The New Report Card: Forget an “A,” Try for an “M”

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Four years ago David Boone was a homeless 15-year-old sleeping on a park bench in Cleveland, Ohio. This fall he’ll be entering Harvard.

His is the kind of heroic story that would seem over-the-top in a movie, if it didn’t happen to be real: David used his book-bag as a pillow, studied in train stations, figured out how to avoid local gangs.  (Read his story here.)

More interestingly, David’s not the only hero in this story. The other is his report card. Not because of its grades, but because of its design. You see, report cards at David’s school don’t have “A”s, “B”s, and “C”s. Instead, they have “M”s and “I”s.

M stands for Mastery; I stands for Incomplete.

This method is a product of remarkable new high school David attended called MC2 STEM, in which David is part of the first graduating class. The school, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation STEM Initiative, teaches science and engineering through hands-on, project-based learning in cooperation with a General Electric R&D facility across the street (translation: they don’t sit at desks listening to teachers talk).

As they learn, students are graded on specific skill-sets — called benchmarks — that make up each 10-week subject.

“M” means the student has mastered the benchmark skill (usually demonstrated by a score of 90-plus on a project or test).

“I” means the student needs to work more until they master the skill.  They don’t retake the course — instead, teachers provide additional activities and opportunities for mastery, until it’s achieved.

It’s refreshingly simple: the mushy, judgmental landscape of Bs and Cs is replaced with a clear goal: mastery is expected; if you don’t get it right away, you will get new opportunities to work until you do. As David says, “They don’t accept mediocrity.”

I think one reason this technique is effective is that it uses grades the way they should be used: not as an often-demotivating verdict on identity (“You’re a C student); but rather as an ignitor of effort, a motivational north star. “Incomplete” is a motivating concept, because it sends a strong signal that complete learning is not only possible but expected; that everyone is capable of top-level work. It nudges the culture away from judgement and toward continual improvement and reaching. It turns a school into a skill-construction zone.

The question is, how can other organizations put this M/I grading method to work? For instance, could a soccer coach build a team around the idea of mastering certain moves? Could a businesses do the same when teaching employees? A music teacher?

Also, I’m curious: do you know of other simple methods that schools, teams, and businesses use to promote the love of mastery? If so, I’d love to hear about them.


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14 Responses to “The New Report Card: Forget an “A,” Try for an “M””

  1. Richard says:

    Thanks! Great article. I’m a soccer coach in Prague and we start today with this kind of evaluation of individual technique/skills. Will let you know.

  2. Thank you for this post.

    I teach advocacy and trial skills to law students. Whilewe cover strategy, reaction through listening, and creativety, certain trial processes must be mastered. For example, the specific verbiage and process for laying the proper foundation for an exhibit, refreshing the memory of a forgetful witness, and impeaching the testimony of witness who testifies inconsistently MUST be mastered. I designed drills to accomplish this – and, per your earlier post, now require students to conduct a drill three times without error or start over. The do it – and repeat it – throughout their training until the skills is internalized or mastered. Of course, mastering these more formulaic aspects of trial actually frees the advocate to be more strategic, reactive, and creative at trial.

    I offer these drills to other advocacy professors on my YouTube channel to improve the practice throughout our profession. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4xf3Xyw1ds&feature=plcp

    I modeled my instruction after Salman Khan’s Khan Academy where they insist upon “proficiency” in a foundational topic before progressing to an advanced topic that will build upon that foundation.

  3. Sara Cann says:

    I wish I had the opportunity to go to this school!!

  4. Markus says:

    I find that I was unconsciously applying this “M” & “I” technique in learning. Thank you for the post. I got a light bulb over my head. ^_^

  5. Julia Duncan says:

    Hi, I am from and live in South Africa, volunteering at a company dealing with the mental aspects of sports. One of the partners has written a great piece on engagement and how that can provide a team with the winning edge, after working with a rugby side that has just won a major championship. I feel you would find it very interesting. Please visit http://bit.ly/greatpiece to read the article.

