What’s College Like for Students from Mastery-Based High Schools?

by Joy Nolan

As a field, we haven’t done enough to make sure that mastery-based learning is paying off for students in the long run. Thanks to Mastery Collaborative and author Joy Nolan for taking the time to check in with alumnae. This post based on interview with alums from MC Living Lab School Urban Assembly Maker Academy and all images originally appeared at Mastery Collaborative on December 19, 2018. — Chris

Four college freshmen who are alums from UA Maker’s first graduating class of 2018 shared about their experience of college so far. From left: Richard attends NYC College of Technology; Jazlyn attends City College; Milam attends Dennison College; Ash attends Allegheny College.


Is mastery learning effective at preparing students for life beyond high school?
What happens when students from a mastery-based high school go to a traditional college?

Students, parents, and educators regularly ask these questions. Four alums from the first graduating class at Urban Assembly Maker Academy gave us their take on all this. They are all currently freshman at different colleges. Jazlyn and Richard are attending school in NYC. Ash attends a school in Pennsylvania, and Milam goes to college in Ohio. Here’s what they told us in a conversation over Thanksgiving break.

Understanding college work:

Ash: “We don’t get rubrics in college, but I have mental rubrics—I break it down in my head: This is what a 1 or a 5 would look like. I’m able to break down assignments into the pieces I need to get done. Having used mastery learning at UA Maker makes it a lot easier to determine what I want out of an assignment, and what the assignment entails—because we don’t get rubrics. A minus for me about attending a traditional college is that the first thing you turn in is the final. You don’t get to redo anything.

“In a mastery school it’s easy to know: This is what I’ve mastered, this is what I’m trying to get out of this assignment, because of rubrics. In college it’s: Get it done, get a good grade. I haven’t gotten anything important out of my (college) classes so far. With mastery classes, I got something out of it that I can use in day-to-day life. The things you’re learning don’t feel useless. You’re learning because of the class not because it’s interesting and applies to everyday life. In college the things I have learned have been very specific to that class.”

Jazlyn: “It’s kind of like we have the mindset of the educator—we know exactly what they’re trying to do, and we think in very similar ways (to our professors). I quickly saw that I understood the requirements (of assignments in college classes) a lot better than other students. What does this say, what are they asking for? I seem to be better at figuring out the expectations.

“When we get an assignment, or are given instructions, I ask a lot more questions than other students do—things they maybe would not have thought about asking. Then they assume I have a better understanding of it . . . or they assume I’m very confused because I ask a lot of questions! Then they reach out to me and say: ‘Do you understand what the professor asked? Because I don’t get it,’ and I don’t even understand how that feels.

“Sometimes I google a rubric, or I go back to my HS assignments and see how I planned that out. I didn’t remember the elements of a research paper and I went back to a research paper I did in HS and these are the components.”

Work process and deadlines in college:

Jazlyn: “I have a 10-page paper due in 2 weeks, a research assignment. The way I’m seeing it is like mastery grading in a way. He’s giving us a lot of time, and we’re working on the outline for it and other students are not taking it seriously. To me, each part is a benchmark: the thesis, the evidence, etc. I started my outline a month a go. Another kid in the class started his outline two days ago. There’s a clear difference in the way we prioritize things. It’s learning without the enthusiasm—mastery has a lot more enthusiasm.

“There is also a time interference; I spend a lot of time planning out what I’m going to do, that’s when the time problem happens and I’m struggling to actually do the work.”

Ash: “Deadlines are hard to deal with for me. I have learning disabilities, so it’s hard for me to work consistently for more than 20 minutes at once. I lose my train of thought, ramble on and have to delete the paragraph because I didn’t make sense. I am also one of those kids who turn in what I tried to be my best work—and in high school, I could use iteration to make it better. But in college, the first thing—that’s what you hand in, mostly. So I use my friends as my mock deadline; they help me check over what I need to work on. What I get out a lot of the time is my best work or close to it.

“Design thinking and mastery coincide a lot. They are so engrained in me that they are one thing in my head . . . but I can over-plan assignments. In high school, I feel like we had this mindset that you can continuously improve something—but that is not the case in college. You don’t get to iterate on anything you’re doing. It’s all that moment, submit it, and that is the end of that. In high school, we were going back to our assignments and enriching them.”

Richard: “I do my assignments early. I have all my work mapped out. I have a bulletin board, and I put each syllabus up, and map out all my assignments for the semester. I made deadlines, like say I have an essay—I do a draft every half week. My calendar is lined up, all the syllabuses are lined up, with midway points. For example, for a research paper I will do the research. They do give what they say is a rubric, but it’s really bland. It just says 25 points: write the intro. Use supporting details: 25 points. Where do I fall? Then there’s midterms, a 2-week period of tests for all our classes. All classes have final projects. There is a final exam and final project in each class.”


