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Go Beyond the Letter Grade: A Step-By-Step Example of Mastery-Oriented Feedback

Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau
December 19, 2022

“Great work!” 

“A+, Nice job!”

“C-, Watch your spelling” 

These are the types of feedback we are so often accustomed to receiving and giving. But what does it do for us? How does it help us improve?

The UDL guidelines encourage us to provide students with “mastery-oriented feedback.” Mastery-oriented feedback (UDL Checkpoint 8.4)  is best described as informative feedback that allows your learners to understand their progress toward meeting an objective or standard while emphasizing effort and improvement. Mastery-oriented feedback acknowledges the work and effort that the student has put forth and challenges them to continue to work and do more.  It is more than a grade or a single statement. It helps build self-awareness, encourages opportunities for reflection, and is frequent and timely. 

All of us are in unique situations with our own set of students, curricula, policies, and procedures. We all experience different variabilities and barriers in our classrooms. As a result and in the spirit of UDL, there is no “one, right way” to provide mastery-oriented feedback. To me, that is where the beauty of mastery-oriented feedback begins.  

Let me rewind for a minute. I remember that when I first started teaching back in 1990, before I knew anything about UDL, I gave out homework, quizzes, exams, and projects that needed to be graded. The homework, quizzes, and exams were all done on paper and they were all pretty much the same. I remember, very vividly, how much of a chore it was to grade all of them. Most of these assignments were just marked right or wrong, graded, and marked in the grade book. We could return them to our students so they could review them but we couldn’t let them keep them for future reference. I don’t know if anyone ever learned anything from any one of those assignments.  

I taught video production, so the students did get personalized feedback on their video projects and we were able to return them to the students for their personal archives. Grading the video projects was always interesting as they were always unique and different. Ideally, the goal of the feedback should have been to help the students get better in their production skills but in reality, it always seemed to turn into a list of what was wrong with the project. Sure, I pointed out what the students did well but the rubric/checklist (in retrospect) was stacked against the students. The evaluations were more about the grade and less about helping the students improve. If any of my former students are reading this…I’m sorry that I didn’t do better for you with my evaluations of the projects.  The only concept that I stick to today is returning the graded work in a timely manner.  I have learned a lot since.  

Fast forward 32 years.

As part of the Novak Education team, I review a lot of final projects from the courses that we offer.  Final projects are required for all participants who seek graduate credit for a course. My “students” are dedicated professionals usually with years of experience who are taking a course to improve their teaching practice and/or fulfill professional development requirements. Some are administrators trying to help their staff improve their teaching with UDL. I give all of them mastery-oriented feedback. Your students are (most likely) different but all of them need mastery-oriented feedback too! 

For the Novak courses, students are required to submit an introduction, research in the form of an annotated bibliography, an implementation lesson or presentation, and a reflection. They are encouraged to use creativity in how they submit their work (videos, audio files, written pieces, infographics, and presentations are all welcomed!) We use single-point rubrics for evaluating the work and students reflect on the goals and requirements of the final projects.  I try to return feedback within 2 or 3 business days. Mastery-Oriented Feedback Example

The goal of every evaluation is to help the student improve their practice. While the colleges require us to submit a letter grade, the grade is irrelevant in many ways.  When I start the review, I go through the entire project and check to make sure that the goals of the project have been met.  If they have not been met, I contact the student and ask them to review their project for whatever is missing and either revise and resubmit the project or explain what they are doing.  People sometimes miss some things in the requirements so we always give them a chance to remedy the situation. There is never any penalty for a revision. Also, even though I may notice a grammatical error or something misspelled, I don’t mention it in my review and it never factors into the grade unless I can’t understand what is being described (proper spelling and grammar aren’t part of our learning objectives), then, I will ask for clarification or a correction.

If the requirements have all been met, then I do a deeper review of the project. Most of the projects come in as text-based narratives but there are some videos, infographics, Prezis, animations, and slide presentations. There have even been a few songs, poems, and comic strips along the way too.  All of the projects are unique even if they are text-based and regardless of the mode of delivery, each project is evaluated using the goals and objectives of the project.

 I start every review with an acknowledgment of the best points of the projects and then I go through each section of the project to highlight the positives and give suggestions for the things that could also be done to improve the project.  Since all of our projects are aligned to UDL in one way or another, that usually means suggesting the use of other guidelines and checkpoints, adding options and choices, or suggesting more goal setting, reflection, or student feedback. I often ask questions and seek clarification.  Some of the projects come in as 30-page “papers” or four-10+ minute videos or 40-slide presentations so I have to concentrate on the global direction that the project is presenting and not get tied up in the mode of delivery or the specific content areas. The length of the project is not a factor in grading unless it is so short that it doesn’t meet the requirements.  The lessons involved in the projects run the gamut from kindergarten lessons on friendship to professional development sessions on the implementation of UDL or SEL, so it is more about the process than the product.

When I end my review, I always provide acknowledgment of the effort taken and give encouragement on the ongoing journey of improving practice. In short, I try to have a conversation with the student on their project and create a bit of a relationship with them as a support on their next endeavor.  I try to be more of a coach than a teacher and the responses I get seem to justify the effort.

So, how do you do this in your classroom when you have an avalanche of papers, projects, or assignments to review every day? First off, don’t give out as many!  Do more informal formative assessments and more student self-assessments and gather more informal evidence of performance. When you do collect assignments for your evaluation, review them and comment or review the assignment with the student to give feedback and always give them time to review and revise what does not meet the goal and objective of the lesson,  Second, you can note, but don’t penalize for “non-construct” issues.  Plainly, if it is a math lesson and a student misspells something, you can highlight it but don’t take points off for it.

Here is an example of Mastery Oriented Feedback on a project submitted to one of our courses. (This example has been made anonymous and is used with permission.)

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