A word about words

A word about words
Photo by Raphael Schaller / Unsplash

This is a repost from Grading for Growth, my blog about alternative grading practices that I co-author with my colleague David Clark. I post there every other Monday (David does the other Mondays) and usually repost here the next day.

I probably put in more time and work on this particular post than anything I've done for a blog before. I have some additional thoughts on this, not found in the original, at the bottom.

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Words have power. If David and I didn’t think so, we wouldn’t be writing a book or this blog to advocate for changes in the way we grade in higher education. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been growing a global community of practice around alternative grading through our teaching, writing, and collaborations with others on the annual Grading Conference and the Mastery Grading Slack. Along the way, we’ve used a common umbrella term to refer to the alternative grading practices used in all of those places: mastery grading. It’s been handy to have a single term to refer to all of those practices. But there’s also been a growing realization that this term has issues that we can’t avoid any longer.

Today, David and I are making a choice to end the use of the term “mastery grading” to refer to alternative grading practices. We will not be using it in our book except as a historical reference, and we will be moving away from the use of that term in our own practice and in places where we’re involved, like the Slack workspace and the conference, where it’s currently used. In this post, we want to explain why, and give you some tools to think about the issues for yourselves.

The origins of the term "mastery grading" are (to us) unclear. But we have used it freely in the past with a clear intended meaning: grading practices that are not the traditional points-based, "one-and-done" assessments we're familiar with, but those which promote growth and individual mastery with concepts in a course. Whereas traditional grading audits a student's abilities and leaves it at that, the term "mastery grading" is intended to point toward grading philosophies that promote continued development of those abilities so that they are eventually honed into comprehensive skill.

As terminology, “mastery grading” has done good work for us as we have sought to address the pressing issues bound up with traditional grading systems. It has economically described a more valid and more just set of grading practices with the growth of the student in mind. It conveys the idea that all students have the ability — and should have the opportunity — to grow and develop comprehensive skill in what they are studying, by turning short-term failures into fuel for a feedback loop that eventually leads to success.

We still believe this. However, as the idea of “mastery grading” has evolved and its profile has risen, we have more and more frequently run into three major issues with that term. These three issues are why we are deciding to move on from this term.

As alternative grading practices have received more and more awareness, we've seen “mastery grading” become confused or conflated with other pedagogical ideas that also use the word "mastery": mastery learning, flipped mastery, and mastery-based testing. David wrote about mastery-based testing in this post. You can read about the others at the links. They are all ideas with merit, and they have some roots in common with mastery grading. But, none of them are what we mean by “mastery grading”.

As alternative approaches to education across the board gain traction, the confusion between all of these is growing. For example, I (Robert) was contacted recently to give a workshop on mastery learning by someone who had been reading this blog — even though I have never practiced mastery learning personally. I felt bad for wasting the other person’s time, and I wonder how much confusion is caused by the names being so similar.  So we are no longer using “mastery grading” partially to end that confusion.

Issue #2: Issues with expectations and growth mindset

The more we use alternative grading practices in our own classes and talk to others who use them in theirs, the more we think the word "mastery" is too strong of a word to describe what we're after. Of course we do want students to master the material they are learning — eventually. But in reality, true mastery of a subject is something that often takes a lifetime to achieve, and it can look like different things. Inside a single course, really what we want is to set students up for mastery in the future by giving them a solid foundation of skill and the tools to keep learning. “Mastery” is not an accurate description of what we really expect.

And in fact, if we do say a student has “mastered” a concept, this description doesn’t invite further growth or reflection. Once you've mastered a skill, where can you go from there? It actually seems more productive and more conducive to a growth mindset to say, to a successful learner, that they have begun the journey toward mastery but that there’s much left to explore. Calling a learner’s skill “mastery” prematurely, even if they finish strong in our courses, might actually work against what we are really hoping for: Growth.

Issue #3: Connections with slavery and systemic racism

There are two similar, but very different connotations of the word "mastery" in English usage.

One of those is "comprehensive skill" of a human being in a task or a subject of study. One "masters" proof by mathematical induction or the bass guitar, for example. This is found in common academic concepts like the “Master’s degree”, mastery learning, and others. In this sense, “mastery” is a deeply human word that encapsulates the dignity and abilities of every learner. This is the sense that we have always intended with “mastery grading”.

