(464a) Putting the Focus on Learning and Skill Development through Mastery Grading in Thermodynamics | AIChE

(464a) Putting the Focus on Learning and Skill Development through Mastery Grading in Thermodynamics


Ekenseair, A. - Presenter, Northeastern University
Assessment, in particular the assigning of grades, is often one of the least rewarding ways in which instructors and students must interact with each other in the context of completing an academic course. Student expectations and the typical structures of assessment and grading both often lead to perceptions that grading can be arbitrary, does not match the student’s own sense of achievement in the course, and that the instructor is somehow taking points or better grades away from students. In addition, the pandemic-induced switch to virtual and/or hybrid forms of assessment and examination have increased the prevalence and concern over cheating, through both greater accessibility using online resources and a heightened sense of need amongst a stressed student population.

In an effort to address these issues, the Mastery Grading assessment structure (also referred to as Specifications Grading) was adapted and implemented in two sections (68 total students) of a Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics 1 course in Fall 2020. The basic idea behind this methodology is to put the focus of the course on the development of skills and competencies, as opposed to the collection of points for a grade. As such, simple, timed assessments are built around identified learning targets (LTs) for the course and graded as either Satisfactory (S) or Unsatisfactory (U) (e.g. pass/fail). Students are then allowed to take these learning target assessments (LTAs) as many times as needed to demonstrate Mastery of that concept or skill based on a set of expected Specifications. Higher-level thinking and problem solving is then further assessed through Challenge Problems (CPs), which require the integration of multiple LTs to address a more complex problem. Students are allowed to spend unlimited and unrestricted time working through the CPs and may also re-submit them to correct errors following feedback and scoring. Grades are then earned as students progress through the semester in accordance with the level of demonstrated Mastery of course concepts and skills.

Upon completion of the semester, student survey responses indicated an overwhelming support for continued adaptation and implementation of this assessment structure. Students also self-reported a lower rate of cheating in this course compared to other courses that semester or in prior semesters. The average grades earned by students were comparable to grades assigned in prior iterations of this course, though a divergence was noted: while more students were able to put in extra effort to grow through initial failures (hence more higher grades), another subset of students found it more difficult to demonstrate certain levels of mastery (hence more lower grades as well). No longer was it possible for students to cram and muddle their way through 2-3 high-stakes examinations, often just happening to put together the right equations in the right order without understanding why. Instead, students were forced to continually engage with learning, practice, and assessment throughout the semester to grow their own capabilities and understanding. In summary, the Mastery Grading assessment structure was successfully adapted, implemented, and was well-received in a Thermodynamics 1 course.

Talbert, R., Mastery Grading and Academic Honesty, https://rtalbert.org/mastery-grading-and-academic-honesty/, July 20, 2020, Accessed 12 April 2021.

Nilson, L.B., Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2014.