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Teaching Toolbox

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

Teaching - Mastery Learning

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

artThe “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.