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Mastery Learning: The Educator’s Guide (2022)

Guides | 22 minutes

This is the educator’s guide to mastery learning for the 2021-2022 school year. If you are new to mastery education, this guide will get serve as a great introduction. And if you are a mastery learning pro? This guide will give you additional resources to help you get to the next level.

What is Mastery Learning?

Mastery Learning, also known as Learning for Mastery (LFM) and Mastery Education, is an educational philosophy that shifts the definition of student aptitude. In the traditional approach, content is taught for a set amount of time, and a student’s aptitude is based on how much they learned in that amount of time. In Mastery Learning, a student’s aptitude is based on how long they need to master the content, and all students (given enough time and intervention) are assumed to be able to eventually master the content.

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What is the Purpose of Mastery Learning?

The purpose of Mastery Learning is to ensure that students truly master each course’s subject material before moving on to the next course. In a traditional model, students who do not master the content in the set amount of time are rarely, if ever, given additional time and opportunity to re-learn what they missed. These students often fall farther and farther behind, which leads to many seeing themselves (and being seen by others) as unable to learn successfully.

However, grading students via Mastery Learning removes this stigma, as the learning for mastery model provides students with as much time and intervention as they need to truly understand, and thus master, course material. This ensures that students master the formative content necessary to move into increasingly complex material. Students who approach learning this way see themselves as capable of learning. They are often far more ready to engage with the material and more resilient in the face of struggle.

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    Mastery Learning vs. Standards-Based Grading

    Mastery Learning, or Mastery Education, is actually intertwined with Standards-Based Grading. It is difficult to move towards a mastery approach without Standards-Based Grading as a foundation. One could say that Standards-Based Grading is the what and Mastery Learning is the how

    A school, its district, or even its county or state must first decide what a student needs to master. Standards-Based Grading provides specific learning targets to provide students, teachers, and parents with a clear picture of a student’s learning goals and progress with actionable insight. 

    Mastery Learning is how a student moves from not knowing the learning targets to mastering (or becoming fully competent in) the targets based on the actionable insight that the Standards-Based Grading provides. The Mastery Learning model does this by providing students with as much time and intervention as they need to become competent in their learning.

    Interested in learning more about Standards-Based Grading? Check out our ultimate Standards-Based Grading guide!

    The 5 Steps of Mastery Learning Infographic

    How Does Mastery Learning Work?

    The Mastery Learning model works cyclically through five stages: pre-assessment, instruction, formative assessment, correction or enrichment instruction, and summative grading or assessment. 

    Pre-Assessment

    First, a teacher will introduce course material that is connected to the standard they must teach through a pre-assessment. The purpose of this pre-assessment is to ensure students have previously mastered the skills or knowledge necessary to move into the current material. If the students do not have the needed competencies, the teacher moves backward to ensure students master the previous material before moving forward. 

    Instruction

    Once students have exhibited competency in the foundational skills or knowledge necessary for the current material, the teacher will begin instruction. It is essential that teachers clearly communicate the mastery grading scale they will use to determine if students have achieved competency.

    Formative Assessment

    After the instruction stage, teachers will assess students’ skills and knowledge through formative assessment. Formative assessment can measure student competencies through a variety of methods, from exit tickets to homework assignments to classroom polls. 

    Correction or Enrichment Instruction

    Once teachers get a gauge of where students are in the mastery process, they can differentiate as necessary. Students who demonstrate high competency can continue to grow their knowledge and skill set through personalized enrichment instruction (which often happens in small groups), while those who have not demonstrated mastery can receive additional personalized instruction and practice opportunities from the teacher. 

    Summative Assessment

    The final step in the process is the summative assessment. Once a teacher believes all students are at or close to mastery, they offer a cumulative test, essay, or project to assess if each student has mastered the content. Most Mastery Learning models recommend students score a minimum of 80% to be considered at the “master” level. How teachers assess this as a percentage is often left up to the teacher or school administration. Those who do not score at the master level simply require additional time and support to reach that level of competency.

    3 benefits of Mastery-Learning

    3 Benefits of Mastery Learning

    Mastery Learning Sets Students Up to Succeed

    In a traditional school model, teachers only have a set amount of time to teach a topic. Students who don’t grasp the content are left behind because the teacher must move on to the next topic. This system invariably sets up some students for success but more students for failure, simply because students need different amounts of time to learn material due to a plethora of variables—often outside the students’ control. In this system, there will always be students who fall increasingly behind.

