You may have encountered people who graduated high school but do not write well and cannot do even basic algebra, and you may have thought to yourself “how is that possible?” While it may be difficult to believe, a number of students graduate high school without having the basic knowledge and skills needed to earn a college degree or to live meaningfully and conveniently (World Bank, 2018). In fact, a recent study shows that 21% of American adults—or 43 million US adults—are considered illiterate despite having achieved a certain level of education (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019).
This concern could be easily associated with schools’ failure to be a place of learning. For a long time, schools have focused on teaching rather than learning—assuming that in every ounce of teaching, students acquire an ounce of learning as well (Wharton School, 2008). The good thing is a growing number of educators and school systems across the world have started shifting to an approach that focuses on what really matters—student learning. This educational strategy and philosophy is called mastery learning.
But what is mastery learning really? How does it reshape our view of education and learning? In this article, the definition and origins of mastery learning will be discussed, as well as its elements, principles, prospects, and challenges. Teachers, administrators, and other educational stakeholders will find this comprehensive guide of value.
With the growing number of instructional strategies and models arising, one may ask “what is mastery learning?”
Moving away from the practices of traditional learning, mastery learning aims to address the limitations of teacher-centered approaches. It requires students to completely comprehend a lesson, regardless of the time and resources needed, before moving to the next level (Chargois, 2013). Furthermore, this educational model necessitates teachers to personalize the students’ learning experience, allowing some learners to have additional time to understand the lesson or develop a particular skill. In a manner, mastery learning empowers students to progress at their own pace.
Although the movement to adopt mastery-based approaches in education systems got its momentum only in recent past decades, the concept of mastery learning is not new. Its practice was first outlined by Benjamin Bloom in the 1960s, stating that students can master any task given the right conditions (Kampen, 2019). Bloom’s Learning for Mastery (LFM) strategy evolved and was later on implemented in primary and secondary school settings. Its basic features are as follows (McNeil, 1969, as cited in Chargois, 2013):
Aside from Bloom’s LFM, another prevalent mastery learning strategy is the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI). Developed by psychologist Fred Keller in the 1960s, the PSI is mostly implemented at the university level, focusing on five key principles (Kampen, 2019):
At its core, mastery learning presumes that students can truly master any academic content if they are provided with favorable learning conditions. As researchers and educators alike continuously propose new ways to improve the application of mastery-based approaches in schools, research has consistently linked effective instruction and learning to the six elements of mastery learning model (Guskey, 2010).
Theoretically, pre-assessments help teachers determine students’ prior knowledge, experience, skill levels, and potential misconceptions before beginning instruction (Guskey, 2016). Through this, teachers develop a substantial understanding of the students’ knowledge and abilities. This can be done through short quizzes or short discussions of previous learning experiences.
Diagnostic assessments are not only present in the mastery learning model. Almost every modern educational approach integrates some form of pre-assessment. As a matter of fact, studies have regarded pre-assessments as a way to make the learning environment ‘invitational’ and to provide students with a metacognitive foundation for self-monitoring (Hattie, 2009; Tomlinson & Moon, 2013). In addition, Guskey (2016) noted that pre-assessment can assist teachers in:
Although mastery-based approaches focus on personalized learning, the initial instruction is usually not done exclusively for each student. During the initial instruction, students are taught ‘high-quality, developmentally appropriate,’ and well-researched discussions in a group-based classroom—just like regular classes. But the instruction must be multifaceted, context-adapted, and student-oriented (Guskey, 2010).
Another element viewed as an essential strategy by many modern instructional models is the use of regular formative assessments. Formative assessments inform teachers about what students learned well, and what students need to learn better. With this, teachers can determine the next steps to undertake to increase student achievement.
Typically, assessments are administered after a week or two of instruction. This could be in the form of quizzes, written assignments, oral presentations, skill demonstrations, or performances, depending on the subject area, the grade level, and the learning outcomes involved (Guskey, 2010).
In mastery learning classes, lectures do not end with quizzes or assignments. Next to performing formative assessments, teachers provide ‘high-quality corrective instructions’ to mend learning problems that the assessments have identified. After all, what is mastery learning if not ensuring students’ academic progress.
Different from ‘reteaching,’ corrective instruction approaches are versatile enough to accommodate different student learning styles, modalities, and intelligence levels (Sternberg, 1994, as cited in Guskey, 2010). Corrective learning activities usually take 10% to 20% additional time than initial learning units. However, these personalized lectures lessen the amount of time needed for remediation in the later units, allowing teachers to cover just as much material as they would using traditional teaching methods (Guskey, 2010).
Basically, the first assessment in mastery learning does not conclude the evaluation of student achievement. After corrective learning classes, mastery learning teachers conduct a second, parallel formative assessment to determine the effectiveness of the corrective instruction. Through this, students are also given a second chance to experience success and show mastery of the subject matter (Guskey, 2010).
Mastery learning educators also provide effective enrichment activities to learners who have mastered the material and do not need corrective instruction. Aiming to provide challenging yet rewarding learning experiences, these activities enable students to explore a greater depth of related topics that pique their interests. Enrichment activities could be in the form of academic games and exercises, various multimedia projects, and peer discussions (Guskey, 2010).
As teachers and schools in the United States gradually move to mastery learning, it becomes important for school systems to establish a philosophical and pedagogical foundation in implementing the instructional model. For this reason, the Great Schools Partnership (2016) created the ‘Ten Principles of Mastery Learning,’ which describe the features commonly found in the most effective mastery-based systems.
Over the past decades, a number of studies have been published, claiming that mastery learning produced a positive effect on students’ academic performance (Kampen, 2019). In fact, a number of meta-analyses have indicated that mastery-based learning approaches are effective and have an impact of up to six months’ additional progress (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018). In addition, mastery learning is seen as a direct, optimistic, and clear instructional approach that has a positive effect on students’ self-esteem (Sajadi et al., 2015).
However, implementing mastery-based instruction has been seen to be exhausting since it requires more effort both from the teachers and the students. Aside from this, the model requires a large amount of time to ensure that all students deliver mastery of the topic. Educational resources, including time, and teacher’s attention are also denied to strong learners and bestowed on weak ones (Sajadi et al., 2015).
Despite these challenges, mastery learning posits promising results concerning student learning progress. The mastery learning model might look complex at first glance. But with the right amount of support and foundation, this transformational approach might be the future of education.