early programmers, built on notional machines rather than requiring a detailed knowledge of hardware.
Even simple IDEs will tell you things that provide immediate feedback. We know how these environments can have positive reception, with some demonstrated benefits, although I recommend reading Sorva et al’s “A Review of Generic Program Visualization Systems for Introductory Programming Education” to see the open research questions. In particular, people employing IDEs in teaching often worry about the time to teach the environment (as well as the language), software visualisations, concern about time on task, lack of integration and the often short lifespan of many of the simpler IDEs that are focused on pedagogical outcomes. Even for well-established systems such as BlueJ, there’s always concern over whether the investment of time in learning it is going to pay off.
In academia, time is our currency.
But let me make an aesthetic argument for IDEs, based on the feedback that I’ve already put into my beautiful model. We want to maximise feedback in a useful way for early programmers. Early programmers are still learning the language, still learning how to spell words, how to punctuate, and are building up to a grammatical understanding. An IDE can provide immediate feedback as to what the computer ‘thinks’ is going on with the program and this can help the junior programmer make immediate changes. (Some IDEs have graphical representations for object systems but we won’t discuss these any further here as the time to introduce objects is a subject of debate.)
Now there’s a lot of discussion over the readability of computer error messages but let me show you an example. What’s gone wrong in this program?
See where that little red line is, just on the end of the first line? Down the bottom there’s a message that says “missing a semicolon”. In the Processing language, almost all lines end with a “;” so that section of code should read:
Did you get that? That missing semicolon problem has been an issue for years because many systems report the semicolon missing on the next line, due to the way that compilers work. Here, Processing is clearly saying: Oi! Put a semi-colon on the red squiggle.
I’m an old programmer, who currently programs in Java, C++ and Processing, so typing “;” at the end of a line is second nature to me. But it’s an easy mistake for a new programmer to make because, between all of the ( and the ) and the , and the numbers and the size and the rect… what do I do with the “;”?
The Processing IDE is functioning in at least an E4 mode: simple acceptance testing that won’t let anything happen until you fix that particular problem. It’s even giving you feedback as to what’s wrong. Now this isn’t to say that it’s great but it’s certainly better than a student sitting there with her hand up for 20 minutes waiting for a tutor to have the time to come over and say “Oh, you’re missing a semicolon.”
We don’t want shotgun coding, where random fixes and bashed-in attempts are made desperately to solve a problem. We want students to get used to getting feedback on how they’re going and using this to improve what they do.
Because of Processing’s highly visual mode, I think it’s closer to E3 (complex scripting) in many ways because it can tell you if it doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do at all. Beyond just not doing something, it can clearly tell you what’s wrong.
But what if it works and then the student puts something up on the screen, a graphic of some sort and it’s not quite right? Then the student has started to become their own E2, evaluating what has happened in response to the code and using human insight to address the shortfall and make changes. Not as an expert but, with support and encouragement, a developing expertise.
Feedback is good. Immediacy is good. Student involvement is good. Code tracing is linked to coding ability. A well-designed IDE can be simple and engage the student to an extent that is potentially as high as E2, although it won’t be as rich, without using any other human evaluation resources. Even if there is no other benefit, the aesthetic argument is giving us a very strong nudge to adopt an appropriate IDE.
Maybe it’s time to hang up the command line and live in a world where IDEs can help us to get things done faster, support our students better and make our formal human evaluation resources go further.
What do you think?
If we want to give feedback, then the time it takes to give feedback is going to determine how often we can do it. If the core of our evaluation is feedback, rather than some low-Bloom’s quiz-based approach giving a score of some sort, then we have to set our timelines to allow us to:
- Get the work when we are ready to work on it
- Undertake evaluation to the required level
- Return that feedback
- Do this at such a time that our students can learn from it and potentially use it immediately, to reinforce the learning
A commenter asked me how I actually ran large-scale assessment. The largest class I’ve run detailed feedback/evaluation on was 360 students with a weekly submission of a free-text (and graphics) solution to a puzzle. The goal was to have the feedback back within a week – prior to the next lecture where the solution would be delivered.
