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A Look at Perusall & Mastery Learning | Social Learning Amplified

 

In this episode of Social Learning Amplified, Eric Mazur catches up with Jon Bergmann, one of the pioneers of the flipped classroom movement. Jon uses Perusall in his classes to facilitate student discussion. During the discussion, Jon introduces the concept of Mastery Learning, which is covered in his  new book,  The Mastery Learning Handbook.

Eric Mazur:

Welcome to the Social Learning Amplified podcast, the podcast that brings us candid conversations with educators who are finding new ways to engage and motivate their students inside and outside the classroom. Each episode of Social Learning Amplified will give you real life examples and practical strategies you can put into practice in your own courses. Let's meet today's guest. Welcome to Social Learning Amplified. I'm your host Eric Maur, and our guest on the episode today is John Bergmann from Houston Christian High School in Houston, Texas, Flipped Learning activist and author of an upcoming book entitled The Mastery Learning Handbook. John, thank you for joining me today.

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Jon Bergmann:

It's great to see you again, Eric. It's just yeah the work that you've done and the work I've done work together so well. Love supporting the kind of stuff you're doing.

Eric Mazur:

Well, I love to reconnect. John, mastery learning was introduced in 1968 by Benjamin Bloom, and over the past 50 some years, it's reappeared in various forms from mastery based learning to mastery grading and mastery transcripts. And it appears that the pandemic has precipitated the sudden increase in interest in mastery learning. I, I'd love to hear what brought you to mastery learning, but before you do so, perhaps you could start by briefly explaining to our listeners what mastery learning is.

Jon Bergmann:

Sure. Eric, mastery learning has been around for a long time. In fact, you all, all of the listeners, you've had a mastery learningexperience. Let's just think the driver's license, you had to pass the test to, to get your driver's license or a doctor has to pass the board exam. So if you fail your test, so to speak, your driver's test, then you get some help, you get some remediation and then you take it again. So the big gist of a mastery learning classroom, students move through some series of content and then when they get to the end of the content, they take some sort of an assessment. When they take assessment, if they fail, we can define what that means, then they get remediation and get help. But some students of course don't fail. They, they're successful, they prove, demonstrate mastery, and then they move on. So that's the gist of what mastery learning is.

Eric Mazur:

And what brought you to Mastery Learning?

Jon Bergmann:

You know, it started when I first started doing Flipped Learning. So back in 2007, eight, that's when Erin Sams and I started, you know, playing around with flip learning. And what happened is like that first year that we're doing just a kind of a regular flipped class, well, the counselor came to me and she said, John, I got a new teacher for your chemistry class or new student for your chemistry class and this second semester. And I said, she can't come. And then I said, well wait because she hadn't had any chemistry background. I said, well, wait, we've got these very videos the student could start at, at the beginning of chemistry because I'm not, you know, lecturing at all. And so this young lady got through almost a whole year of chemistry in one semester and that's when Erin and I started saying, what if we did that for all of our students?

And so we began the whole mastery learning journey there. Then I had that sort of weird, our first book came out and then for seven years I really traveled around the world working with teachers, helping to flip their classroom. And then when I returned to the classroom right before the pandemic backed I said, I've gotta do mastery learning, because that's what I really believed was the secret sauce of education. And here we go. I've now been doing it for four years in the midst of the pandemic and I'm so convinced that it works.

Eric Mazur:

And now you wrote a book.

Jon Bergmann:

Yeah. Yeah. So in the process.

Eric Mazur:

Tell me, I know what it takes to write books. So tell me about why you decided to write the book and what you are offering your readers.

