November 2023 | Nuts & Bolts
A Self-Paced, Mastery-Based Chemistry Classroom
By Colleen M. Burkett
|© Bigstockphoto/bsd studio|
American cartoonist George Evans once said, “Every student can learn, just not on the same day or in the same way.” This quotation perfectly sums up my teaching philosophy and speaks to one of the major reasons I try to use more non-traditional practices in my classroom.
Over the course of my teaching career at both the secondary and collegiate level, I’ve found that initial introductions to the world of science can impact a student’s long-term view of the subject. Students have shared with me how their previous experiences in science caused them to lose interest in the subject, or to find it especially difficult to understand.
When I began teaching, I quickly discovered the vast array of student needs in the classroom at any one time. Certain students readily grasp certain concepts and need less specialized instruction to achieve content mastery, while some of their peers struggle to understand. Additional challenges have emerged since then, including the difficulties of teaching during and following the Covid pandemic. These challenges include shortened student attention spans, absenteeism, personal/health problems, general apathy towards learning, and plagiarism — all of which make teaching today’s students even more complicated than ever.
Ideally, these problems could be addressed through differentiation by content, process, and product for each individual student. When I used a more traditional whole-group direct instruction, I found it especially challenging to offer differentiated learning methods to accommodate all these varying student needs.
When Covid hit, I opted to use a flipped classroom structure in order to optimize student learning in the classroom. Students said they enjoyed watching the videos remotely, because they could watch them at their own pace and rewatch a lesson any time they needed additional help at home. The flipped classroom also provided additional learning opportunities in the classroom that we wouldn’t have had time for in a traditional classroom. During class time, the small class sizes allowed me to work with students individually to differentiate my instruction based on their learning styles and needs. These experiences prompted me to start thinking about other ways I could structure my classroom as life returned to normal.
After receiving a grant during the summer of 2021 to learn about the Modern Classroom Project, I became intrigued with the blended, self-paced, and mastery-based structure. The Modern Classroom offers a free online course, where interested teachers can learn more about these methods, as well as a mentored professional development course.
The Modern Classroom approach is the best of so many worlds: flipped classrooms,1,2,3 small group instruction, self-pacing (within a unit of study),4,5 technology integration,6 and mastery-based grading4 to ensure deep student engagement and understanding of the content. In this course, I learned about ways to incorporate all of my ideas into a method of teaching that was focused on using three main elements: blended instruction,7 self-paced learning, and mastery-based grading (see Figure 1). Each component of this method is important in helping students gain ownership over their own learning, find joy in mastering difficult topics, and build confidence in their abilities.
The primary way I delivery content in my classroom is by uploading pre-recorded, teacher-created lesson videos to Edpuzzle.8,9 Students follow along with the short (10 minutes or less) videos using guided notes and answer-embedded questions throughout the lesson. These videos and notes offer many benefits over traditional whole-group instruction, including:
- allowing students to progress through lessons at their own pace (they can pause, rewind, start over, etc.)
- enabling me to track student understanding through embedded assessments
- preventing students from skipping over important information
- eliminating issues associated with absenteeism because the content is always accessible
- enhancing student independence and confidence with technology
If you were to observe my classroom, you’d rarely find me teaching a whole-group lesson. Instead, I work with students individually or in small groups on concepts they find particularly challenging. This allows other students who have successfully completed a lesson to move on to more advanced topics and assignments. Because I spend so much time working with students in smaller groups, I have constant, real-time knowledge of what each student already understands and where they need additional support. I utilize the small group instructional time to find flexible ways to differentiate my lessons for students based on their specific needs.
Students work through each unit’s content at a pace that benefits their individual learning. I’m able to help my students achieve this through a mix of digital lessons, paper-based activities, and inquiry-based, hands-on activities. I have organized my learning management system (LMS) website to display an entire unit all at once for my students (Figure 2A).
Within the unit folder are sub-folders for each lesson, containing:
- “Must Do” assignments — typically including a video and short practice assignment, these assignments are required, but never graded, and can be completed independently or in small groups. I have found that eliminating the graded aspect of these assignments has essentially removed issues of plagiarism from my classroom.
- “Should Do” activities — designed for students who need additional practice, these optional activities allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the content in different ways, such as task cards, question trails, mazes, card sorts, vocabulary dominoes, and other games.
- “Aspire to Do” assignments — more challenging assignments (also optional) that require students to go beyond the basic level of understanding required for the course. For my class, these often involve additional inquiry processes such as research projects, POGIL activities, claim-evidence-reasoning (CER) activities, and lab simulations (PhET and Gizmos are both great options).10
- Miscellaneous inquiry-based lab experiments — these are peppered throughout the unit and used as checkpoints for completion of coursework.
Students can choose to complete Should Do or Aspire to Do activities at any point during a lesson or unit, but only need to do so if they completed their Must Do assignments yet are still unable to demonstrate mastery of the concepts. I’ve noticed my students seem more willing to take risks and try complicated assignments, since they know they’re responsible for understanding the content, and won’t be penalized for small mistakes. To help them stay on task, I also give students a progress checklist (Figure 2B) that tells them exactly what activities must be completed and in what order.
Figure 2B. The LMS page also provides students with a progress checklist of all assignments that must be completed throughout the unit. The checklist is color-coded to indicate which assignments are “Must Do” (in purple), “Should Do” (in orange), and “Aspire to Do” (in pink). Assignments must be completed, in order, before students can attempt a mastery check to demonstrate their knowledge.
