On the Success of the Teach-to-Mastery Approach

My students’ essays this semester are, on average, better written than the average published op-ed or academic journal article.

You might joke that academic journals set a low bar, and some of them do, that’s true, but the writing in most major journals in the field of history is pretty good (the American Historical Review excepted).

One reason why I think the student essays are particularly good this semester is because I use the teach-to-mastery approach.

Essentially, this means that I serve not only as a professor who grades their essays, but as an editor, who critiques their writing and asks for revisions. On the first round, a student seldom receives a higher grade than a B. Students may revise the paper as often as they want, granted that they understand my response time to re-read and re-grade a paper will be about 5 to 7 days. The earlier in the semester they turn in a paper, the more chances they will get to revise. On average, they turn in 2 or 3 versions of each essay.

As a result of this method, students are free to write how they wish, without fear of reprisal for ideological positions, or anxiety about style and formatting. I also don’t need to spend as much time ahead of essays explaining “exactly” what I want. Instead, I give rough guidelines and then work with the student to re-shape the paper. Sometimes this means teaching them to write a thesis, sometimes it means helping them write more like a historian or a journalist, and less like a scientist or social scientist. My comments and edits also address content, argument, and things like clarity, ambiguity, word choice, etc.

I’m confident that the final form of their essays is publishable.

Another thing I’ve noticed in using the Teach to Mastery approach is that students will thank me for the comments on their paper and for the chance to re-write their paper, as if I am doing them a favor by letting them re-write. Well, if Tom Sawyer could convince his friends to pay him to paint the fence, maybe I can convince students to gladly revise their essays.

Just a random coin that I don’t own.

For more on this, read my earlier post:

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