Jon Bergmann:

You know, as I was teaching through the pandemic, as so many, I'm sure of the listeners, were I realized that mastery learning, the things that I had been doing and really started to develop, you know, or add to Bloom's work, if you will, all those years ago, I realized this was something that could help us teach our way outta the pandemic. And so I contacted my publisher, A S C D, and said, I think I meant to write a book about this. And they said, deal. You know, let's do this. And so then I started the process of finding people who have done mastery learning all around the world. Researchers, mostly practitioners, teachers. And then over the course of last summer, not a year ago now, right, we're recording this in, what is it, almost October of 2023, I spent all my waking hours in the summer. I, you know, I'm a teacher, so I, I'd go to Starbucks for five hours every morning that summer and write. Now I had done a bunch of research, lots of Zoom interviews read a bunch of papers. And so I began the process of writing this book. And I'm so excited what it's turned into.

Eric Mazur:

I'd love to hear about some of the surprising things you learned about mastery learning. I mean, you, you were talking about traveling the world, researching. So what, what did you find out while you were doing your research for your book or, or you know, perhaps even from your own implementation of it these last four years?

Jon Bergmann:

Yeah, I'd say it's a combination of things. So when Erin and I started the mastery learning journey in 2008 or nine or something like that we didn't <laugh> research, we just went for it. Subsequently, I mean, writing the book and talking to those people changed my perspective on how I was even doing mastery learning. And some examples some of the research on mastery learning indicates that works best for students who struggle and it isn't as effective with advanced students. And I saw that in my own classrooms is that my advanced students, they, they mastered, but they weren't really pushed. And so one of the questions I was in search of is how do you challenge your advanced students? And it really was a combination. And so I'll give you one strategy that I'm now using that's really working. and I got this from a combination of a middle school history teacher in, I wanna say it was East Coast, I wanna say New Jersey, something like that.

And a finished researcher <laugh>. So these two people, I had this huge aha and the aha was I actually have different assessments. So in the book I talk about three levels of assessment. This is the middle school history teacher was number one. I have the deep level test and then a clear level test, if you will, and a basic level test so that I can now write test questions or challenging, not just test questions. It's, it's also experiences, but not all tests are what you think of as a traditional test that are challenging to my top students. But I also can, you know, have a, if you will, a test for just basic understanding for the students who struggle with the content. So my students, it's a choose your own adventure. They can choose to take the basic test, the clear test or the deep test. Now this year I've kind of modified it a little bit more and I've, I've moved to just two levels of tests of clear or a deep. And what I've found is I really have been able to challenge my more different, my, my more advanced students with much more unique and interesting types of assessment experiences.

Eric Mazur:

So I think you touch upon a really important point and one that's very near and dear to my heart assessment. And, and in a certain sense, mastery learning is a form of assessment and, and and including assessment into the overall, you know, course design and pedagogical design is long overdue. My question is this, how do you, since you brought up, you know, the more, the more advanced students, how do you distinguish your more advanced students from those who, you know, scrape by but still manage to master, you know, a successive number of units?

Jon Bergmann:

So I'm not sure I'm sitting there trying to identify, it's my goal to push the students to the extent that I think they can be pushed push or encourage whatever word you want to use. And what's interesting Eric, is that sometimes it's one student who will challenge himself on unit one and then on unit two they need to drop back to a more basic understanding. And again, it's choose your own adventure. But I am trying to challenge the students to take and to do the most difficult one that they are capable of, I guess. And I think the key to that is knowing your students and, and watching them and monitoring them. Cuz the beauty of my job is I can talk around and help kids all day. And I am sitting down with students this morning I was sitting down with my physics students working through some difficult problems. And I'm thinking this student needs to challenge themself with the more difficult assessment. We call 'em boss battles because they're like a little gamified. So they take most difficult boss battle. This student is really struggling and I need to provide more remediation, but I don't see them necessarily achieving the, the deep level boss battle, so to speak. And I dunno, I get to know my kids.

Eric Mazur:

So maybe the friction really comes. And, and this is something that, that, that I've been wondering with the grades, right? Because the grades, in a sense are an extrinsic reward for achieving a certain level. And then, you know, with the sort of, if you want past fail approach of mastery based learning, you end up, you know, sort of narrowing the, the the distribution and in a, in a system that, and when I, I mean system, I mean the school system, the university system, society as a whole, which sort of rewards high grades. You sort of disincentivize the people of going beyond bare minimum, you know, because of this extrinsic reward of the grade. So how, how do you reconcile grades, which I'm su sure your school requires, and the beauty of this mastery learning approach?

