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Con: Mastery Learning
Dorie Magowan '15 Senior Writer
May 21, 2014

This year, the design of the Chemistry I classes shifted from a traditional classroom setting to one of “self-mastery.” What this essentially means is that each student works at his or her own pace on the material, utilizing “learning opportunities” such as watching YouTube videos and completing check-point quizzes along the way to keep track of his or her progress. When the student feels ready, he or she decides when to take the chapter test.

When I signed up to take the class last year, I was not informed that this would be the format of the class. Had I known that I would be teaching myself, I probably would have opted for another choice. While I recognize the value in a student’s working toward complete understanding of certain material independently rather than memorization for the sake of assessments, the way the class has been set up is not in the student’s favor.

While working at one’s own pace might be an ideal situation for some, for most students it is the opposite. It is unrealistic to expect all students to be capable of staying on top of their work when they are monitoring themselves, especially in our Deerfield environment, where the workload from other classes can be overwhelming. If homework and tests are not being periodically assigned, it is quite easy for chemistry to fall to the bottom of the list of things to do. Thus, it is extremely easy to fall behind “pace.” In addition, because all students in a class are at different points, it is difficult for many questions to be answered within a class period.

In an attempt to maintain pace, there are a specific number of chapters that must be completed each term. If the student does not complete the chapters, points are taken off of the final term grade for each section left unfinished.

This is where the approach begins to become counterintuitive. If a student is supposed to be working toward mastery on a certain section, there cannot possibly be a required pace they must maintain. Everyone learns at a different pace; some take longer to process material. The result this past year has been that struggling students either spend an extended period of time on a chapter, or rush to stay on pace and do not learn the material well, a situation that causes grades to drop.

The most frustrating part about this form of learning is that certain aspects of traditional teaching are not present. Many students, including me, came to Deerfield to experience great teaching in established classroom environments. Forming close relationships with teachers is one of the best parts of the Deerfield academic experience, especially because of our incredibly low student-to-teacher ratio. If students spend an entire class period on their computers teaching themselves, there is no chance to form these connections. In fact, there is no “classroom environment” whatsoever. Looking to the future—if all of our classes were taken online, there would be no reason to come to Deerfield at all.

I urge the administration and the Academic Dean’s Office to take into consideration the lasting effects of this kind of classroom ethos. I personally am extremely disappointed that students were not consulted in this major change, and I firmly believe that if this trend towards mastery classes continues, the high standard to which Deerfield holds its classes could be significantly damaged.