Whether it’s called mastery-based or competency-based education, the premise is the same: education should focus on teaching in a way that each and every student truly masters the content before they moving on to the next thing.
What is Mastery Learning?
Mastery learning is a paradigm shift from the mainstream model of education in the United States. In a traditional classroom, students focus on retaining as much information as possible within a given amount of time (Schaef, 2016). Once the unit is over, all students continue to the next topic. In a mastery-based classroom, students focus on mastering a specific amount of information with no set time-frame (Schaef, 2016). Once the student has mastered the unit, then they move on to the next topic. This shifts the fundamental focus of education from the assessment of learning to the act learning itself. While this approach to learning is far from being revolutionary (many professions throughout history were built on the idea of the master-apprentice relationship), adaptations of this model for modern education emerged during the 1960s, with the two main models being Bloom’s Learning for Mastery (LFM) and Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) which were both published in 1968 (Kulik, 1983, as cited in Kulik et al., 1990).
Comparison of Bloom's and Keller's Models
In both LFM and PSI courses, material to be learned is divided into short units, and students take formative tests on each unit of material (Bloom, 1968; Keller, 1968). LFM and PSI differ in several respects, however. Lessons in LFM courses are teacher presented, and students move through these courses at a uniform, teacher-controlled pace. Lessons in PSI courses are presented largely through written materials, and students move through these lessons at their own rates. Students who fail unit quizzes in PSI courses must restudy material and take tests on the material until they are able to demonstrate mastery. Students who fail unit quizzes in LFM courses usually receive individual or group tutorial help on the unit before moving on to new material.
- Kulik et al. (1990)
Skeptics of mastery learning might argue that it is impractical to provide each student with the time necessary to master a skill, or even that each student is not capable of achieving true mastery of every topic. They might believe that some students simply have more natural talent or intelligence. However, the research is actually to the contrary of these claims. In a study surveying a variety of experts across a multitude of disciplines, none of their success traced backed to some sort innate talent or genetic predisposition, but all of their expertise could be explained by a single trait: deliberate practice (Ericsson & Pool, 2017). This concept of deliberate practice has four main tenants: having well-defined goals, being focused, receiving focused feedback, and pushing past one’s comfort zone (Ericsson & Pool, 2017). They found no shortcut to success, just hard work, which suggests the idea of mastery is supported in believing that everyone is capable of being an expert in a field with the right level of support. Interestingly enough, the tenants of deliberate practice are the same traits that you see within mastery learning environments.
Mastery Learning in the Classroom
1. Diagnostic Pre-Assessment
In a traditional classroom, teachers may utilize a pre-assessment as a way to check for prior knowledge of a topic. They then take this data to see if there are any topics they can skip or move through more quickly.
In a mastery-based classroom, teachers utilize a pre-assessment as a way to check for pre-requisite knowledge of a topic (Guskey, 2010). They then take this data to pre-teach any necessary pre-requisite knowledge before the student tries to learn the content based on it (Guskey, 2010).
The disadvantage to this method is that it can add 10-20% more instructional time at the start of a unit (Block, Efthim, & Burns, 1989 as cited in Guskey, 2010). Fortunately, by taking the time to provide this level of individualized assistance at the start of a unit or course, the advantage comes in the amount of remediation needed as the unit or course progresses tends to decrease to the point that overall learning evens out (Guskey, 2008 as cited in Guskey, 2010). This is a proactive approach to remediation that ensures each student understands every concept from the start, which removes future confusion or misunderstanding when the concepts compound on each other.
2. Focused Feedback
In a traditional classroom, teachers create assignments for students to assess their understanding over a topic. Once students complete these assignments, they turn them in for the teacher to grade and provide feedback. If the majority of students do well, the class continues to the next topic.
In a mastery-based classroom, teachers regularly monitor the individual progress of each student in order to provide highly individualized and prescriptive feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007 as cited in Guskey, 2010). To do this, teachers utilize a variety of assessments, including conferences, focusing on smaller segments of information to better gauge individual understanding (Guskey, 2010).
The disadvantage of this method is that it can be time consuming and exhausting to provide highly-quality, individualized feedback to every student frequently enough to effectively monitor progresses. Fortunately, this provides similar advantages as using diagnostic pre-assessments. By ensuring that students are progressing as expected, misunderstandings are caught early, which results in less confusion later.
3. Flexible Pacing
In a traditional classroom, teachers develop units that cover a set amount of content. Based on the amount of content and the learning activities planned, the teacher determines how long the unit will be. Units typically end with students taking a test and then immediately continuing on to the next unit, often before they know how they did on the previous unit.
