What is Mastery Grading?

The key underlying principle of mastery grading is that all students can learn, but different students will learn at different rates and need different strategies and supports to assist them in their learning (Bonner 2016, Towsley and Schmid 2020). Three defining traits of mastery grading are providing students with learning objectives for course content, allowing students opportunities to show mastery on assessments that are aligned to the learning objectives, and giving students multiple ways to demonstrate mastery of each learning objective (Campbell et al. 2020, Cilli-Turner et al. 2020, Towsley and Schmid 2020).

Mastery grading begins by assessing students’ currently level of understanding on a topic with a pre-test or similar task (Bonner 2016). With the information from this assessment, different teaching strategies and activities are used to address areas that are below standard (Bonner 2016). During these activities and formative assessments, instructors provide students with descriptive feedback (not grades) and help students determine the areas they need to invest more time in learning (Bonner 2016). Students then complete assessments that are aligned to the learning objectives to demonstrate their level of understanding of the content. If students are proficient, they move on to the next topic. If students do not meet the standards, then remediation is given in the form of additional activities that are directly related to the area that needs improvement. The student then retakes the assessment or a similar assessment covering the same learning objectives until mastery is shown for the content (Bonner 2016).

Benefits of Mastery Grading

Mastery grading has many benefits for both students and instructors. Students are allowed to work at their own pace to learn the material and are less anxious about assessments because they know they can retake exams or other assessments if they do not understand a concept (Towsley and Schmid 2020). Students also show shift from focusing solely on grades to being more involved with learning and over time develop a growth mindset (Cilli-Turner et al. 2020, Towsley and Schmid 2020). Instructors find that mastery grading reduces instructor-student conflicts over grades and some instructors report a reduction in time required for grading (Towsley and Schmid 2020).

Possible Challenges with Mastery Grading

Mastery grading may pose some challenges due to the self-paced nature of the learning process and the need for remediation. Since students are learning at their own pace, some students may need more time to complete work within the weeks of a traditional semester (Towsley and Schmid 2020). Whether due to time management issues or needing more time to show mastery, these students will require structured methods to ensure they complete the course requirements before the end of the semester or a policy for completing the course using an “incomplete” grade. Additionally, students that have difficulty with a specific learning objective will need activities, formative assessments, and feedback to improve their understanding of the topic (Towsley and Schmid 2020). Creating these remediations requires time and a deep understanding of the issues students are having with understanding the concept. Thus, instructors may feel rushed to develop enough and the correct type of interventions to help students learn the material and meet the learning objectives. Additionally, because the course is self-paced, the instructor will need to have most, if not all, of the materials for the course available to students at the beginning of the semester.

How to Implement Mastery Grading

Mastery grading relies on four main steps: determining the learning objectives, defining mastery, establishing grading protocols, and incorporating flexibility (Cilli-Turner et al. 2020).