    A Mastery Learning model, on the other hand, focuses on every student and the journey toward growth, and ideally, mastery. It provides students with as much time and intervention as needed, so each student is ready to move on to the next level. Studies show that Mastery Learning closes the gap between aptitude levels by providing slower students with enough time to learn, and faster students with enough enrichment that they remain engaged with the material, so every student succeeds.

    Mastery Learning Inspires a Love of Learning for the Sake of Learning

    The shift from ability-based aptitude to time-based aptitude moves the weight of perceived intelligence off a student’s shoulders. Instead of students in the traditional model constantly competing to keep up and then potentially giving up when they realize they have fallen behind, students in the Mastery Learning model begin to understand that their aptitude is based solely on their decision to put in the time and work necessary to learn the material.

    Grades are no longer a competition; rather, each student is working towards what will best set them up for mastering the necessary content so all students can move forward together. Learning is far more collaborative, and teachers often report that students engaged in Mastery Learning begin to explore the content for a love of learning, not for fear of a bad grade.

    Mastery Learning Puts the Responsibility for Learning in the Hands of the Students

    As teachers create learning environments that foster students’ individual learning needs to truly master the content, students begin to realize they must advocate for themselves when they don’t understand something. Teachers often report growth in students’ motivation, sense of control over their education, and resilience as students find agency in navigating through their learning process.

    Students can no longer blame bad grades on bad teaching; rather, they are given as much time and as many opportunities as they need until they master the content. They work with the teacher to understand any learning blocks until they find the path that works for them to best understand and master the content.

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      What School Administrators Need to Know About Mastery Learning

      While Mastery Learning sets students up for success from the beginning, it can be a challenge for school administrators at the outset. Mastery Learning often represents a cultural shift in schools, and it is often necessary to “woo” teachers and board members toward learning for the mastery model. 

      Administrators must determine what standards are essential for students to master and how they will provide students and teachers with extra support and time to ensure differentiated and individualized instruction and learning can happen at the correction and enrichment stages.

      In decades past, administrators’ biggest obstacle, cost, is now obsolete. Previously, administrators had to shell out enormous amounts of money to ensure teachers had the books and materials necessary to differentiate for students at a wide variety of mastery levels. However, with the advent of new technology and online platforms, the cost is minimal and the opportunities for differentiation are more available now than ever before.

      Furthermore, when administrators consider the benefits – increased student achievement, engagement, and ownership of their education; improved instructional strategies and collaboration for staff; and better communication with parents at home – it is easy to understand why so many school administrators are eager to explore the implementation of Mastery Learning in their schools. 

      What School Teachers Need to Know About Mastery Learning

      While most teachers are excited to adopt a teaching method that will allow them to set students up for success instead of feeling forced to leave them behind in order to hit the required units, many teachers are understandably apprehensive about the amount of work it will take to set up a Mastery Learning environment. 

      It is true that creating a thriving classroom built around learning for mastery and a standards-based grading system is more work initially, especially as teachers look for quality ways to differentiate and individualize learning for students. Teachers must be very clear about what constitutes mastery and often must increase the quality and quantity of communication to both students and parents. 

      However, teachers who adapt Mastery Learning models often report that as time goes on and students become used to the rhythms of Mastery Learning, students not only take more initiative for their education, but teachers find they are able to use their time far more effectively as they can focus on the students who need their attention the most. Additionally, as students truly master the standards before teachers move on to the next unit, teachers rarely find themselves “wasting” time re-teaching necessary formative content and can continue to successfully move forward throughout the school year.

      What Families Need to Know About Mastery Learning

      Mastery Learning might feel confusing to students and parents at the outset as it represents a foundational shift in their understanding of the purpose of education. Many students and parents, however, find that it becomes a great opportunity to engage with teachers in conversations about what will be expected of students. 

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        Parents and students may feel confused about the purpose of formative assessments like homework, as formative assessments are rarely used in a student’s overall grade. In the traditional model, students can achieve high grades without understanding the content through simple completion rates or extra credit. However, once parents and students understand that formative assessments simply provide them with benchmarks to understand their comprehension, they are more likely to embrace the assignments and engage in dialogue with the progress students are making.

        Moreover, students actually master the material because they understand that their comprehension, not their ability to simply check the boxes, is how they now move through a course. Not only does Mastery Learning frequently grow a student’s sense of responsibility and ownership, but it also paves the way for students to truly understand the content and embrace learning for the joy and challenge of learning.