Mastery Learning – Doing Homework For The Right Reason

March 28, 2012 at 8:38 am 1 comment

Homework has always been an issue of contention between math instructors and students. Instructors believe that students must do homework in order to learn the material, and I believe that statement is essentially true. Except I would change it to “If students want to learn, doing their homework with the appropriate approach can help them to learn and understand.” Many students view homework simply as a task that they must complete, they do not understand that it is supposed to help them learn.

We live in an age where it is easy to incorporate online, self-grading homework. There are all sorts of learning aids available to our students within these online homework programs, and when you also include online resources, videos, and tutors, we often assume that our students will learn the material by simply working through the homework. But if homework scores directly impact a student’s overall grade, students are encouraged to grind through the homework for the points rather than for learning. If 20% of your overall grade comes from online homework, students will try to earn as many points as possible in an effort to lower the scores required on the exams that make up the other 80% of their grade. (By the way, this is just as true if you use traditional pencil/paper homework.)

Some instructors decide not to even include a homework grade in their grading policy for this reason, but this will not motivate students to do their homework. Students do not do optional, even if we as instructors feel that it is necessary. Sure, we’d like our students to realize that it is necessary to do mathematics in order to learn mathematics, but few students will perform tasks that they do not understand the purpose of.

Last semester I began to work with a new grading system that incorporates mastery learning. Online homework and quizzes do not directly count towards my students’ overall grades. Instead, they do help them to earn bonuses and perks based on their test scores. I grade each exam out of 100, and students that score 70 or higher get 1 point for that test and students that score below 70 get 0 points for that test. 1 or 0, pass of fail. The perks?

  • Students who meet performance benchmarks on the online work and score above 80 on the exam earn 3 points on their exam instead of 1.
  • Students who meet performance benchmarks on the online work and score between 70 and 79 on the exam earn 2 points on their exam instead of 1.
  • Students who meet performance benchmarks on the online work and score below 70 on the exam earn the opportunity to retake the test the following week for 1 point.

So, homework only impacts my students’ grades when they are passing exams. Now the goal of the homework is to learn the material, because if they don’t learn the material they cannot do well on the exams. And the exams generate all of the points in my class.

In the next blog I will go through the point system for the entire course and share some data.


I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. If there’s a particular topic you’d like me to address, or if you have a question or a comment, please let me know. You can reach me through the contact page on my website –


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ICTCM & What’s On The Way Mastery Learning – Grading System

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