Sam Stewart and the Mastery Approach to Teaching

The Adams Center would like to recognize faculty who have exhibited extraordinary teaching, scholarship and service. We want to congratulate faculty members for their hard work, achievements and advancements in their field. This month we are spotlighting Sam Stewart who was nominated by his department chair for his excellent example in project-based approaches, facilitating effective peer feedback, and mastery approaches to assessment.

Stewart_Sam108x153What are you doing?

In order to assure student competence as a potential teacher educator, I am requiring mastery on all assignments in my classes. Simply stated, if a student fails to score at or above a 74% level on the assignment, the student must redo the assignment to a level that is at a minimum score of 74%. In addition, not turning in an assignment is not an option if the student wants to satisfactorily complete the course.

Why are you doing it?

My first reason for requiring mastery is that I want to model for my students, who are aspiring teachers, that good teaching is not about students obtaining good grades but is about what students learn. I make it a point to not assign what might be thought of as busy work and make sure that my students know why the assignment is of value. If the assignment is not important enough to be required to be done correctly, then it is not an assignment worth doing.

My second reason for requiring mastery is that I teach in a professional licensure program. Just as I would not want a physician or attorney who are not competent treating or representing me, I do not want to license teachers who have not demonstrated competence in skills and knowledge necessary to be a successful teacher.

Why do you think it is important to incorporate this practice into the classroom?

For too long it has been possible for students to play the grade game and not learn the content and skills being taught. This has been true at the K-12 level and at the college level. For example, a high school student might go to class every day, be on time, do all the homework, and receive a good grade even though the student failed to master or even comprehend some of the concepts being taught. Another example is that a really good student with many good grades might just opt to not do an assignment because as they calculate their grade they find they can take a zero and still maintain a grade that is acceptable to them.

Who is being impacted the most?

Ironically, the students in my classes are being impacted most as their grades are improved by the fact they are held to a mastery standard. It is really difficult to fail a class where you have completed all work competently. It also removes a significant amount of stress from the classroom as the students and I are all focused on the learning and not on the grade.

A second group that I hope are impacted greatly are the future students of my teacher education students. When my students become teachers, I am hopeful they will change the classroom culture to focus on learning and not on grades. This allows the classroom to be a place where everyone has hope; a place where teaching and learning are not punitive in nature.

What hopes do you have for the future when this work is done? 

When my students become teachers I am hopeful they will change their classroom culture and hopefully that of the schools where they work to focus on learning and not on grades. This allows the classroom to be a place where everyone has hope and teaching and learning are not punitive in nature. It is time that K-12 education becomes a places where it is the student and the teacher against the material, and students are evaluated by demonstrating competence on standards.

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