I love a challenge.
This scale is, obviously, impossible for one person to achieve reliably (we estimated it as at least forty hours of work). Instead, we allocated a marking team to this task, coordinated by the lead educator. (E1 and E2 model again. There was, initially, no automated capacity for this at the time although we added some later.)
Coordinating a team takes time. Even when you start with a rubric, free text answers can turn up answer themes that you didn’t anticipate and we would often carry our simple checks to make sure that things were working. But, looking at the marking time I was billed for (a good measure), I could run an entire cycle of this in three days, including briefing time, testing, marking, and oversight. But this is with a trained team, a big enough team, good conceptual design and a senior educator who’s happy to take a more executive role.
In this case, we didn’t give the students a chance to refactor their work but, if we had, we could have done this with a release 3 days after submission. To ensure that we then completed the work again by the ‘solution release’ deadline, we would have had to set the next submission deadline to only 24 hours after the feedback was released. This sounds short but, if we assume that some work has been done, then refactoring and reworking should take less time.
But then we have to think about the cost. By running two evaluation cycles we are providing early feedback but we have doubled our cost for human markers (a real concern for just about everyone these days).
My solution was to divide the work into two components. The first was quiz-based and could be automatically and immediately assessed by the Learning Management System, delivering a mark at a fixed deadline. The second part was looked at by humans. Thus, students received immediate feedback on part of the problem straight away (or a related problem) while they were waiting for humans.
But I’d be the first to admit that I hadn’t linked this properly, according to my new model. It does give us insight for a staged hybrid model where we buffer our human feedback by using either smart or dumb automated assessment component to highlight key areas and, better still, we can bring these forward to help guide time management.
I’m not unhappy with that early attempt at large-scale human feedback as the students were receiving some excellent evaluation and feedback and it was timely and valuable. It also gave me a lot of valuable information about design and about what can work, as well as how to manage marking teams.
I also realised that some courses could never be assessed the way that they claimed unless they had more people on task or only delivered at a time when the result wasn’t usable anymore.
How much time should we give students to rework things? I’d suggest that allowing a couple of days takes into account the life beyond Uni that many students have. That means that we can do a cycle in a week if we can keep our human evaluation stages under 2 days. Then, without any automated marking, we get 2 days (E1 or E2) + 2 days (student) + 2 days (second evaluation, possibly E2) + 1 day (final readjustment) and then we should start to see some of the best work that our students can produce.
Assuming, of course, that all of us can drop everything to slot into this. For me, this motivates a cycle closer to two to three weeks to allow for everything else that both groups are doing. But that then limits us to fewer than five big assessment items for a twelve week course!
What’s better? Twelve assessment items that are “submit and done” or four that are “refine and reinforce to best practice”? Is this even a question we can ask? I know which one is aesthetically pleasing, in terms of all of the educational aesthetics we’ve discussed so far but is this enough for an educator to be able to stand up to a superior and say “We’re not going to do X because it just doesn’t make any sense!”
What do you think?
One of the problems with any model that builds in more feedback is that we incur both the time required to produce the feedback and we also have an implicit requirement to allow students enough time to assimilate and make use of it. This second requirement is still there even if we don’t have subsequent attempts at work, as we want to build upon existing knowledge. The requirement for good feedback makes no sense without a requirement that it be useful.
But let me reiterate that pretty much all evaluation and feedback can be very valuable, no matter how small or quick, if we know what we are trying to achieve. (I’ll get to more complicated systems in later posts.)
Novice programmers often struggle with programming and this early stage of development is often going to influence if they start off thinking that they can program or not. Given that automated evaluation only really provides useful feedback once the student has got something working, novice programming classes are an ideal place to put human markers. If we can make students think “Yes, I can do this” early on, this is the emotion that they will remember. We need to get to big problems quickly, turn them into manageable issues that can be overcome, and then let motivation and curiosity take the rest.
