Mastery-based learning requires students to demonstrate a specific level of knowledge or skill before moving forward.
This approach is vastly different from traditional educational philosophies, where students move forward after testing, regardless of their level of mastery.
With mastery-based learning, students continue to spend time on a skill until they achieve the targeted level of proficiency.
For example, students may not be able to pass on from one module until they have received at least 90% on an exam. If they fail to meet the mastery threshold, they continue to study and re-try the test.
Mastery-Based Learning Definition and Explanation
John B. Carrol (1963) is famed for developing this model by highlighting that time is a central variable in learning, and teachers should not move on if students haven’t had enough time to master what they learned (Dunkleberger & Heikkinen, 1983).
The key point that Carrol (1963) and later Benjamin Bloom (1974) made is that if each student is given sufficient time, each could achieve a mastery level of performance.
As long as the instructional techniques were effective and needed resources are available, then each student should achieve the targeted goals.
This principle is often illustrated by comparing two graphic displays of the normal distribution.
The left graph depicts the ability of students as conforming to the normal distribution; some students are innately exceptional while others are not.
The right graph shows the expected test results of traditional instructional approaches; some students score very high, while others do not.
With the mastery approach, which provides optimal instruction in the form of additional time and assistance to students that need it, learning outcomes are vastly different.
The right graph below shows that most students are now able to attain a much higher level of achievement.
Mastery Learning Examples
- Setting Minimum Grades: Often, educators identify a threshold for mastery, such as 90% on a test. Students cannot move on until they have achieved that pre-set mastery threshold.
- Requiring Consistency: Another way to ensure mastery is to ask students not to pass a test once, but three times in a row. This shows that the students clearly have internalized the knowledge and skills.
- Gamified Learning: A teacher sets up their lessons like levels in a video game. If the students don’t complete the level adequately, they go back to the start and try again, just like in a video game.
- Using Formative Assessment to Check for Mastery: Janelle is quick to provide formative feedback after each short quiz, reviews the areas students had difficulty with, then tests again.
- Checkpoints: The teacher sets five ‘checkpoints’ during a unit of work. Students need to show their work to the teacher at the checkpoint to ensure they mastered each step before moving on.
- Giving Extra Time: Sam knows that if he asks his math teacher for a little extra time completing the assignment, she will say okay and provide some assistance.
- Chunking of Tasks: Joon wants his students to complete a large poster project, but he breaks it down into many smaller projects first and makes sure the students can do each stage well before moving onward.
- Differentiation: Some students in a class have mastered a lesson but others haven’t. As a result, the teacher differentiates instruction in the next lesson so the students who haven’t achieved mastery yet get more tailored scaffolding to catch up.
- Student-Centered Instruction: The teacher sees that students have not appeared to master one aspect of the unit of work, so instead of soldiering on, the teacher pivots based on their observations and focuses on areas of need for the students, until they have figured it out.
- Gatekeeping: A Bar exam designed to assess for mastery is set for law students. If they can’t complete the exam, then they can’t practice law in the jurisdiction.
Mastery-Based Learning Strengths and Limitations
1. Positive Psychological Impact on Learners
One of the main benefits of MBL is that it has a positive psychological impact on students’ sense of autonomy, self-efficacy, and self-confidence.
When students see their progress over an extended period of time, especially on tasks they initially thought outside of their abilities, their self-confidence grows exponentially.
Because many MBL strategies allow for student responsibility of their learning outcomes, it also instills a sense of independence and autonomy. Students understand that in order to make progress, they must put in the effort.
Traditional approaches would accept student failure as inevitable and just keep moving forward. MBL insists that students advance and students quickly learn that they play a huge role in those outcomes.
2. Academic Outcomes
There have been many studies that demonstrate the benefits of MBL regarding academic performance in subjects such as math (Kulik et al., 1990; Guskey, 2009), in addition to training medical residents (Wayne, 2009) and nursing students (Sajadi, et al., 2015)
Some have claimed that the effectiveness of MBL has been so well-demonstrated that “Researchers today generally recognize the value of the core elements of mastery learning. As a result, fewer studies are being conducted on the mastery learning process itself” (Guskey, 2010, p. 5).
1. Time Demands
By far one of the most frequent criticisms of MBL is expressed by teachers themselves. Despite the fact that they see its value and praise the results, there is not doubt that it places incredible demands on their time.
MBL activities are more time-consuming to plan. Frequent assessments, even as informal as they may be, either must be checked or at the very least take time away from direct instruction. In addition, spending extra time with numerous students that need extra help is an additional time-consuming endeavor.
In the words of Mr. Vandenberg, “I don’t have one math class; I have 32 math classes.”