But there is another connotation: the domination of one human being over another. This connotation directly leads to, and comes directly from, the concept of slavery and all other places where a person is the “master” of another person. It is an odious and inhuman concept, the very opposite of what we hope to achieve with “mastery grading”. Sadly, this second meaning has found its way into common technical uses: the term “master bedroom” in real estate, for example, or the idea of “master/slave” in computing and other technical fields. Over the last few years, the use of the word “mastery” in those contexts has been stopped; most realtors now call it the “primary” bedroom instead, for example.

We were first made aware of objections to the term “mastery” in “mastery grading” on these grounds in summer 2020, during the inaugural Mastery Grading Conference. Confronting systemic racism was fresh on the minds of everyone that summer. I remember someone posting on the Slack channel during the conference, asking when we (the organizers) were going to deal with the connotations to slavery that “mastery grading” carried. To be honest, it was the first time this idea had ever crossed my mind, and I was dismissive of it.

But those questions have come and gone in waves over the 18 months since that conference, from people whose sincerity and commitment to learners is beyond reproach. Those questions demand to be taken seriously. In response, the Mastery Grading Conference was renamed to “The Grading Conference”. But as David and I have worked on early drafts for our book, we’ve slowly realized that we need to do more to come to terms (so to speak) with these points.

To help us get outside our own biases and bubbles, we reached out to over a dozen professionals in higher education — some in our personal networks, some who are in the networks of those people — all of whose judgment we trust, and who have strong diversity/equity/inclusion bona fides. We asked them: What should we do about this term, mastery grading?

Every one of the people we reached out to said we should get rid of the term “mastery grading”. They all brought up the three issues I have outlined above, as well as the point that words matter. While for some, the term “mastery” points directly to the idea of “comprehensive skill”, it can also be a constant reminder of the horrors of slavery and the continuing impact of systemic racism.

So we are dropping the term.

We are not doing it to score Fake Internet Points, or to pat ourselves on the back for being progressive, or any such thing. We want something more: to help create a setting where learners and instructors can all thrive and engage their humanness to the greatest degree.

So the replacement term is…

Just kidding, actually there isn’t one.

As issues with the term “mastery grading” have persisted, people everywhere have tried to suggest a replacement name. I won’t try to list the ones we’ve heard or seen because there are too many, and as I wrote here, terminology can be a distractor from the urgent issues at hand. There is definitely the temptation to spend more time and energy figuring out a catchy name for all these grading practices, than is spent on actually doing the practices and iterating on them to make them better.

So, for now, we make no attempt to invent a new term to take the place of "mastery grading". We have tried, with the help of many others, and none of the proposed replacements captures the essence of what we mean without giving up some other essential aspect or introducing new cultural or linguistic baggage we'd rather not have. So we will typically refer to "alternative grading practices", the specific flavors of which do have distinct names like "standards-based grading", "specifications grading", and so on. And we will focus on the common concepts that drive all of these, rather than trying to come up with a common name. You are free to call it whatever you wish; if something catches on, please let us know.

Other thoughts on this for rtalbert.org readers:

  • You might ask, "Why was this such a hard thing to do? Why didn't you just drop the term at the first sign of problems?" It's a fair question. The answer is that there are few things in the world I dislike more than performative virtue-signaling designed to earn Fake Internet Points. I was not convinced, at all, in the beginning that dropping the word "mastery" from "mastery grading" was anything but this kind of fake concern. To be clear, I am deeply interested in social justice – as a Catholic and therefore someone who subscribes to the Catholic social doctrines of solidarity and subsidiarity and simply as a human being living in the world. I am not interested at all in getting retweets or appearing woke. Unless and until I was convinced that a terminology change was going to do real work to make the world more just, I was not going to be on board with it. I must admit I am still not fully convinced. But, I am convinced that most of the people who care deeply about this issue are sincere; and I am also convinced that the issue of connotations to slavery when put together with the other two issues I mentioned definitely is enough to warrant a change.
  • And it took me this long to get to that point, and it wouldn't have happened without the help of colleagues who could help me understand the problem. I think that's important lesson.
  • As I said, David and I are conspicuously avoiding having a naming contest. But if I had to propose a different name here... I have been liking the term iterative grading for an umbrella term, since all the grading systems we think and write about have that in common — iteration through a feedback loop.
Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.