During the 2022 – 2023 school year, the Tang Institute partnered with ten educators from across the United States to launch the Action Research Program—a collection of projects aimed at implementing stronger approaches to student support in the educators’ school environments. Throughout the year, they learned to apply the principles of improvement science with guidance from Dr. Rebecca Stilwell, organizational psychologist at Teachers College, Columbia University. Now that a year has passed, we’re catching up with the educators to learn how their projects have progressed.

In this post, Nelle Andrews offers insight into the ongoing work of her Action Research project, Understanding the WHY of School Change,” which explores how to support students in their understanding of a competency-based mastery learning approach to education. In addition to teaching English and coaching varsity field hockey, Andrews serves as the Dean of Curriculum & Instruction at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn.


Describe your Action Research project.

My action-research project investigated how our 9th- and 10th-graders were making sense of their experiences with our competency-based mastery learning framework for feedback, assessment, and reporting. For the past two years, 9th-graders have not received traditional letter grades on their transcripts, and we wanted to understand how this was impacting student thinking about learning and grades, especially as they transitioned back to receiving summary grades for courses in their sophomore year.

What did you hope to achieve at the start of your project and what have you achieved up to this point?

At the start of the project, I expected that our Academic Office team would be able to use student feedback to affirm the changes we had made to our reporting practices. I also anticipated that many of our students would be able to articulate the value of thinking differently about their learning experiences and how they are evaluated and reported. However, surveys and focus groups with students highlighted conflicting feelings: 87 percent of our 9th-graders reported that their experiences with traditional grading systems were extremely” or moderately” stressful, yet 93 percent of them reported that they were motivated by grades. Our 10th-graders appreciated the theory of a competency-based, gradeless” system, but they didn’t like the idea that they were not being explicitly rewarded for effort. Our system only converts competency ratings to traditional letter grades at the end of a course, and students also found that frustrating; they wanted to know exactly where they stood in a class at all times, mostly because they were already concerned about impressing colleges (and parents) with familiar symbols of success, i.e., traditional letter grades.

In addition to these concerns, the data we gathered revealed that students had very different levels of understanding about the purpose of our competency-based assessment and reporting structure. I realized that we had been making some assumptions about how students would comprehend and respond to the framework we developed. Without an understanding of the why” of our system, students lacked clarity about the purpose and meaning of this structure, which led to the conflicting feelings and experiences for students.

In response to the findings of our action research, I developed an Academic Seminar” course for 9th- graders. The course met for 10 sessions this past fall in conjunction with our 9th grade Intro to Inquiry” and Health and Wellness” courses, which are required for all freshmen in the first trimester of the year. I focused the sessions on the concepts and research that guide our work as a school, honing in on topics such as metacognition, mastery, motivation, growth mindset, feedback, etc. By the end of the course, students crafted their own personal statement defining their educational philosophy. They were required to share their work with their advisors and throughout the fall, weekly advisory plans prompted 9th- grade advisors to discuss the course topics with their students. Later this spring, we intend to have students revisit and reflect on their personal statements from the fall, and I am eager to again survey students about their experiences, feelings, and overall mindsets.

…the data we gathered revealed that students had very different levels of understanding about the purpose of our competency-based assessment and reporting structure.

What are you learning through the current phase(s) of your project work? Is there something that has further inspired your work or served as a reminder of the continued relevance of the work?

In addition to developing this seminar course, I have continued to use an action research approach to this work by gathering survey data from 9th-grade students. All of the 9th-graders completed a grading survey on the first day of class (9÷11÷23) with the same questions I used in my research the year before. This measured student perceptions about the role of grades in student lives related to motivation, stress, etc., and it was interesting to see that their responses were very similar to the ones we received from last year’s 9th-graders. Ninety-one percent reported that grades were extremely” or moderately” motivating to them and 90 percent of them reported that grades were a source of stress for them.

On the final day of the course, I had students complete another survey to get a sense of what resonated with them and to gauge how they felt about their understanding of the feedback and assessment practices we engage in at MPS. When they were asked if they feel like they have a better understanding of the feedback and assessment practices at MPS and the reasoning behind them after engaging with this seminar, 84 percent said yes” and 16 percent said somewhat,” which suggested that our sessions were mostly effective in educating our students about the why” of our system. We received helpful feedback from students about which topics they wished to learn more about, and we have a good sense of what we can tweak to enhance these seminar sessions for next year.

One final question on our survey was particularly interesting in relation to how we hope to move forward with our overall reporting system. We asked students if they would be interested in receiving only competency-based ratings for 10th-grade courses (no conversion to traditional letter grades like they have in 9th). Thirty-three percent said yes,” 41 percent said maybe,” 23 percent said no,” and 3 percent said a blend of both would be ideal. I was excited to see that only 16 students flat out said no” in response to this final question. This statistic, along with other individual student commentary in the survey, confirmed that our work in the seminar sessions helped our students to think differently about their experiences, particularly with their thinking about grades. Now that we are starting our spring trimester classes, I am curious to again survey our 9th-graders to see if their thoughts or feelings have shifted a bit after experiencing more courses at the school.

In the meantime, I have been working with the Mastery Transcript Consortium to develop a Mastery Learning Record for our school, so that students can explore a tool that helps them to document their learning differently. I hosted two informational meetings for any interested students in February, and I have 20 students across grades 9 – 11 who have committed to engaging in this work. I am also working with a faculty group to rethink how we document student performance as we develop our Learning Record, and we already have some great ideas about how we might utilize portfolio-based systems to document student development and growth within specific competencies.

Although we have had the long-term goal of having students use a Mastery Transcript or Learning Record by the class of 2027, our work with 9th-graders in our academic seminar has helped us to feel more confident about this goal. Having our student voices represented through our qualitative research makes this work even more fulfilling and significant. All of the recent changes at our school have been driven by a desire to center the experiences of our students, and helping them to engage in and own” their learning experiences more meaningfully will benefit all of us.

Please share your thoughts about your experience working with the Action Research cohort, including guide and facilitator Dr. Rebecca Stilwell. How did working with fellow educators help you design and develop the ideas and research at the center of your project?

Anytime I have a chance to work collaboratively with other educators, I am thrilled! The cohort model for this action research was an especially valuable way to engage with others, since we had the chance to understand each other’s projects more deeply and we were able to offer each other more meaningful feedback along the way. Having the opportunity to work with Dr. Stilwell gave all of us a clear understanding of how to conduct the research process effectively, and we received the support we needed to navigate the challenges of this work. Meeting regularly with fellow educators in our cohort also gave all of us time to learn from each other, and it was inspiring to see how everyone was working so thoughtfully to enhance the experiences of students at their respective institutions.

In addition, I have connected on LinkedIn with some of my fellow cohort members, and that has been a great way to continue to learn from and support each other as our projects develop. I am grateful that I was able to enhance my own knowledge and skills as an educator through this Action Research project and, most significantly, I can continue to utilize these action research strategies with students and colleagues as we work towards our long-term institutional goals.

The cohort model for this action research was an especially valuable way to engage with others, since we had the chance to understand each other’s projects more deeply and we were able to offer each other more meaningful feedback along the way.

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