How mastery-based learning helps every student succeed

Traditional teaching can fail both struggling learners and the quickest studies. The radical idea behind mastery-based learning? Let students learn at their own pace.

Mark Toner | May 18, 2021

Originally published on | View Original

Just because it’s “normal” doesn’t mean it’s right.

Consider the usual way students have been learning for centuries. In a traditional classroom, students are taught new material in a strictly set order and within a limited amount of time. They have a couple weeks to learn a topic and a semester to finish a class. Then they must move onto the next topic, semester, and year — no matter what.

The problem for many students who try to learn according to a school’s rigid time table means they aren’t getting the education they deserve. Fast learners who pick up a concept easily often check out. Students who need more time to learn material risk falling behind and even failing out.

“Some kids are keeping up, some are over their head, and some are bored,” says Steve Ritter, founder and chief scientist of Carnegie Learning, an education technology and curriculum solutions provider.

The solution, says educators like Ritter, is a teaching practice known as mastery-based learning.

Time isn’t a measure of intelligence. Mastery is.

As opposed to traditional time-based learning, mastery-based learning (also referred to as “mastery-based pacing”) gives students the time they need to “master” a topic, whether it takes an extra day, week, month, semester, or even a year.

“There’s a recognition that different students may take different amounts of time and have different learning experiences,” Ritter says. “But that every student can achieve mastery.” If a student needs more time, no problem. If they need less? That’s fine, too.

Mastery-based learning means giving students the time they need to master a topic, whether it’s an extra day or an extra year.

Supporters say mastery-based learning makes far more sense than the old-school, time-based model. Consider that most of life is mastery-based: whether learning to get a driver’s license or earning a nursing degree, most everyone in the adult world is given the time they need to master a skill. So why punish younger people for not learning what they need to simply because they don’t have enough time?

Research suggests that students in mastery-learning settings score higher on standardized tests and are more likely to attend college. Given these encouraging findings, most states have given schools at least some leeway to implement mastery-based practices.

Getting an A: not a race to the finish line

Unlike so much “teach to the test” schooling, the goal in mastery learning isn’t to score an A on the first (and often only) test. In fact, a student might get multiple opportunities to take a similar test. In a math class, one student might get an A the first time they take a test. Another might be tested on the material four times before getting an A. But both students have the chance to earn an A as long as they’ve proven that they’ve successfully learned the material.

Mastery-based learning also helps ensure that a student doesn’t fall further behind as the year progresses, simply because they missed a key concept early on that’s needed to develop later skills and knowledge. By giving a student the time they need to recognize positive and negative coefficients, then they can solve a quadratic equation in algebra.

What mastery-based learning looks like in the classroom

Mastery-based teaching requires more patience and flexibility. Teachers typically break down the academic standards — a.k.a learning goals within a given grade level — into smaller concepts.

As they teach each concept, teachers will regularly evaluate (using what’s known as “formative assessments”) a student’s level of proficiency. “The important thing is what we do with the time,” says Chris Sturgis, founder of LearningEdge, an organization that helps schools shift to a mastery- and competency-based education. The structure of the mastery model allows, adds Sturgis, “more opportunities for practice, feedback, and instructional support.”

Feedback doesn’t just involve corrections or grades. Students use it to revisit a concept or redo an assignment to improve understanding. At the Maker Academy in New York City, founding Principal Luke Bauer says, “We work a lot on the mindset that learning happens when you practice a whole lot and get a lot of feedback.” The feedback, Bauer explains, comes “not only from the teacher, but from [the students] and [their] peers.”

Student ownership of their learning process is essential, echoes Sturgis, particularly in middle and high school when teens often resist meeting teachers’ expectations. “If you don’t shift some of the responsibility to students and everyone is depending on the teacher for everything,” Sturgis says, “there’s no way to make it work.”

Teachers will also frequently have students use technology platforms that deliver personalized learning like Khan Academy, allowing each student to go at their own pace. This also lets students repeat a lesson as often as they need until they are ready to move on.

What to look for in a mastery-based learning environment

  • A class that breaks down the state’s education standards into easily learned, small concepts. This could mean, for example, that there are as many as 600 knowledge components for a high school algebra course.
  • Teachers and students have a clear and shared understanding of what mastery means for each concept. Parents can ask about rubrics (a scoring tool for evaluating a student’s understanding of material) that teachers use to assess mastery. In most cases, mastery-based learning is the focus of an entire school, subject, and grade level. So it’s important that teachers develop a common understanding of what proficiency looks like across a subject and grade, as well as for the grades students are moving into for the coming year.
  • Teachers give regular feedback on their students’ level of mastery. They are also always giving students the chance to keep learning until they master a concept. A parent visiting a classroom can ask the teacher what kind of feedback, and assessments, are used to measure a student’s level of mastery.
  • Students are aware of their progress. Bauer encourages parents to ask questions as a way to assess how engaged students are in mastering material. “If you walk into a classroom and ask, ‘What are you learning? Why are you learning that? How are you doing?’” Bauer says, “they should be able to answer.”
  • Technology is used to support teachers and students. Digital tools, like online assessments and courseware, help teachers and students track progress towards mastery. They also enable them to receive more personalized resources that help the learning process.

Mastery-based learning doesn’t solve all learning issues

Mastery can’t — and shouldn’t always — have no time constraints. At the Maker Academy, Bauer says, “We made the mistake in the early years saying ‘Work at your own pace.’ In theory, that’s great.” But, Bauer adds, some students weren’t advancing at all.

Ritter advises educators lay out the course’s long-term objectives so students become more invested in mastering each concept along the way. They also need to be made aware of any time constraints needed to do so. “If you have to finish all materials in an algebra class, that means you need to set a certain pace in the shorter term,” he says. “Having students confront that is really helpful.”

What you can do to support mastery-based learning

For parents

Advocates encourage parents to shift their thinking about how long learning might take. This requires a different view of “failing” or “mistakes”. Ritter says parents can help students “set the expectation that making mistakes is part of the learning process.” Encourage your child to focus on the process (learning), not the goal (grade). While grades remain a component of mastery-based learning, even the highest-performing students will not always grasp every new concept. It can be a hurdle for a parent to get past thinking of high school classes always lasting a semester or even that high school takes four years.

For educators

Consider the reality that individual students have always learned at different paces. If your school hasn’t adopted mastery-based learning, you can still support students by having them use supplemental digital learning tools like Khan Academy, which help a student outside of class learn their material. Teachers can also give students additional opportunities to redo work or additional resources to continue learning skills. If offering students the chance to retake a math test or rewrite a history paper improves their skills, why not motivate slower learners to go the extra mile by trying as many times as they need to succeed.

For administrators

Consider how mastery-based approaches can fit within existing school or district-wide systems and policies. Sturgis says mastery-based learning is “probably not sustainable” unless the principles behind it are supported by broader, school-wide changes in the curriculum and teaching methods. These broader shifts are detailed in this chart.


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Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a freelance education writer based in Washington, D.C.