Implementing Mastery in Psychology Research Methods

Mastery isn’t a groundbreaking idea, there’s nothing novel about it, it is the old fashioned concept that you should do something until you get it right and not move on until you have. Brilliant isn’t it? I hope I haven’t put you off yet. Traditional education keeps time as the constant and learning variable – mastery swaps this. Learning is constant, time is variable. In more real, educational and assessment terms however, it means not moving on from a topic until the whole class score an average of 80% in assessments of that topic.  This is where I anticipate losing people… I can hear the mumbling, the McEnroeesque mutterings of ‘you cannot be serious…’ But I am. Let me caveat that though. The EEF find the evidence supporting mastery to be moderate, and believe it or not, a cost effective method of improving progress. It also says that it works best in short bursts, and not when used for everything. So hopefully I’m winning some of you back over. I’m not saying you should use this for the whole specification, just, perhaps, research methods. 

In the AQA psychology specification, research methods accounts for 30% of all marks awarded, so it made sense to us that this is something our students should know really well. It also struck us that it was something with a huge wealth of assessment materials, and assessment styles that lend themselves to more objective marking. Our logic is essentially, that if students can master research methods, they’ve banked about 30%, that’s not considering all of the areas in which they can apply and evaluate using research methods in every other section of the course. So we committed to starting the year with research methods, and not moving on until we get around 80% from each student… I’ve lost you again haven’t I?

When we presented this idea, we met with a number of perfectly valid questions, and I’ll try to present some of them, and the answers as best I can. Q1. What about lower ability students who simply won’t be able to get there? A1. We think they could probably get there, it will just take longer. Our school requires that we run catch up sessions, and we make it mandatory to all those falling below the set pass rate to attend these. Q2. How on Earth will you manage all of those assessments and the marking? A2. We have a set number of standardised assessments and in addition students use Kerboodle and  Seneca. We also create working groups, so students who have passed can help those who haven’t, so the group has motivation to work and master together. Q3. How do you know they haven’t forgotten it after you move on? A3. Interleaving. Interleaving is an essential part of mastery, where you should revisit the topic sporadically and in ways both related and unrelated to the new topic. We start every lesson with a research methods starter and a recap of the last lesson. When introducing new topics, we’ll take the opportunity to recap relevant methods. Q4. What about the possible effects of this many assessments on the student? A4. We look at the relation between success and confidence. We’re assessing to succeed. When the students see they can get 80%, future assessments should seem less daunting.

So, our summer was spent (between the Great British sporting calendar and other extracurricular activities) planning to roll this out. I hope some of you might consider trying this too, or at least seeing how it goes for us! If there’s one thing to leave you with it’s a video on YouTube. If you don’t have time to watch it, it essentially explains that you wouldn’t accept a non-mastery model in any other area of your life. If you were building a house, you’d expect it to be done right, with a strong foundation, not just as well as can be done in two weeks.

Thanks for reading, 

Sam Shaw

Head of Psychology, Shiplake College