  6. LT says:

    I homeschooled my two children with the expectation that we would master whatever we were learning. There were no grades, and we would keep at a subject or skill, adapting our methods, until it was theirs. I’ve found this mindset common with many “unschooling” homeschoolers who use the ideas of educator John Holt (How Children Learn, How Children Fail, Growing Without Schooling, etc) It was a natural, non-traumatic way of learning. My son is majoring in physics and Chinese in college. My daughter is a photographer, http://www.meiratz.com

  7. I teach studio trumpet at Rowan University in Southern New Jersey (about 30 min from Philadelphia). This past spring I did a series of brass master classes on your techniques for our whole Brass Division. Some students used them, others did not. Translation: Some students got lots better and fast….and others did not……I have also incorporated your techniques into my own practicing with stunning results.

    I think your book is amazing and this new concept of M or I is great! We will start with it in the fall. I’ll be changing my syllabus (which is already more structured and skill based than most of my colleagues) to incorporate M or I in each of the areas. Pass/Fail but even better! Love it. Can’t wait for your new book to arrive.

    Cheers,
    Bryan

  8. Tyler says:

    I think the best coaches have been doing this for years. Positivecoach.org is really growing people’s interest with their ELM tree approach to coaching is Effort, Learning, Mistakes teaches their athletes to work hard, aleays be learning, and learn from mistakes. Its overall philosophy teaches Mastery vs. Scoreboard which allows for a frowth mindset. Love your book and this blog!

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hey Bryan,
    Thanks for sharing that — so glad to hear it. Let me know what you think of the new one, and please keep me posted as to how things are going for you and your students. Best, Dan

  10. djcoyle says:

    Hi Julia, Very cool — thank you for sharing that link.

  11. djcoyle says:

    Hi Tyler, Positivecoach.org is terrific — as is ELM. Thanks for the heads-up. Best, Dan

  12. Kelly O'Shea says:

    I use this type of grading (standards-based grading/mastery grading) with my high school physics classes. Here’s an outline of my particular implementation: http://kellyoshea.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/conjunctive-standards-based-grading/

    Since I switched from points to standards-based grading, my students have become much less anxious (a lot of the old panic was about grades) and actually much, much better at physics. In a lot of ways, it’s a lot tougher for the students than classes where they get number grades. For the core skills of the class, they can’t just accept a “bad grade.” They must keep working, practicing, and testing until they can reliably demonstrate each skill. They have specific feedback about what skills need improvement, and they know what to do to get better. Once they understand the system (it’s so different from what they’re used to getting in school), they love it. Unfortunately, I still have to convert back to number grades at the end of the semester since the whole school isn’t doing it this way. Still, they know exactly what to do to get the number grade that they want.

    Also, thanks for continuing this blog. I can’t get enough of reading about talent and how to create it. My Honors Physics students read The Talent Code last summer, and they found it so useful and great that I’m having all of my students (honors and regular) read it this summer. It helps a lot for getting buy-in from the students on the grading system. The ones who are scared at first really think that they aren’t going to learn physics (so I guess they were hoping to get by with grades for compliance—turning in homework, etc—instead of grades for mastery). Once I get them realizing that they really can learn physics by practicing, they love the fact that their grade will only represent how much they learned (instead of how quickly they learned it, how well their middle school class prepared them for my class, how many boxes of Kleenex they bring in for the classroom, how much they “participated”—however the teacher thinks they are measuring that—during class, etc etc).

  13. Adam Edwards says:

    I think the concept of mastered and incomplete can be applied to many different situations. I recently began a new and am currently being trained. When the school year begins I will be visiting a new campus every 3-4 days, having measurable goals and keeping track of my progress will be important.

    I plan on setting work goals, fitness goals, and several others. I think the concept of mastered and incomplete can be applied to self-improvement as it is the sum of many different individual skill-sets. This mastered and incomplete grading far surpasses the A-F scale because some may be satisfied with a B or a C, but nobody would be satisfied with an incomplete grade.

  14. [...] My strengths are catching on quickly, knowing what to do when I am done with my work, making friends, and making use of my time. What I need to work on is not rushing and patience.  My first goal having to do with conduct is stop talking to people, even though I know the answer to the conversation.  I can do that by not talking.  My second conduct related goal is paying attention, even though I know the answers to the problem.  My third conduct related goal is to not rush on my work and take my time.  The only distraction I have is when other students are talking (no one in particular).http://thetalentcode.com/2012/05/23/the-new-report-card-forget-an-%E2%80%9Ca%E2%80%9D-try-for-an-%E2… [...]

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