Jon Bergmann:

So I I say in the book that I have a love hate relationship with grades.

Eric Mazur:

It's better than me. Cause I have a hate hate relationship with grades. <laugh>.

Jon Bergmann:

I have really struggled with grades in the concept. I mean, when I first started teaching, I was very traditional in my grading practices. And what I really moved philosophically to is competency based grading system that doesn't reward students based on some arbitrary percentage that said, and I teach a school where percentages matter and I don't have a choice but to live in the percentage world. And so I basically have a bit of a hacked system. So I'm, and there are two sets of grades in my mind. This is, I'm grading for what it's worth, I'm not a hundred percent thing. This is the way to go. So because of my situation because percentages matter, 50% of the grade, I know this is horrible, is what we minor our grades and that's formative assessments. So I am walking around doing formative assessments. So in a particular unit, let's say that there are seven objectives.

In fact this is one of the students will be taking their test on, if you will, next week is seven assessments, seven missions, such seven lessons. And I am walking around and assessing their work. And it really is, you got it or you didn't. It really, it's, it's a check mark or not a check mark and I, I care that they get to a certain level of mastery in each lesson. Okay? But then there is the summit of assessment and the sub assessment they're gonna take the test. But the beauty of this is it's mastery. So when the student fails the test, and the way I've defined failing by the way is, and again, it's a percentage argue with me all you want 80%, they have to get 80% or more before they can be considered mastery. And I think I'm getting better at writing questions where that really does mean something.

And if they don't, they get a 72, they get a 42, then they're gonna come in and they're gonna retake it. Actually, they're gonna get some remediation and they're gonna retake it. And what I have found with my kids is they love it because in most of their other classes, you take the test on Tuesday, good luck. And what you get is what you get. The fact that they have an additional opportunities to retake the test allows them to demonstrate master take a lot of the pressure off. They've said this over and over and over again, that that is one of their best features. And so yeah, it's still a percentage, but the fact that they can retake it makes a big difference. You know what, I dunno, a a thought I've had, I dunno if we've ever talked about this, but I believe our educational system is sending a message.

I think this is the message. If you learn fast, you're smart. If you learn slow, you're dumb. I believe that we're past - I don't believe if that's, that's not a true statement, but that is what we're telling students. And I disagree with that statement. And therefore, if a student has a second opportunity or a third opportunity to demonstrate mastery, then I mean, I don't care when a student learns, I care that they learn the content, I care that they learn it. Right? We have a, we have a paradigm, we have a broken system, and I'm trying to address that to some degree with my grading practices.

Eric Mazur:

Well, nobody learns at a fixed rate, right? I mean, you and I each may learn faster in one aspect of one course or one domain than another. So that, that premise, I think is as you point out, not not the right premise. I, I think you and I discussed one opportunity or another the the, the approach of specifications grading, which is sort of loosely related to mastery learning in the sense that it divides the course into units and, and has sort of a pass fail or meets specifications don't meet the schedule, which is more friendly language because students hate failing. Which in itself is not good because creativity involves failure. But I think that for me at least, the specific specifications grading has provided a way out of this problem, of this friction, if you want, between an environment that promotes intrinsic learning and grades, in other words, rather than, as you said, setting an arbitrary percentage for a specific grade. You connect the grade in a sense to the quantity of units that a student has mastered. Have you experimented with that?

Jon Bergmann:

Yeah, and again, that's also one way that I delineate like the different levels of tests that my students take. So if you, so this upcoming test, the students who master the first six objectives or lessons should take the lower level test. And the higher level test would be the ones who take, who have mastered more. And so that way they have their demo, that's how they get a bonus, their bonus mathematically for them if they take the more difficult tests. So I'm trying to encourage them to go deeper. I have, I mean, after I think we had a conversation about specifications grading, and I have, I have started to look at it, but I have not gone super deep. I've been so focused on trying to deliver the content in this way that I haven't adjusted some of my grading practices to match some of the specification stuff. But I have begun to sort of research it. I guess it's probably a better.

