Mastery of assignments

A critical difference between challenges in games and school assignments is the way results are presented. Usually a game will emphasize growth and results, with the player earning loot, XP or gold, where a school assignment will simply be graded on a scale of “how good did you do compared to the average student”. Both presentations can contain information on strong and weak points.

The problem here is that a student with a skill level below the average student will consistently be discouraged by low grades, instead of encouraged by evidence of growth. This discouragement may often impede growth, as the student don’t put the required energy into future school work.

What I suggest is to use the approach from game challenges when presenting the results of the students assignments. I have developed the following system, which can be used at three levels of complexity, depending on your preferences as a teacher.

The first level is very easy, and will probably be a faster way of giving feedback than what you normally do. Second and third level add more value, but also require you to spend a little time and energy on the system.

First level – knowledge increase

We recognize as teachers that students grow through the school year, and if their skills didn’t grow, their grades would drop a lot in a year.
So the first level mastery of assignments is simply to communicate this fact clearly.

When a student get the same grade as is last assignment, you put a note saying “you have learnt something”. Even if the grade drops slightly, from a B+ to a B, or a C to a C-, you still write “you have learnt a bit since last time”. Of cause, if the student drops more than this, you should not write a message about growth (and don’t write a punishing message – games don’t do that).
And when a student actually increase their grade, you get to write messages such as “you have learnt a lot” in different variations.

This simple message itself is encouraging. I use it with a system of feedback mentioning two positive and two negative aspects of their answer to the assignment.

Second level – mastery medals

Example of a nicely edited spreadsheet used for a combination of second and third level Mastery of Assignment feedback

Every genre of assignments has different areas the students will need to master, and you need to identify around 5-6 areas. When I consider a physics report, the areas are:

  • Purpose (what is the purpose of the experiments?)
  • Theory
  • Description of experiment
  • Measurements
  • Calculations
  • Conclusion

Now when giving mastery medals, the idea is to grade every area with a medal:
Bronze – acceptable, Silver – good, Gold – almost perfect / impressive. Or no medal – not acceptable. You also write some feedback on what was good or bad on each area.

What is encouraging about this is that even a below-average student may get a gold medal on one area, or at least a few silvers. This enforce the idea that the student have some areas of good understanding, even if others are lacking.

A nice use of the medals is to use gold-medal earners as mentors, they can showcase their assignments and give feedback to other students in this area when writing the next report.

Notice that the areas doesn’t need to have the same weight. In a physics report, it is usually only the best students that manage to present their calculations near perfectly, so this area count more in my assessment of their grade than the others.

The best way to present mastery medals is in a spreadsheet. That way you can include feedback from earlier assignments, and the student get a good overview of every area – what kind of comments and medals has he got in the past.
Ultimately, this kind of overview helps the student to improve his work in the next assignment.

Third level – mastery score

So in order to really get the point of growth over grades through, you can just hide the grade. It is replaced by a point score that more accurately reflects the value of the student’s work, by taking the growing difficulty of the assignments into account.

The score of each student is calculated as maximum points x percentage, where the percentage relates to the grade of the student.
If you already grade assignments by percentages, you won’t need a conversion table. Otherwise, it could look as this (7-point grading scale):

A = 90% to 100%, B = 80 % to 90%, C = 70% to 80 %, D = 60% to 70%, E = 50% to 60%, F=20% to 50%, G = below 20%.

The maximum points value increase by 20% for each assignment, creating a sequence like this: 10, 12, 14, 17, 21, 25, 30, 36, 43, 52.

You may choose to multiply this number with a time factor, so long assignments reward more points than shorter ones. Personally, I’ve multiplied the basic maximum point value with the number of hours the students are expected to spend on the assignment.

Now what the student will get is a score that steadily increase for each assignment, provided that they don’t drop dramatically in their grades. The students will get a written explanation of the system, so they always have the option of making a calculation of their grade, but the grade will never be the first information they see.

Combining the levels

So on every level, the system enforce the idea in the students that keeping a grade is a success and represent learning, even if that grade is below average.

The systems can work even better if combined. I have personally used level 2 and 3 combined for classes with a lot of assignments, and level 1 alone for classes with few assignments. But it is perfectly possible to mix and match the levels any way you prefer, and add your own notes on top.