Grading and feedback in college:

Jazlyn: “You get your grade, say an 89 or 74, but there’s no side note telling you why you got a 74.”

Ash: “My seminar professor gave side notes (feedback) for the first paper. And then on the rest of the papers, we have not gotten feedback. For me, the grades feel arbitrary a lot of the time. I’m used to understanding this why you got a 3, a 2, a 4. At college you get one single grade, no explanation. It’s confusing and hard to get used to. The feedback that I got in the margins was less about my mastery and more more like: You could have elaborated or: Here’s a typo. The feedback is to make that assignment better.

“A lot of my papers so far have been peer review papers. We get feedback from peers and sometimes TA’s and we get to iterate, so that is good.”

Jazlyn: “I find that a grade on an assignment vs a grade on a test, it can be completely different. In my World Music class, I was getting 94, 95 on papers and assignments. When I got my grade back for testing, that grade was much lower. The idea of being able to work on something helps me. If there’s anything that mastery could have helped us on, maybe it’s how to handle exams.”


What college classes are like

Jazlyn: “We did lots of hands-on learning in high school—but in college it’s more taking notes on lectures. I have different kinds of classes, my world music/history class, my creative writing class. Mostly it’s lectures and taking notes, going through what they want you to acquire from the lectures. But my architecture class is different. (The professor) thinks in a way that mastery people think. We’re going to be covering specific parts of this whole project.

“In other classes, you get assignments, papers to write, quizzes . . . the thing that is closest to what we did at Maker is final projects.”

Richard: I’ve had kind of the same experience: slide shows or talking and we take notes and pay attention. I have a class called Intro to College Life, for students who struggled in high school, and are transitioning to college. We get mandatory tutoring once a week, see a counselor twice a semester. We need to go to two workshops on things like diction, test skills, and test anxiety. I like it and helps me adjust and see what college is like.

“Everyone has one conjoined need. I was making an LED and I was like: I know how to do that. So I asked the professor: What should I do is there extra work to learn more? He said to just wait till the other students are caught up. The next thing was soldering, and I knew how to do that too. It’s a prerequisite so you can’t place out of the course.”

Ash: “There are lots of lectures, taking notes, and not asking questions all that often. All of my classes are fairly small. The largest is 25 students, the smallest are 8-15—but they are not personalized to the students. All my classes are lectures, except for freshman seminar. The purpose of that, they say, is for getting you used to college life, how to write papers, give speeches . . . we focus on the skills we need for college—but based around a topic we choose. One of my friends is doing Chinese emperors, and mine is modern sexualities, so we focus on our topic. It feels like, instead of a class for freshman, it switched from helping us do these crucial things about college; they act like you know it all. You do it, but they don’t teach you (how).

“I had to give a speech in my photography class, but it was weirdly bland. I’m getting used to the fact that mastery-based classes feel a lot more hands on than even my photo class feels in college.”


College social/personal scene

Milam: “It all depends on your classes. At home my parents are there to make sure I get in safe. I am planning to rush for a frat, and there’s an event for that soon. I’m going to go for a bit and then come back to my dorm. Another time I did the same thing—I left the party at the time I wanted to leave. It was a lot harder to finish my homework the next day.

“Moving to a suburban town in the Midwest, there’s nothing to do compared to the city. You have to make your own fun on the campus. You have to get used to not having a comfortable bed, finding where’s the best place to study and get your work done. I used to do my work in the common room but switched over to the library, where there’s a social level for talking and collaborating, and a computer lab, I went to the library one day when the common room was too loud, and I go there all the time now.”

Jazlyn: “Socially, since I started college I, in a way, not closed myself off, but I don’t interact with anyone from my classes. In high school I was always surrounded by people. Now I’m doing everything by myself. No one talks to each other at City. If you ask people at City, it’s like everyone’s getting paid not to talk to each other.”

Ash: “In college I don’t know know any of the students’ names—just in freshman seminar and extracurricular activities.” (Editor’s note: None of the four felt they were getting to know other students’ names yet.)

Richard: “My biggest challenge is my commute. I live in the Bronx and my college is in Brooklyn. If I have a later class, I will meet up with friends or go study at Hunter. I prioritize college but I make plans spontaneously, too. I go upstate to parties but I manage my time and do my work, because you can always party. When I go to Hunter sometimes I see people (students who say they are studying) watching YouTube all the time and now you are crying (because of deadlines).”

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