There’s an excellent summary paper on computer programming visualisation systems aimed at novice programmers, which discusses some of the key problems novices face on their path to mastery:
- Novices can see some concepts as code rather than the components of a dynamic process. For example, they might see objects as simply a way of containing things rather than modelling objects and their behaviours. These static perceptions prevent the students from understanding that they are designing behaviours, not just writing magic formulas.
- There can be significant difficulties in understanding the computer, seeing the notional machine that is the abstraction, forming a basis upon which knowledge of one language or platform could be used elsewhere.
- Misunderstanding fundamental concepts is common and such misconceptions can easily cause weak understanding, leaving the students in the liminal state, unable to assimilate a threshold concept and move on.
- Students struggle to trace programs and work out what state the program should be in. In my own community, Raymond Lister, Donna Teague, Simon, and others have clearly shown that many students struggle with the tracing of even simple programs.
If we have put human markers (E1 or E2) into a programming class and identified that these are the problems we’re looking for, we can provide immediate targeted evaluation that is also immediate constructive feedback. On the day, in response to actual issues, authentic demonstration of a solution process that students can model. This is the tightest feedback and reward loop we can offer. How does this work?
- Program doesn’t work because of one of the key problem areas.
- Human evaluator intervenes with student and addresses the issue, encouraging discovery inside the problem area.
- Student tries to identify problem and explains it to evaluator in context, modelling evaluator and based on existing knowledge.
- Evaluator provides more guidance and feedback.
- Student continues to work on problem.
- We hope that the student will come across the solution (or think towards it) but we may have to restart this loop.
Note that we’re not necessarily giving the solution here but we can consider leading towards this if the student is getting visibly frustrated. I’d suggest never telling a student what to type as it doesn’t address any of the problems, it just makes the student dependent upon being told the answer. Not desirable. (There’s an argument here for rich development environments that I’ll expand on later.)
Evaluation like this is formative, immediate and rich. We can even streamline it with guidelines to help the evaluators although much of this will amount to supporting students as they learn to read their own code and understand the key concepts. We should develop students simple to complex, concrete to abstract, so some problems with abstraction are to be expected, especially if we are playing near any threshold concepts.
But this is where learning designers have to be ready to say “this may cause trouble” and properly brief the evaluators who will be on the ground. If we want our evaluators to work efficiently and effectively, we have to brief them on what to expect, what to do, and how to follow up.
If you’ve missed it so far, one of our big responsibilities is training our evaluation team. It’s only by doing this that we can make sure that our evaluators aren’t getting bogged down in side issues or spending too much time with one student and doing the work for them. This training should include active scenario-based training to allow the evaluators to practise with the oversight of the educators and designers.
We have finite resources. If we want to support a room full of novices, we have to prepare for the possibility of all of them having problems at once and the only way to support that at scale is to have an excellent design and train for it.
I’ve laid out some honest and effective approaches to the evaluation of student work that avoid late penalties and still provide high levels of feedback, genuine motivation and a scalable structure.
But these approaches have to fit into the realities of time that we have in our courses. This brings me to the discussion of mastery learning (Bloom). An early commenter noted how much my approach was heading towards mastery goals, where we use personalised feedback and targeted intervention to ensure that students have successfully mastered certain tiers of knowledge, before we move on to those that depend upon them.
A simple concept: pre-requisites must be mastered before moving on. It’s what much of our degree structure is based upon and is what determines the flow of students through courses, leading towards graduation. One passes 101 in order to go on to courses that assume such knowledge.
Within an individual course, we quickly realise that too many mastery goals starts to leave us in a precarious position. As I noted from my earlier posts, having enough time to do your job as designer or evaluator requires you to plan what you’re doing and keep careful track of your commitments. The issue that arises with mastery goals is that, if a student can’t demonstrate mastery, we offer remedial work and re-training with an eye to another opportunity to demonstrate that knowledge.