2. Test Anxiety
At the core of MBL is frequent assessment. Although this is often informal, not all teachers operationalize assessment in the same way.
Some teachers administer frequent quizzes and may end up identifying the same students repeatedly as needing additional instruction.
Being singled out in this manner can create several other problems. It can make students feel ashamed, embarrassed, and lose self-confidence as well as motivation to learn.
Some students already experience test anxiety, adding more frequent testing just makes those students endure even more stress that would not occur in a more traditional classroom.
3. Advanced Students Held Back
Perhaps one of the most substantial criticisms of MBL is that it causes advanced students to put their learning on pause while the class waits for others to catch up.
Anytime student progress is stalled or hindered, it is considered a drawback and a disservice to the student.
Although in a single week or month of instruction, the amount of learning lost may not seem significant, when extrapolated over a period of many years, it has a pronounced cumulative effect.
This can ultimately lead to a student being several years behind what their learning trajectory could have been if placed in a more appropriate academic environment.
1. Diagnostic Pre-Assessment and Pre-teaching
Before beginning a new unit, the mastery approach encourages pre-assessment. This allows the teacher to determine if the students have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to begin the next unit of study.
Pre-assessment can be informal, such as the teacher directing questions at the class as a whole or to specific students. A more formal pre-assessment could involve a short quiz or asking students to demonstrate skills that are linked to the next stage.
As Guskey (2010) explains,
“For students whose preassessment results suggest deficiencies, mastery learning teachers take time to directly teach them the needed concepts and skills. In other words, teachers ensure the conditions for success before instruction begins” (p. 2).
2. Mastery-Based Learning In Washington State
MBL is being applied not only by individual teachers, but is also being adopted by state boards. For example, in the state of Washington, many schools are implementing MBL and praising the results.
According to the Washington State Board of Education (Report Summary, 2020):
- objectives that empower students;
- learning needs; and
- and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.
3. Formative Assessment
A key feature of MBL is that teachers implement assessment strategies to gauge student progress. This can be through either informal or formal assessment techniques.
By making frequent assessments, teachers will be able to identify difficult tasks and specific students that need additional instruction.
“They reinforce precisely what students were expected to learn, identify what they learned well, and describe what they need to learn better” (Guskey, 2010, p. 3).
Maintaining student attention and focus can be difficult when instruction takes place online. Frequent formative assessment however, can be particularly beneficial in a virtual environment.
Using formative assessment keeps students on their toes and lets them know that the teacher can still see them.
Online techniques include asking students to click on emojis that reflect their comprehension, or type a response to a quiz in a chat box. Here are a few more techniques.
4. Mr. Vandenberg’s 6th Grade Class
MBL is a very pragmatic approach to education. What better way to illustrate how it works than through a video from a real class.
This video exemplifies how MBL happens in a real classroom setting as explained by Mr. Vandenberg, an experienced and dedicated teacher.
The first issue that Mr. Vandenberg describes is what many teachers all over the world experience: students entering the class without the prerequisite skills they need for that academic year.
“The traditional model among most schools is just moving kids along by age; whether they’ve mastered the skills or not. So, by the time they come to me in 6th grade, they’ve got so many gaps in their learning because they haven’t mastered the skills in K-5.”
Mr. Vandenberg tries to counteract this problem by taking the highest performing students in the class and dispersing them throughout the room; to give them “two elbow buddies.”
Mastery-based learning is an educational philosophy that tries to ensure that all students make sustained progress and achieve a threshold level of proficiency.
When students fail to attain a certain threshold, they are given extra time and instruction to reach the targeted goals.
Although research has shown the benefits of MBL, both in terms of academic and psychological variables, it is not without flaws.
Teachers have pointed out the incredible demands on their time when planning instruction, carrying out frequent assessments, and reteaching to underperforming students.
Ultimately, teachers and school boards need to achieve a balance that has the best interests of students while considering the practicalities of the classroom.
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Guskey, T. (2009). Mastery learning in 21st century education: A reference handbook, vol 1. (Ed). T.L. Good. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Guskey, T. (2010). Lessons of mastery learning. Educational Leadership: Journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A., 68. 52-57.
Sajadi, Seyedeh & Ebadi, Abbas & Khaghanizadeh, Morteza. (2015). Effectiveness and challenges of mastery learning in nursing education: A systematic review. International Journal of Medical Reviews, 2, 309-316.
Gravina, E. W. (2017). Competency-based education and its effect on nursing education: A literature review. Teaching and Learning in Nursing, 12(2), 117-121.
Wayne, DB (2006). “Mastery learning of advanced cardiac life support skills by internal medicine residents using simulation technology and deliberate practice”. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 21(3), 251–6.
Graph 1: By LibBabel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41056442
Graph 2: By LibBabel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41057260