…math for mastery: “do you like your mark?”…

This post is based on a Pre-Calculus Math 11 parent letter I sent home today.  In one sentence,

For the first time in 10 years, I’m really trying something new…

Hello Parents,

I just wanted to take a few minutes to connect with you regarding this year’s Pre-Calculus Math 11 course.  It was encouraging to see many of you at parent-teacher interviews last week.  It is actually because of those conversations that I am typing this letter.

I am now confident that the goals I had for this course in August are taking shape.  In other words, the things I had hoped to happen in this new style of instruction is happening.  Let me explain more here.

For the past 9 years I have taught Math in a traditional way.  I have used a textbook, I have given class notes, homework, quizzes, and tests.  For the purposes of this letter, I will call this the ‘Old Way’.

The Old Way

In the ‘Old Way’, I would either use a textbook or would use a purchased reproducible workbook as a note and homework package.  But, the most defining thing about my high school Math classes is that I would teach for 80 minutes.  Seriously, I would stand at the front of the room and give instruction for the entire class period.  This would mean that there was very little, if any at all, time for student questions.  Any individualized help was offered outside of class time.  Finally, student “homework” was a student starting their practice questions…and completing them at home.  Then, they would come the next day for the next lesson.

The New Way

Let me take a few moments to explain what this year’s ‘New Way’ of Math 11 looks like.  The textbook is on the computer.  Students receive their lesson from a digitally enhanced video (flash animated).  Students still take notes and complete practice questions by hand.  The largest difference in this method is that my 80 minutes in class is NOT spent talking to the class as a whole.  Rather, I spend the entire class period speaking with individual students.  My role now is not to deliver the content – the video does that.  My job is to make sure my students’ understanding is clear.  So, when the textbook (video-lesson) is not clear or when a student needs extra clarification – they must be quick to find me.  I do mini-lessons at the board when needed, or I do questions at student desks on post-it notes.  Students are encouraged (expected) to find me at school for help.  They know they can come to my office and find me – and if what I am currently working on is non-life threatening then I will drop it to help them.  Student “homework” now looks like this: students WATCH the next lesson, they take notes on that lesson, and they begin that lesson’s practice questions…until they get stumped.  Then, they stop, and they move on to a different subject.  But, the next day, they must ask a friend or find me to ask their question so they can continue moving through their practice questions.

Assignments for Mastery

Also, this year I have changed how I’m doing review assignments.  In the ‘Old Way’, students would complete their review assignment.  I would mark it, and give them back their assignment.  Suppose they received a mark of 60% on the review…they would probably say, ‘I guess I need to study a bit more for my test.’  Then, they would probably get 60% on their test.  Why?  Because I did all the correction work on their assignment, and, in doing so, I stole the ‘learning process’ from them.

But, in this ‘New Way’, I am inviting (forcing?) my students to complete the full assignment to 100% correctness.  So, a student hands in an assignment – all I do is identify which questions are NOT-correct – and I hand it back to them.  They then re-work the questions needed, and re-hand it in.  This process continues until they have 100% on their assignment.

At first, this was very different, even difficult, for me.  Yet, this method of pushing students to fully complete their assignment is a great process of ensuring they fully understand these math concepts.  I believe this leads them to be in a very strong place in being ready for their unit tests.

Tests for Mastery

Another added bonus in this ‘New Way’ of teaching is that with this online textbook I have access to a never-ending number of re-tests.  Students know that a re-test is ALWAYS available.  Students must bring me their corrections from their previous attempt to be ready for their re-test.  Really, when a student gets their test back, the conversation starts like this:  “Do you like your mark?”  The student has a decision to make – either they like their mark and continue to the next unit, or they don’t like their mark and they continue working towards one or more re-tests until they are happy with their result.

[  NOTE: I was never able to provide re-tests like this before.  Perhaps my next post will explain the software that I am using to flip my math classroom.  Long story short, in the past I chose not to put in the effort to create 5 different tests and keys for each unit in my course.  That was my main reason for not offering an unlimited number of re-tests.  ]


In conclusion, there is no doubt that this year’s video-based math instruction is different from my previous 9 years of teaching Math at Heritage.  And, it is very different for students who are used to learning from a teacher standing at the front of the room.  But, I believe the positives outweigh the negatives in this ‘New’ method.  Please know I evaluate and re-evaluate constantly.  I make no promises for Math course delivery next year.  I mean, yes, certainly, we will be teaching Math – but I’m just not sure yet which way we will be doing it.  I will wait for results in May and June as my students have processed the entire course.


If you are still reading this post I am thankful.  If you are still reading this post I wonder if you would be willing to consider these questions:

Have you ever gone through a philosophical or mechanical change in your work process?  How were you feeling about it on the front-end?  How did it finish on the back-end?

I would love to hear your thoughts.



2 thoughts on “…math for mastery: “do you like your mark?”…

  1. Graham Johnson (@Math_Johnson)

    Hi Paul,
    Fantastic post and I like your idea to communicate your findings with your parent community. I think it is more important now than ever to educate our stakeholders about the method behind our madness. I am a fan of making our work, our thought process, and our resources public so we can continue to question them and make them better. Bravo!

    To answer your questions….I have gone through many of the same changes as you. Mastery learning is a big part of what I ‘try’ to do with my students. For some students achieving mastery, even on successive attempts is difficult, but I still think is a worthwhile goal. By the way I really like your simple but effective way of dealing with the review assignment, I am going to try that on for size. I do something similar where I tell my students that in my class you must earn a test by demonstrating somehow that you are ready, it is not a right.

    You asked a question about front-end and back-end regarding change…I see them as much the same. Where I started going and where I ended up (and continue to move) are very different than where I thought I was going. Where we tinker with our practice we never get ‘there’, in fact there is no ‘there!’ What I love about change is it mimics a ball rolling down the hill, as it continues to gain momentum. I started small by taking a risk by flipping my classes, then I tried mastery, and now I feel more comfortable and am playing with things more and more. Some changes are unsuccessful, but every change makes me think and wonder which I think is always a success.

    Anyways, love what you are doing.


    1. eduglean Post author

      Thanks for the read and for your comments, Graham. I know you have been flipping for a long time so I’m sure you have spend many hours communicating with parents and students…and probably fellow colleagues too…about the reasons, opportunities, and challenges that exist in the flip. I agree, the journey sometimes takes us to a different place then where we first thought. But, often the best learning is the journey itself rather then the destination.
      The learning process is what I am after. This is they most exciting part about moving towards ‘mastery’.
      A follow-up question for you: Could you share your experiences with your traditional classroom and your flipped classroom with respect to a ‘low’, ‘medium’, and ‘high’ student?


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