Mastery Learning – great for working with frequently absent students!

If you haven’t noticed, I haven’t blogged or tweeted in about a year and a half.  The last time I did was just before I was told I had a nodule on my thyroid and, even more devastatingly, Rheumatoid Arthritis (completely unrelated – they both just happened to be discovered while doing lots of tests to find out why I was having heart palpitations…thyroid nodule was causing those!)  So after 2 thyroid surgeries (removed the half with the nodule, found malignant cells and 4 days later removed the other half – but completely stopped the heart palpitations…yay!), 5 different doses of Synthroid (thyroid replacement meds) to find the one that’s right for me (at least for now), and 6 different RA meds (one I was allergic to, 1 had horrible side effects for me, 3 didn’t work but you have to stay on each of them for a while because it can take 3-4 months to see if they work and in the meantime you have increasingly worse symptoms…ugh!), I’m finally back to “extracurricular” work readiness! 🙂

I didn’t completely drop everything in life (I couldn’t!) – I still did my full-time “day” job (program manager for an NSF GK-12 grant at Kansas State University) and of course a full-time mother (along with cub scout den leader, dance lesson runner, school volunteer and all the other things that go along with mother-hood!)  But I had a LOT of doctors appoints, tests, bloodwork, more doctor’s appointments, weeks when meds with horrible side effects left me unable to get off the couch, etc., and I needed to make cuts in my life to be able to get the things done that were necessities.  Working on my science education consulting and writing was one of them.

And that experience has gotten me thinking – I’ve never before been chronically ill and never had a lot of dr. appointments (my appointment schedule alone would have made me miss a lot of school if I’d had a normal teacher or student schedule, let alone absences for the illness itself).  But I have had students with chronic illness or other reasons for frequent absences from school.  Even having a tennis player in your last period of the day on Tues-Thur block schedule (at least at my school) led to lots of absences – tennis matches were always at that time and I think I went 4 weeks and only saw him 2 times on block periods.

But that’s a hidden bonus of using mastery learning.  Of course there are all the obvious up-sides, like kids learning, taking responsibility, developing meta-cognitive skills, etc.  But (as I implemented it, which is described in various posts on my blog and my book about it) it’s also fabulous for kids with frequent absences.

Why?  Because…

1.  The class isn’t moving on without them.  Yes, I expect them to make progress outside of class if they’re gone frequently, but they don’t have to worry about being in class after some absences and the class period being used for a lecture or lab that they’re just not ready for – they use the class time to continue working where they are, just like everybody else.  And I’m not thrown off because they’re at a different spot in the content than everyone else – lots of students are in different spots.

2.  The infrastructure is already in place.  When they are making progress outside of class, the infrastructure is there – the narrated lectures (or vodcasts) are already created by you.  The “learning opportunities” that promote student-managed learning are already in place.

3.  The student is already developing self-direction and meta-cognition in your course.  Students that are having to work on their own are in great need of the ability to self-direct and to be aware of when they understand something versus when they need help on it.  Mastery learning in the classroom has already begun to develop these skills as they self-direct their progress in the classroom…it carries over to course work outside the classroom as well!

4.  Students have less anxiety.  Students with chronic illnesses (and adults for that matter, as I’ve discovered!) have a lot of anxiety – they know they’re missing things that they should be doing.  They feel like they should be doing it – like they’re illness or absences can’t possibly justify missing what everyone else seems to be capable of doing.  Dealing with the emotional aspect of having a chronic illness has a way of draining the life out of you, making matters worse.  Knowing that they can return to class any day and not feel completely left out, that the infrastructure for independent progress is all there, that they have the skills to self-motivate and self-regulate themselves through work, and knowing that you (the teacher) are used to working with students where ever they are (believe it or not, students don’t see us as being able to do that if all we primarily do is work with the class as a whole!) will help to alleviate their stress and anxiety about your course – which in turn will allow more progress! 🙂

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