Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Conflict of Individual Mastery Learning and Team Projects

I am uncertain how to optimally balance the desires for mastery learning and teamwork. This is not a new problem, but a conversation with a friend this week helped me articulate the particular pressures. I hope that summarizing the problem here will both give me practice explaining the tensions and foster conversation toward solutions.

Mastery Learning has students do work until it is done correctly. In theory, this is one the simplest and best ways to ensure that students gain the benefit we intend from assigned work. I have used a form of mastery learning for years in CS222. Students can resubmit assignments all the way through the end of the semester in order to show that they have learned from them. From very early in my experiments with mastery learning, I imposed a throttle on how many resubmissions students can use per week. This serves two purposes: it prevents students from dumping piles of work on me all at once, and because it reduces the number of evaluations I have to do at any time, it minimizes the time it takes me to give feedback to the students. I have a hard time imagining how advocates of "pure mastery learning," with any number of resubmissions allowed at any time, manage this.

I am an advocate of teamwork in undergraduate education with an important caveat that teams should only be given work that requires a team to accomplish. That is, if the work can be done by one person, it will be done by one person. There is a challenge here, where teams may not recognize how much work is actually required. That is why learning how to set scope and communicate is an implicit learning objective in almost every course I teach. I expect there to be some struggles here, the kind necessary for learning.

Mastery learning and teamwork come into conflict in my classes. Ideally, students should learn the skills and dispositions required before joining a team and working on a project together. The best way to ensure that all students learn that material is mastery learning, but with mastery learning, I cannot know when students will have completed all the work. One option is to impose an additional deadline before the project, but this seems counter to mastery learning: what would a student do after that deadline who has not mastered the requisite material? Another option is to gate the final project behind completion of the requisite material, but then teams would form in a staggered way. It is hard enough to get teams to form that can schedule sufficient out-of-class meetings to succeed, and adding any more impediments to this seems troublesome at best. An alternative way around this is to convert all the courses into studio courses, where there is no excuse for not being able to schedule time because it's built into the schedule. That comes with a significant cost to me: as much as I love studio classes, one has to recognize that they take twice as much of my time without a commensurate release of responsibilities elsewhere.

I am not sure whether traditional assignments or portfolios make a big difference in terms of this conundrum. For example, I could have students get into team projects right away, and by the end of the semester, turn in a portfolio that demonstrates their having individually met the learning objectives. This runs into the same problem as traditional resubmission of assignments, that students could put off working on the portfolios until much later than when that knowledge would have been helpful on the team projects.

The options I have sorted out seem to be the following.

  • Allow students to join team projects before they have shown mastery of the requisite material, continuing to allow resubmission of individual work while projects are ongoing.
  • Allow mastery learning resubmissions up until team projects start, or some other deadline before the end of the semester. A student's grade on those individual elements would be fixed at this point similarly to how they are at the end of a semester.
  • Gate team projects behind completion of mastery learning exercises: students can only join a team once they have shown that they have individually learned what they need to know. 
  • Separate the courses entirely: require a particular grade in a course that is all about prerequisite knowledge in order to get into a course where teams apply and build on that knowledge together.
Now that I write out that last one, it makes me realize I don't have a good answer as to why the deadline for mastery learning assignments is the end of the semester. That seems to be the tail wagging the dog. Isn't the end of the semester also an entirely arbitrary deadline? Perhaps that gives some credence to the second bullet above that I had not given it before.

I fear I'm looking for a silver bullet. In the absence of such a thing, I am curious how other faculty balance these issues.


  1. Maybe something between 1 and 2? Allow mastery demonstration until the end of the semester, but greatly throttle resubmissions after team projects start, thus encouraging more resubmissions before hand, and thus (presumably) more mastery before the teams form.

    Your observation about the end of the semester being an arbitrary "end of learning" line in the sand is an interesting one. When we're forced to assign grades at the end of a semester, a grade for a first-year class--when viewed a couple years later--does not indicate how well the learner understands the content _now_, but rather how well they understood it at an arbitrary moment in time. What if they continued to work at it, and a month later everything made sense? What if a learner could show mastery days/weeks/months/years(?) later and we went back an revised their grade to reflect current understanding. This would mean that their transcript would more accurately reflect what they've mastered by the time they graduate, as opposed at the end of arbitrary semester deadlines.

    (And, I won't even bring up the whole point-averaging-hiding-what-was-actually-learned issue.)

    1. I had not thought of a two-phase deadline. I wonder what would happen with a policy like "Infinite resubmissions until X date, then max one per week to clean things up"? That might be worth trying: it's a low cost experiment that might reveal something interesting.

      Wouldn't it be interesting to turn the whole curriculum into competency-based? I wonder how that would affect what courses we offer. That is, I don't think the university would let us get away with not using "courses" as the essential unit of loading faculty and students alike. I imagine it would be difficult to come up with an equitable model of competency opportunities. Also, I am uncertain we would agree on a set of competencies. Yet, it's an interesting thought experiment.

      Regarding hiding-what-was-learned, I think it's important to talk about "From whom?" I don't think my students have any doubt about what they have or have not shown evidence of learning. I spend a lot of time giving them feedback about this. Any attempt to turn such an experience into a grade--whether it's via specifications grading or averaging or any other summary--is going to lose something. This is why I pondered, in my other post yesterday, why we haven't had a real faculty-led revolution against grading policies as such.

    2. I may try the two-phase deadline in the spring to see how it goes. I'm thinking the one/per week might need to be reduced after the team projects start. If not, it will be like it is now, with little to motivate them to resubmit them earlier.

      I posted my first comment before reading your next post. The last part would have been better on it. For me, the "hiding" would be from others looking at the grade, trying to figure out what it actually means. Is an N of 2 enough to start a faculty-led revolution? If so, count me in!