**Teaching
methods come and go but this one may be here to stay. **

The
“hot” engineering teaching method in the 1970s was the
Personalized System of Instruction, which is a form of “mastery
learning.” Students studied material, moved at their own
paces, and retook quizzes until mastering the material, as defined
by achieving a specified quiz grade: 100 percent, 90 percent,
or 80 percent. Whatever percentage required for a grade of “A”
was usually considered the appropriate passing level. Since we
want our graduates to be able to produce an essentially perfect
design, it made sense to require them to be “perfect”
in at least part of their undergraduate education, and mastering
material before studying the next material has to increase aptitude.

To prevent
procrastination, a variety of modifications such as a suggested
pace, instructor pacing, dropping students who lag too far behind,
and alternate ending points were developed. A suggested pace is
the rate at which students should pass quizzes on the different
modules. Instructor pacing is where the first quiz for each module
is given at set times, and students take the quizzes even if they
haven't passed quizzes on previous modules. This method works
if the quizzes don't rely on cumulative knowledge. Alternate
ending points allow students to finish different numbers of modules.
So if you wanted an A you might do 15 modules, 13 for a B and
11 for a C. With these adjustments and judicious computer use,
mastery learning can again become a productive method.

There are
several methods for grading. One option is to award an A to everyone
who completes the course, but this leads to complaints from other
professors. An alternative is to require students to pass quizzes
on a set number of basic modules to earn a C. Then different options
such as completing more modules, taking a comprehensive final,
or undertaking a project are available to earn a higher grade.
Students may decide that a C or a B is sufficient and not try
to earn the higher grade. No longer “the enemy,” the
professor is now a developer and facilitator of student learning—a
resource person.

Numerous
studies have shown that students learn more with mastery learning
than with lecture/discussion-style classes. However, most of these
engineering courses were abandoned because if students don't
finish a prerequisite course by the end of the semester, then
the student can't register for more advanced courses. That
problem, however, can be solved by removing the completely self-paced
format but retaining mastery learning.

The computer's
role is integral in making mastery learning viable. It can keep
records, administer and grade quizzes on a 24-7 basis, and, with
additional development, provide diagnostic tutoring. The TA or
professor can provide additional help. Professors must write study
guides and prepare a large number of quizzes, but preparation
time can be reduced by having the computer insert new numbers
into problems each time a student signs up for a quiz. In large
multi-

section courses, computerized mastery learning can be efficient.
Since fewer professors are required to present concurrent lectures,
a number of TAs can be hired to provide students with more attention
than they would receive in large lecture courses.

If you decide
to develop a mastery course, be flexible about when students can
take the quizzes, but don't allow complete self-pacing. Make
them wait until the next day before a retake. After the first
or second trial, require students to work on homework or a tutorial
to ensure that they study between attempts. Otherwise, many students
will treat quizzes as a slot machine and keep trying until they
hit the jackpot. It is also helpful to require students to get
tutoring if they fail quizzes for a module more than three or
four times.

For smaller
classes, modified forms of mastery learning can be used to increase
student learning with modest investments in faculty time. Early
in the semester after the basics are covered, students can be
given the opportunity to take a second test on the same material
to improve their grade. Encourage students to try another test
by counting their highest grade. Use criterion grading with a
fixed scale, so that certain percentages of correct answers on
quizzes merit certain grades. This contrasts with grading on a
curve. Students who choose not to retake a test would gain some
free time. This format will show students that you really want
to help them learn.

Whatever
the approach, mastery always has been the goal of learning. Perhaps
it is time to give it another try.

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and
the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering
at Purdue University.

Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at
Purdue's chemical engineering school.

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