Eric Mazur:

You'll see that there are a lot of parallels. Yeah. John, I know you're an enthusiastic proponent of Perusall, or, and I'm sure that many of our listeners would love to hear from you how Perusall fits in with Mastery Learning.

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Jon Bergmann:

Well, the, the fact that it's a social tool makes a huge difference, right? So can interact in what I call the pre-learning time. So the students, you know, it's, it's not just master, it's also sort of a flip mastery, since I'm not doing any lecture, I mean, and master's own problems is when you deliver direct instruction, if you, you're gonna teach a physics problem or something like that. Or how do you do that, if not all the students are on the same page at the same time. So I can time shift myself through these, you know, physics or chemistry or geology videos that I make in the courses I teach so that the students can get the content right when they need it. But Perusall is a great delivery tool because that allows the participants in the class, whether it's, you know, I've done this with PD stuff too.

It's not just in the courses I teach. They can interact with each other so they can have comments and it's asynchronous and they can talk to each other when they're struggling with something. So I think that that's the, the social aspect is super powerful. And I do especially also like the confusion reports. That's something that's really cool where I can see, cause it analyzes of course their comments and you can see a lot of very interesting data that helps you to help your students who might be struggling with mastery does create a bit of a problem. If there as kids are off and they're not exactly on the same page, then the, it can kind of delay the, the, the way that they're interacting because they might be a couple or three days off when they're doing it. So that's, that's the one thing I've seen as a weakness in that sense, at least through the mastery system.

Eric Mazur:

So, and as a final, more general question, how has Perusall helped you in your classroom experience?

Jon Bergmann:

Well, it, it's, it's a way to deliver the asynchronous content. And for me to get good data, I guess that's the real big thing is that I, I needed a tool that works to deliver the content that gives me feedback and data on student watching. I still realize that, you know, some students don't do work <laugh>, you know, surprise, surprise. And I need to have a way to motivate those students, or at least to know who's not. So that I then intervene. so at the beginning of each class, I'm gonna check and see who has or has not done the work. so I do set a schedule. I'll say that by such and such a date, you need to have, you know, done this pre-work, whether it's reading or it's, it's video based, and that's keeps them on target so that I don't have such a huge gap and that encourages them.

And then, you know, I take away 10% if you haven't been keeping up. and cause just that data is super powerful and it motivates them to do the work when they need to do it. And and I, I've struggled with that a little bit to be honest with you, because in a true mastery system, everyone gets to work at their own pace. But as I interviewed and wrote the book, you know, that the, when I wrote actually the new definition of fully of, of mastery learning, I called it flexible pacing because I found with my students that if you don't give them a pace, some of them, not all of them, some of them won't take any pace. So I gotta give them some kind of a pace so that they can learn at least if you will, the basic objectives of the course. So that's what really makes a difference. I mean, so yeah. Yeah, that's, that's some of the ways I've used Perusall.

Eric Mazur:

So in a sense, Perusall keeps the students accountable to put in a minimum effort. And secondly, it provides you as the instructor an insight into their thinking.

Jon Bergmann:

Yeah.

Eric Mazur:

Well, thank you for listening and thank you, John, for joining us today. it's been wonderful to talk to you and to reconnect here, you can find out more about John's new book at the masterylearninghandbook.com. To find this and many more podcasts go to perusall.com. I hope you will subscribe to join us on our next episode. Thank you, John.

Jon Bergmann:

You're welcome.

Eric Mazur:

Social Learning Amplified is sponsored by Perusall, the social learning platform that motivates students by increasing engagement, driving, collaboration, and building community through your favorite course content. To learn more, join us at one of our introductory webinars. Visit perusall.com to learn more and register.

 

 

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