Mastery learning is possible only if teachers take the time and use as many teaching methods as necessary for each student to learn at the same level.
Mastery learning is an instructional strategy developed by Benjamin Bloom at the University of Chicago that patterns the way a student learns by working with an individual tutor. The tutor helps the student by pointing out a mistake a student makes, gives the student more information, and explains or clarifies the material so that the student has a better understanding of it.
How Mastery Learning Works
Mastery learning is implemented by teachers who start an instructional unit as usual. After teaching the information they want the students to learn, the teacher gives a quiz to determine whether the students have learned the instructional skills or concepts. Instead of then moving right on to the next unit, however, Bloom’s theory suggests teachers use the results of the formative assessment to give students feedback – tell them what concepts they have mastered, and what they still need to work on – and then take the time to help those who need additional instruction.
The student who failed the quiz may have done so because the method of instruction failed him. He may have tried his best, but needs another approach or to have the content presented in a different way. The teacher must use other teaching strategies to help that student to get to the same level of learning as those students who have achieved mastery learning. Alternative learning tools to motivate students to work on what they failed to learn may include allowing students to work in small groups, providing audio-visual materials, using alternative textbooks, or implementing a hands-on approach.
Benefits and Challenges of Mastery Learning
Laura Candler, a teacher with over 30 years of experience and creator of teaching resources website lauracandler.com, is a supporter of mastery learning and suggests it can be used in almost every subject, but reports that “it is a perfect fit” for math instruction. Teachers are frustrated when students have not mastered basic concepts and skills on which to build a new math unit. “Mastery Learning will help your students develop a solid foundation of mathematical understanding – a foundation that is critical in order to solve problems involving higher-level thinking and reasoning,” she says.
Although all teachers agree that they want all of their students to achieve mastery learning, the commitment of time and attention required to not only support students who need additional instruction, but to provide enrichment materials for those who have mastered the content of the lesson, is a challenge. Teachers also feel a lot of pressure to cover as much content as possible before state testing begins rather than achieving deep learning in a few key content areas.
The benefits, however, as documented in a 1990 analysis of 108 mastery learning programs at all age levels, are that the programs were found to be most effective for weaker students, and all students reported positive attitudes toward this style of learning.
Bloom believed the mastery learning approach would allow more than 90 percent of students to achieve “successful and rewarding learning.” The commitment of time to do that would mean that literally, no child would be left behind.