Mastery-Based Learning

December 4, 2019

Why do we care about mastery-based education?

Four decades ago, researchers at the University of Chicago demonstrated that average test scores of students who were taught in a mastery-based educational model were 1–2 standard deviations above those of their peers in traditional classrooms. Learning in a mastery-based environment has a dramatically larger impact on educational outcomes than IQ, home environment, teacher quality, or socio-economic status.

What does a mastery-based model look like?

In the mastery model, students are regularly given daily quizzes that determine what they have mastered and what they still do not understand about the subject they are studying. The material they study next is determined by those assessments. Students dedicate additional time to studying the concepts they have not mastered and move quickly past concepts they already fully grasp. The result is an individualized pathway for each student.

Can mastery-based education be implemented in a traditional classroom?

No. Despite promises to the contrary, the confines of the traditional classroom make implementing mastery-based learning nearly impossible. The structure of “regular” school allots students a fixed amount of time to get through a set curriculum in each subject. Need more time to master a difficult concept in math? Too bad, your class is only 50 minutes. Racing ahead in science? Good for you — but you will still spend one semester covering a set curriculum at a pace determined by your teacher, not your comprehension level.

What makes mastery-based education possible?

The dramatic educational benefits of mastery learning were once only possible through 1:1 or small group tutoring, because those were the only situations where a student could receive individualized instruction and move at their own pace. The invention of online adaptive apps has increased the availability of the mastery-based education, making it available to every child with access to a computer.

So I just need to put computers in traditional schools?

To gain the full benefits of technology-enabled, mastery-based learning, you have to break the traditional school model. Instruction must shift from a teacher-centric to a student-centric system. The school day itself must also look different. Rather than carving the day into equal-sized classes dedicated to specific subjects, each led by a teacher, students must be given the freedom to progress independently, with a teacher as a guide rather than an instructor. This is a level of freedom unheard of in traditional schooling. In this environment, the adult responsibility shifts toward motivating kids to work through difficult challenges and to stay on task and away from teaching content. The combination of freedom and motivation results in students being able to reap the full, dramatic benefits of the mastery-based educational model.