Blueprint integrates the principles and practices of mastery assessment. Mastery assessment is a system for helping more students achieve learning goals. It is based on a well researched set of principles:
- Clarity of objectives Define clear short-term objectives, consistent with longer term goals
- Aligned teaching Teaching that is carefully aligned with the objectives, that gives students sufficient opportunity to learn
- Pre-assessment Checking students’ understanding of prior concepts and skills to make sure they are ready for new concepts
- Diagnostic assessment Assessment that is conducted after each concept is taught, to pinpoint problems with students understanding and act on this
- Re-think The chance for students who did not understand to re-think concepts and retake a quiz to show their mastery
- Extend The opportunity for students who did understand to go deeper and practise higher order thinking
The flowchart shows how these principles are integrated into Blueprint unit planners, for the concept of ‘weight’.
Clarity of objectives
In Blueprint, our objectives are defined in terms of the 3 assessment objectives used at GCSE:
- Acquire objectives (AO1, aka Know in the KS3 Science Syllabus) objectives require an integrated and accurate grasp of the concept, without significant misconceptions
- Apply objectives (AO2) require students to recognise the relevant aspects of the concept in unfamiliar situations that they have not been taught about
- Analyse objectives (AO3) require students to go beyond the knowledge taught and use higher order thinking to generate new insights
The idea is that the objectives are so clear and the assessments so valid, that you can ‘teach to the test’. In other words, equip students with the knowledge they need for ‘Acquire’, the transferrable understanding for ‘Apply’ and the ability to integrate concepts with higher order thinking for ‘Analyse’. A well planned teaching sequence would therefore have specific activities for each of these objectives.
In science, concepts are often hierarchical, and require students to have understood simpler ideas first. Take the big idea of ‘organisms are interdependent’. Young students easily learn descriptive concepts of particular animals and plants that they can experience directly. Later they build on these to form more theoretical concepts like producer and consumer which can only be understood in relation to other concepts. When new knowledge builds on existing ideas like this, students can learn meaningfully. Eventually, students can construct the most inclusive concept, the ecosystem. Learn more about big ideas. However, trying to teach ecosystem without the lower level concepts in place is likely to results in students learning rote.
Research confirms that what students already know (or don’t) is one of the most important factor in how well they learn new ideas. However we often teach ‘ in the dark’ – starting topics without knowing where students are.
We need something more systematic than a ‘starter’ if we are to improve students’ readiness. We call this learning stage ‘activate. It’s a combination of pre-assessment – gaining insight into what students do and do not know, and pre-teaching – acting on this information to make up the gaps in students’ knowledge before teaching a new concept.
The evidence suggests that the combination of pre-assessment and pre-teaching improves outcomes. Knowing what students know also helps teachers be aware of likely trouble spots and spot opportunities to link to students informal knowledge and experiences later.
One of the underlying assumptions of mastery learning is that students all learn at different rates. Rather than think in terms of abilities, psychologist John Carroll proposed that for any given concept, each student needs a different amount of time to learn. That means after initial teaching, some students are likely not to have had enough time yet and some are ready to move on. Diagnostic assessment can tell you which students have not yet grasped the concept well enough and more time, and possibly a different approach. By definition, diagnostic assessment has to happen before the end of a unit, so there is time to act on the findings.
Any school that hopes to “close the gap” without having a way of getting more instructional input to the students who need it is just paying lip service to the idea of equality.
Different assessment methods can be used, but a carefully constructed multiple choice quiz are particularly well suited. They are quick and easy to administer. However they are difficult to write. They need to precisely target the understanding required, and the distractors should be written for students with partial understanding or misconceptions. Ideally students should be involved in using the feedback from the diagnostic assessment to decide whether they understood or not.
Having found out that some students didn’t master the concept, the next step is to give students further opportunities to learn. The evidence from the assessment should identify what aspects of the concept need re-thinking, and from this you can devise or select an appropriate activity or resource. Research has shown that allowing students to demonstrate they can do better after the re-think activity is important to improving achievement. This could be a ‘parallel’ diagnostic quiz. This means it tests the same objectives as the first quiz, and the questions are very similar.
What about students who did master the concept? They can be challenged with a task that requires higher order thinking. The objective in the ‘Analyse’ learning stage can suggest possible extension activities for students to do while others are re-thinking. It is important the extension is engaging. After all, we want students to be motivated to pass the diagnostic quiz. And that it can be done relatively independently, since the teacher will need to focus on helping students with re-thinking.
Pre-assessment: promises and cautions (2016) Thomas Guskey and Jay McTighe
Closing achievement gaps (2007) Thomas Guskey
Mastery learning (2018) Education Endowment Fund