Determine learning objectives
Similar to other types of standards-based grading systems, mastery grading requires the learning objectives be explicitly stated and provided to students (Sadler 2005, Bonner 2016, Towsley and Schmid 2020). Instructors need to determine the topics and write learning objectives that are then aligned to the assessments in the course (for more information on writing learning objectives, read the “Designing your Course” pages in the Teaching@UNL resource).
Define mastery
The key to mastery grading is establishing the standard of mastery for assignments and assessments in a course. The standard of master can be based on a percentage correct on an assignment, a specific number correct for a specific learning objective on an exam, or a minimum number of “passed” aspects of a rubric for a project. The standard of mastery can be the same for all assessments or specific to different types of assessment. Thus, it is important to determine how mastery will be achieved in the course as this will dictate the types and number of assessments students need to complete (and to what level of proficiency) in the course (Cilli-Turner et al. 2020). For example, an instructor my determine that 80% accuracy in responses is the mastery level for a quiz that covers a single standard. Alternatively, a project may be graded on multiple standards with each standard requiring a 90% for that part of the rubric.
Additionally, the frequency for showing the standard of master can be a single demonstration of mastery (on a quiz or exam) or require students to show mastery on multiple different assessments for the same learning objective (on a quiz, an exam, as part of a project, etc.). How often students need to show mastery may depend on the importance of the learning objective (if a course only has three learning objectives, then students would most likely need to demonstrate it multiple times compared to a course with 50 learning objectives that are very specific to skills or procedural knowledge) and how much remediation is incorporated into the course. If the course is designed with multiple ways to demonstrate mastery, then it is easier to require students to show mastery many times. Additionally, it is important to think about the time required for students to learn a skill and implement it. If it only takes ten minutes to learn and demonstrate understanding, then having a higher level of mastery with multiple opportunities for student to demonstrate mastery can easily be incorporated into the course. However, if a task takes weeks to show mastery of many learning objectives, then it may be impractical to ask students to show their mastery for these learning objectives more than once.
Establish grading protocols
Once the learning objectives are written and the method for determining single assessment mastery is decided, the next step is to set-up the grading protocols and provide students with a detailed explanation for how grading will occur in the course (Cilli-Turner et al. 2020). There are two main methods for determining the course grade in mastery grading: converting standards to points and using a criterion-based grading system or requiring a specific number or list of standards to be meet for each letter grade. In the first method, each learning objective becomes an “assignment” in the grade book and students that meet the learning objective earn credit (points). The total number of learning objectives determines the total possible points and students earn a percentage of their grade each time they meet a learning objective. In this system, more important learning objectives can be weighed to increase their importance in the overall course grade. Thus, a course may have 10 learning objectives, but 20 total points if some learning objectives (“key concepts”) are worth 3 points and must be demonstrated multiple times in the semester compared to other learning objectives that are on interesting topics but are not essential to understanding the main goals of the course. The percentage of points earned is then converted to a letter grade or similar system for final course grades.
The alternative to reverting to a criterion-based grading system is to use a tier approach with the learning objectives. In this system, the instructor determines which learning objective must be met (“required to know”) to earn a C in the course. These are the same “key concepts” that would have been weighed in the other grading method. The remaining learning objectives are then divided into “good to know” (which if all learning objectives are met earns a B) and “interesting, but not essential” (which if all or a specific number are met earns an A). The tiered approach allows students to determine the grade they wish to earn and work on additional learning objectives to earn these grades.
Incorporate flexibility
The final step in mastery grading is to determine how flexibility will be incorporated into the course to allow students opportunities to meet learning objectives that were not met during the first attempt at the assessment. Depending on the course, the requirements for resubmitting assignments or retaking quizzes and exams can be set up using a few different methods: open resubmission, earned resubmission, token systems, or frequency or attempt limitations (Cilli-Turner et al. 2020).
Open resubmission or retakes essentially allows the student to resubmit any assignment or assessment as often as needed to reach mastery. Although this system is the most flexible, it is often problematic to implement if a class has more than ten students due to the time required to grade multiple resubmissions. Additionally, this approach can lead some students to do poor quality or incomplete work knowing that they will receive feedback that will help them to only do the minimum required to meet the learning objective. It can take on the same feel as point grubbing as student play the system to meet learning objectives instead of learning the material to achieve the learning objective.
Earned resubmission tries to avoid the issues of open resubmission by explicitly stating that an assessment will not be graded until it meets a minimum level. For example, students may need to meet a minimum page length on an essay before it can be submitted, or a math assignment may require detailed work be shown for all problems prior to submission. Alternatively, earned resubmission may require a student to reflect on their first attempt prior to be able to resubmit the revised version for credit.
Token Systems are used to allow students a specific number of resubmissions or assessment retakes during a semester. For example, an instructor may determine that students can only resubmit three assignments. Thus, students need to determine which assignment or assessment is essential for resubmission and use a token when turning in the revised work. In some token systems, instructors provide opportunities for students to earn tokens instead of giving a predetermined number of tokens. In either method, only a small number of assessments can be resubmitted, so instructors will need to make sure each learning objective has multiple assignments or assessments that allow for mastery to be shown.
Frequency or attempt limitations for assessments limits the number of times an assignment can be resubmitted or a test retaken. Thus, students know before an assessment that they have only one retake or only two times they can resubmit the assignment. Similar to the token system, instructors will need to ensure that multiple assignments cover a single learning objective to allow students opportunities to meet all learning objectives in a course.

Although these four steps will help with developing a course using mastery grading, the following resources may also be helpful when first designing and implementing mastery grading.

Bonner, M. W. (2016). Grading rigor in counselor education: A specifications grading framework. Educational Research Quarterly 39.4: 21-42.

Campbell, R., D. Clark, and J. O’Saughnessy (2020). Introduction to the special issue on implementing mastery grading in the undergraduate mathematics classroom. PRIMUS 30:837-848.

Cilli-Turner, E., J. Dunmyre, T. Mahoney, and C. Wiley (2020). Mastery grading: Build-a-syllabus workshop. PRIMUS 30: 952-978.

Sadler, D. R. (2005). Interpretations of criteria-based assessment and grading in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 30: 175-194.

Townsley, M. and D. Schmid (2020). Alternative grading practices: An entry point for faculty in competency-based education. Competency-based Education DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/cbe2.1219.

"What is Mastery Grading" was written by Michelle Larson. Published to the website January 30, 2023.

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