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Testimonial – Graeme Rook
October 2, 2022
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I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the Mastery Transcript Symposium in San Diego last month. I learned a great deal, and one of the breakout sessions in particular (among other great sessions!) resonated with me. In this post, I discuss a grading mechanism discussed in the session and how the environment created by this mechanism can help create a safe growth mindset culture that keeps students feeling secure, motivated, and focused on learning. In turn, I reflect on how mastery grading practices can help boost boathouse culture and athlete selection protocols. Read on…

In a previous post, I documented my experiences with learning and how competency-based learning can help improve the feedback in my classroom, improve output and create transparency while moving away from a grade. In that post, I took another step and thought about how I could apply what I had learned to a coaching context. That work is ongoing and organic; I see great potential in that area. I have started working on a prototype web app that allows for developing digital competency-based rubrics.

Mastery-Based Classroom

One of the breakout sessions during the symposium was called “Making Space For Mastery,” The presenters were Chemistry teacher Colin Quinton and Drew Schrader, a school program manager from Challenge Success

I met Colin and Drew at breakfast at the start of the conference, and we had a great conversation. They were very welcoming, which made me feel more at ease at the symposium, as I was the only member of the faculty at my school to attend the event. This was one of many conversations that allowed me to network and learn from other educators and school administrators. I have been teaching Chemistry for most of my career, so it seemed like the universe was evolving nicely for me that there was a presenter who also happened to be a chemistry teacher. I learned much about mastery/standards-based grading practices during their breakout session. 

Grading For Equity

Colin explained his journey toward the grading system he had devised for his science classes. The book Grading For Equity by Joe Feldman (I am currently reading this/listening to this) was a wonderful resource that discusses historical grading practices and provides an argument for moving away from traditional grading mechanisms to mastery of competencies on a four-point scale.

During the presentation, Colin displayed his grade book and explained how it functioned. The grade book functions as a Google Sheet. The skills/standards are listed on the left. Students are assessed on these standards over time. Each time an assessment occurs, a number between 1 and 4 is entered into the spreadsheet. The current grade for each skill assessment is the number on the left next to the skill title.

I took a picture of this Google Sheets version during the breakout session and, when I returned home, worked to develop a web-based version. You can see the app I created in the two screenshots that follow.

It was interesting to see the visualization of the comparison between one student who learns very quickly and a student that learns at a slower pace. However, both students reach mastery over different lengths of time!

The image below shows what the grade book might look like for a student who picks up concepts quickly and needs less time and, therefore, fewer assessments to reach mastery. As you can see from the image, the colors turn from red and orange to green fairly quickly. We all know students who pick up concepts quickly. 

mastery standards based grade book
Standards-based grade book example with interactive competency-based learning rubric.

The second image below shows a different scenario. In this case, the student takes longer to learn the competencies. As a result, more assessments are needed. However, the essential concept here is that, ultimately, the student reaches mastery of the concepts. Using this grading framework, seat time is effectively taken out of the equation. The student earns grade an A without earlier assessments working to bring the final grade down. 

mastery standards based grade book
Standards-based grade book example with interactive competency-based learning rubric. In contrast to the previous image, more assignments are required before the student reaches mastery.

Creating A Safe Environment For Learning

You will also notice that on the Atomic Theory skill line, the student’s last assessment is a 3, and you may wonder why the overall grade for this skill remains a 4. The three assessments before it were 4s. The student has demonstrated mastery consistently before the 3. By awarding a 4, Colin promotes an environment of safety so that students in his class don’t have that “make or break” on one assessment.

Additionally, students in his class know that there are other future opportunities to demonstrate mastery, so if they don’t get it on the first couple of attempts, they know there is still time. Again, the students are placed in an environment of safety because they know that earlier lower grades don’t have bearing on the final grade. This was a lightbulb moment for me! 

Interactive Grade Book

The skills on the left are clickable when looking at and using the grade book. When they are clicked, the relevant skill line shows up below.  This mechanism makes it very easy to see what the assessment scores indicate a student can or cannot do. This, in turn, helps the student and teacher have a conversation that is rich in feedback. The learning process is the focus and not just what the number means. Our work with the Global Online Academy at Holland Hall has been incredibly helpful in this regard. This standards/competency-based approach goes a long way to help explain what any grade means a student can do, rather than a grade that condenses every aspect of evaluation together into one number.

I got a great deal out of the Mastery Transcript Symposium this year. The experience has allowed me to meet more amazing educators and learn about pedagogy. This will ultimately help my students, athletes, and clients. It has also inspired me to synthesize many concepts I have learned in the last year to build examples of technology that can serve students, teachers, and schools. I’ll keep working on the app, and hopefully, I can find more time to develop the code further and improve the ideas within. The greatest gift that a developer can have is time to innovate…

My thanks to Colin and Drew for their time and energy! I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from them.

What can we learn from this as it applies to coaching and promoting a positive culture in our training environments?

I see some parallels between this mastery approach and my approach to coaching. First, an athlete could start the season with slower performance. However, they do pick up speed over six months by March. This is the point when crews are typically finalized. Based on their most recent performance tracking, I would put much more weight into a decision to include an athlete in a higher-level crew. I can’t see myself excluding an athlete just because their technique, physiology, and psychology were behind others six months ago. I aspire to make coaching decisions based on accurate assessments and data that are as free of bias as possible. If I want to create a growth mindset culture in my boathouse, I think evaluating and assessing lineups for crews should reflect that philosophy of growth over time.

Avoiding Make or Break Selection Decisions

Second, the principle of three grades of a 4 evaluation, followed by a 3 (see my atomic theory comments above), should be factored into the culture and coaching environment. Athletes should be assessed on many factors over a longer period. If my athletes perceive an erg test as a “make or break” scenario, it brings more anxiety into the environment. Creating an environment where future opportunities to prove performance and multiple factors are considered over a longer time horizon for crew selection is essential to promote the growth mindset we want to see in our athletes. Therefore, creating a safe environment for taking risks allows athletes to explore their full potential.

In conclusion, I hope this post has provided food for thought and is valuable to you. The idea of mastery resonants with me profoundly. My coaching, training plans, and teaching practice are oriented toward this north star!

If I can assist you in your rowing journey or help your program get to the next level, please feel free to drop me a line,

Until next time, happy rowing!

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