This can immediately lead to a backlog of work that must be completed prior to the student being considered to have mastered an area, and thus being ready to move on. If student A has completed three mastery goals while B is struggling with the first, where do we pitch our teaching materials, in anything approximating a common class activity, to ensure that everyone is receiving both what they need and what they are prepared for? (Bergmann and Sams’ Flipped Mastery is one such approach, where flipping and time-shifting are placed in a mastery focus – in their book “Flip Your Classroom”)
But even if we can handle a multi-speed environment (and we have to be careful because we know that streaming is a self-fulfilling prophecy) how do we handle the situation where a student has barely completed any mastery goals and the end of semester is approaching?
Mastery learning is a sound approach. It’s both ethically and philosophically pitched to prevent the easy out for a teacher of saying “oh, I’m going to fit the students I have to an ideal normal curve” or, worse, “these are just bad students”. A mastery learning approach tends to produces good results, although it can be labour intensive as we’ve noted. To me, Bloom’s approach is embodying one of my critical principles in teaching: because of the variable level of student preparation, prior experience and unrelated level of privilege, we have to adjust our effort and approach to ensure that all students can be brought to the same level wherever possible.
Equity is one of my principle educational aesthetics and I hope it’s one of yours. But now we have to mutter to ourselves that we have to think about limiting how many mastery goals there are because of administrative constraints. We cannot load up some poor student who is already struggling and pretend that we are doing anything other than delaying their ultimate failure to complete.
At the same time, we would be on shaky ground to construct a course where we could turn around at week 3 of 12 and say “You haven’t completed enough mastery goals and, because of the structure, this means that you have already failed. Stop trying.”
The core of a mastery-based approach is the ability to receive feedback, assimilate it, change your approach and then be reassessed. But, if this is to be honest, this dependency upon achievement of pre-requisites should have a near guarantee of good preparation for all courses that come afterwards. I believe that we can all name pre-requisite and dependency patterns where this is not true, whether it is courses where the pre-requisite course is never really used or dependencies where you really needed to have achieved a good pass in the pre-req to advance.
Competency-based approaches focus on competency and part of this is the ability to use the skill or knowledge where it is required, whether today or tomorrow. Many of our current approaches to knowledge and skill are very short-term-focussed, encouraging cramming or cheating in order to tick a box and move on. Mastering a skill for a week is not the intent but, unless we keep requiring students to know or use that information, that’s the message we send. This is honesty: you must master this because we’re going to keep using it and build on it! But trying to combine mastery and grades raises unnecessary tension, to the student’s detriment.
As Bloom notes:
Mastery and recognition of mastery under the present relative grading system is unattainable for the majority of students – but this is the result of the way in which we have “rigged” the educational system.
Bloom, Learning for Mastery, UCLA CSEIP Evaluation Comment, 1, 2, 1968.
Mastery learning is part and parcel of any competency based approach but, without being honest about the time constraints that are warping it, even this good approach is diminished.
The upshot of this is that any beautiful model of education adhering to the equity aesthetic has to think in a frame that is longer than a semester and in a context greater than any one course. We often talk about doing this but detailed alignment frequently escapes us, unless it is to put up our University-required ‘graduate attributes’ to tell the world how good our product will be.
We have to accept that part of our job is asking a student to do something and then acknowledging that they have done it, while continuing to build systems where what they have done is useful, provides a foundation to further learning and, in key cases, is something that they could do again in the future to the approximate level of achievement.
We have to, again, ask not only why we grade but also why we grade in such strangely synchronous containers. Why is it that a degree for almost any subject is three to five years long? How is that, despite there being nearly thirty years between the computing knowledge in the degree that I did and the one that I teach, they are still the same length? How are we able to have such similarity when we know how much knowledge is changing?
A better model of education is not one that starts from the assumption of the structures that we have. We know a lot of things that work. Why are we constraining them so heavily?