In a mastery-based classroom, the teacher develops units that cover a set amount of content, including a final assessment, but there is no established timeline for completion. The teacher may develop a pacing guide for students and then structure the class around this pacing guide, but students do not progress to the next unit until they fully master the current topic
The disadvantage of this method is that the traditional school calendar and structure does provide the flexibility needed to completely utilize this aspect, particularly at the end of the year. The advantage of this aspect of mastery learning is that it ensures that students are confident in their ability to complete the new content, without causing stress of trying to rush their learning to arbitrary due dates.
4. Growth Mindset Assessments
In a traditional classroom, students complete an assessment and receive a grade. This grade defines how much they learned of a particular topic, and then they are not given the opportunity to demonstrate new knowledge after going through remediation.
In a mastery-based classroom, students complete an assessment and receive a grade. If this grade does not demonstrate mastery, the student is provided with personalized remediation to address the gap in knowledge. Students are then reassessed to check for mastery. This process can be repeated as many times as needed for the student.
The disadvantage of this aspect is that it can be frustrating and embarrassing for students that have the fixed mindset that is typical of traditional classrooms. Students with less self-confidence or more toxic relationships could take the idea of remediation very hard and could even be subject to social ridicule until a cultural shift is made. The advantage of this aspect is that it encourages students to focus on the process of learning rather than the resulting grade. It is important that students understand that everyone has something they struggle with and learning is a journey that is sometimes accompanied by failure, and that it is okay. Part of deliberate practice is getting outside of our comfort zone, and if we aren’t struggling, we aren’t really learning (Ericsson & Pool, 2017). As an added bonus, it shifts motivation to learn from an external source (the grade) to an internal source (the desire for knowledge).
5. Define Mastery
In a traditional classroom, a passing grade is defined on a continuum with different levels of mastery. Students that score a 70% or greater are considered passing (sufficient mastery), but are then separated into by letter (A, B, C, D, F) or numeric grades (100-90, 89-80, 79-70, 69-0; 4, 3, 2, 1, 0) that further separate them by degree of mastery.
In a mastery-based classroom, teachers work together to develop a definition of what mastery is, including creating a consistent set of tools to assess student content knowledge (Schaef, 2016). Students are said to master (or pass) the content when they have met the requirements for mastery as defined by the teachers. Students are then awarded either a pass or fail for assignments.
One disadvantage of this aspect is that students who typically thrive off of external motivating factors, such as competition among grades or GPA, may not have the same level of motivation as they had in a traditional classroom until they adapt to the new system. Within the same realm, it makes it harder to award more objective merit-based awards, such as Valedictorian, without degrees of mastery. An advantage of this aspect is that teachers of subsequent courses can have greater certainty of what students should know, and to what degree they should know it. This allows for more focused an effective instructional design. Additionally, students have a clearer picture of what they expectations are. This provides them with a clearer target when studying or working on assignments.
6. Flipped Classroom
In a traditional classroom, the teacher teaches lessons during the school day. Students take home an assignment to reinforce the content and bring it back the next day.
In a mastery-based classroom, the students learn the content online from either teacher-produced videos, or other learning objects. Class time is used to clarify understanding, group discussions, and to work on collaborative assignments.
The disadvantage of this aspect is that students may not have adequate access to technology at home. This would limit their ability to effectively take advantage of the this method. There are numerous advantages of this method for mastery learning. To start, students are able to work through the content at their own pace to ensure that they understand everything. If they need to review anything at any point, they can easily rewind the video or return to the article. Additionally, teachers can create basic assessments on the learning management system to allow the students to quickly self-assess their knowledge prior to coming to class. These assessments could provide immediate feedback and remediation to aid that individual student on their path to content mastery. Lastly, by moving instruction online students can have more collaborative and/or project opportunities. This gives the teacher more time to visit with each student in class to assess their understanding.
Ericsson, A & Pool, R. (2017). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Guskey, T. (2010). Lessons of Mastery Learning. Educational leadership: journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A 68(2), 52-57. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct10/vol68/num02/Lessons-of-Mastery-Learning.aspx
Kulik, C.-L. C., Kulik, J. A., & Bangert-Drowns, R. L. (1990). Effectiveness of Mastery Learning Programs: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 60(2), 265–299. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543060002265
Schaef, S. (2016, January 16). Five Key Lessons for Mastery Learning Startup. Springpoint Schools. http://www.springpointschools.org/blog/2016/01/five-key-lessons-mastery-startup/.