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Mastery learning

Teaching strategies

Mastery learning

An often ignored but essential and highly effective strategy (one of the most effective in fact according to research). Straight advice for teaches and teacher aides.

Mastery learning – students can only move to the next topic once they have achieved a high level of competence (such as 90% or higher). This strategy originated in medical training.

A group of six young students in a classroom with their hands raised.

Mastery learning is very similar to overlearning in that students are expected to achieve a level of understanding that is well beyond the current norm in most classrooms. However, mastery learning is a little different. The core concept with mastery learning is that students learn a topic until they can achieve an 80-90% score in an assessment – only once they achieve this score are they permitted to move to the next topic. Mastery learning is very different to more traditional approaches where students move from topic to topic based on a set timeframe (4 weeks per topic for example) irrespective of whether they achieve 30%, 51% or 100% in an assessment. Mastering learning works like this:

  1. Teachers set specific and achievable goals (such as 90% in a maths test).
  2. Teachers deliver the content as usual.
  3. Students are assessed on a case by case basis when the teacher believes they are likely to pass.
  4. If students achieve the necessary score, they proceed to the next topic.
  5. If students do not meet the threshold, they continue with the current topic and are reassessed in the future.

The core concept with mastery learning is that students learn a topic until they can achieve an 80-90% score in an assessment – only once they achieve this score are they permitted to move to the next topic.

Obviously, there are logistical issues with mastery learning that must be considered, such as how to manage large classes and what to do if a student never reaches the threshold. The biggest problem is that students will move from topic to topic at separate times. Teachers looking to implement mastery learning have to balance the practicalities, expectations (of students, parents, managers), and the learning goals, with the fact that mastery learning means fewer topics will be studied. For practical purposes, teachers may aim for 90% but should allow students to move on after a set period of time if they don’t meet the threshold after repeated attempts. From a pedagogical perspective, the main benefit that comes from mastery learning is that there is additional learning following the assessment to help the student boost their grade. This improves overall understanding, the ease at which related topics can be learnt, and improves self-confidence (which results in higher motivation, more on-task behaviour, higher attendance, fewer behavioural issues and a much easier classroom to operate).

Some subjects and courses suit mastery learning while others may not. Any course that requires the student to write essays which are subjectively assessed may not be suited to pure mastery learning (having students re-write essays or short stories until they score 90%). These courses can, however, adopt some of the techniques used in mastery learning such as continued learning following an assessment and more flexible transitions from one topic to the next. Biology, maths and skill-based activities lend themselves to mastery learning much more easily.

Hint: Mastery learning is particularly effective in adult education and has been used in areas such as medicine for a very long time – it is obviously preferred that doctors master a surgical procedure before being allowed to do it unsupervised).i

Chart demonstrating the effectiveness of mastery learning in comparison to traditional learning.

Fewer topics are usually studied in mastery learning, but performance scores and thresholds are often higher. The time it takes to master each topic decreases with each topic as students develop a higher level of expertise in the wider subject. This means the final topic in both of the above may take the same length of time, but the scores will be dramatically different.

Foot notes:

  1. Mastery learning’ has its roots in medical training (at least the use of this term to refer to a specific strategy), although teachers, mentors and coaches have in effect implemented mastery learning for thousands of years – for example, blacksmiths with their apprentices. Similarly, practitioners of martial arts have been using almost the same mastery learning principles for hundreds of years.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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