To participate in the lab, students must have already accomplished a certain portion of the unit. Depending on lab safety considerations and the availability of both me and my student, the student may need to make the lab up during their own time (study hall, lunch, after school) or complete a makeup activity in the form of a simulation. Since students love doing lab experiments with their peers, this is an excellent motivator for them to work at a reasonable pace throughout the unit.
To some people, it may sound like a bit of a nightmare to have a classroom full of kids each potentially working on a different assignment at any given time. However, I’ve utilized a tracking system on Google Sheets (developed using conditional formatting) that helps me keep track of what each student is working on every day (Figure 3). This spreadsheet shows suggested dates students should be working on specific lessons, and whether they are behind pace, on pace, or ahead of pace. This public tracking system is displayed in class so that students can monitor where they should be compared to where they are. Since grades are never displayed on this tracker, we all use this as a way to track student progress through a unit. I have found that it promotes self-direction, collaboration with peers, and motivation to stay on pace.
For example, in Figure 3, the tracker shows that Noah, Joel, Trevor, and Jackson are all working on Lesson 2.5, so they are welcome to work together and help each other on any associated assignments or work independently if they choose. Meanwhile, the image shows that Julia and Sam had trouble with Lesson 2.1 and need some additional remediation to successfully complete it. They can choose to work together, have a private conference with me, or ask a peer to tutor them. This process has helped my students to gain a better understanding of good study skills.
Compared to when I taught a traditional style classroom, my students can now much more easily self-assess their levels of understanding, retain information longer-term, and teach concepts to each other. Since students must check in with me at the completion of each lesson, it also keeps them accountable for staying on task throughout class time.
Figure 3. The auto-updating progress tracker in Google Sheets uses conditional formatting to track student progress through a unit.
Figure 4. In the mastery check process, once a student completes all of the Must Do activities for a unit, they can take a mastery check to gauge their content knowledge, or complete more optional activities and retake the test. If the student scores at least 80%, they have achieved mastery and can progress onto a new lesson. If they score less, they must revise their work, complete additional activities to remediate their knowledge, and then reassess. © Canva/Free content
Most of the assignments my students do in my class are not graded for correctness. Although students are required to complete all Must Do assignments, their grades for these activities are primarily based on completion. Students are never punished for not doing a Should Do or Aspire to Do assignment but can earn extra credit for completing these activities correctly. If a student makes too many mistakes on these assignments, I ask them to revise and resubmit them to receive credit.
In addition to the low-stakes participation grades, students are graded on three main categories: their formal lab activities, mastery checks, and unit tests. Mastery checks are short quizzes to gauge student understanding of the concepts addressed in the preceding lesson(s) (Figure 4). After students have successfully completed all Must Do activities in a new lesson, they can choose to take a mastery check. If they score at least an 80% on the first try, they can progress to the next new lesson. If a student does not pass on their first attempt, they need to revise their mastery check. Typically, this means they also need to have a conference with me to go over the questions they missed and then I ask them to complete a Should Do and/or Aspire to Do assignment to further improve their understanding of the material. Then the student can reassess by taking the mastery check up to three times on three different days.
Each mastery check is composed of different questions covering the same topics to prevent simple memorization and cheating. In the rare circumstances where a student cannot pass a mastery check after the third attempt, I will meet with the student outside of class time to give them an opportunity to demonstrate mastery through different means. Examples of practice assignments and mastery checks can be found below.
The reason I have chosen to use a mastery-based grading approach is that I believe students all learn at different rates.11 Some students may find one topic particularly challenging, while others breeze through it. Sometimes students find that returning to a lesson they learned earlier helps to solidify their understanding and later, to perform better on their mastery check. The mastery checks allow me to have a real sense of what each student truly understands, so I can help them fix any misconceptions before progressing to the next lesson, where those misconceptions could compound.
Example Practice Assignments
Example Mastery Checks
As mentioned earlier, I have noticed that this grading method has virtually eliminated “cheating,” since grading is based on mastery and students have multiple attempts to demonstrate their learning. This leads to a much more authentic learning experience, where students are focused on truly learning the material, rather than simply getting a grade.
I believe that it is important to survey students to find out what is and isn’t working for them in my classroom. If they have ideas for making something better for the next class or unit, I incorporate them where appropriate.
In general, I have found that by the time we have completed our second unit using the Modern Classroom method of learning, students have fully bought into this approach. It’s truly inspiring to see so many students find joy in science again, stay engaged in learning, make connections between the materials we’re learning in class and real-world phenomena. Best of all, it allows them to guide their own learning process in a way that works for them (examples of student survey comments can be found in the appendix materials). I’m simply a facilitator in my classroom; students are in charge of directing their own learning, which is a fundamental attribute we should all aim to cultivate in our future scientists.
1. Smith, J. NGSS Storylines in a Flipped Classroom. Chemistry Solutions, March 2019.
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6. Sankey, M.; Birch, D.; Gardiner, M. In Engaging students through multimodal learning: The journey continues, Proceedings of the 27th Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Sydney, Australia, Dec 5-8, 2010, pp 852-863.
7. Byers, E. 2022. Teaching Chemistry in a Blended Learning Classroom: When to Go Digital and What to Take Offline. Chemistry Solutions. March 2022.
8. Palermo, M. F. Edpuzzle: A Video Formative Assessment Tool. Chemistry Solutions. May 2019.
9. Ye, K. Making the Instructional Videos I Wish I’d Had as a Teacher. Chemistry Solutions. September 2023.
10. Lunce, L. M. Simulations: Bringing the benefits of situated learning to the traditional classroom. Journal of Applied Educational Technology. 2006, 3, 1, 37-45.
11. Chapman, M., Jr. Standards Based Grading in the Middle School Chemistry Classroom. Chemistry Solutions, September 2014.