Mastery Learning

Mastery learning is an educational method that professes that all children can learn if the classroom provides the proper learning conditions. If the classroom is conducive to learning a child will learn. It also promotes a learning theory whereby students do not move on to the next topic or subject unless they have mastered the one they are currently learning.

There are four basic characteristics in mastery learning. The first is that written material is a very important aspect in mastery learning and very little weight is given to lecturing. Instead of students listening to the teacher giving over the material orally, the teacher prepares reading material, study sheets and study questions and creates behavioral objectives for the student to use. The teacher also creates assignments and tests that measure the student's progress. The second characteristic is that students study and complete assignments at their own pace. This is based on the premise that all students learn at different speeds and not every student can absorb material at the same pace as another. The third characteristic is that students must prove proficiency in what they have learned before continuing to the next topic. Finally, learning aids and materials to help explain the material are available to students who need help.

Mastery learning is based on the Learning for Mastery model created by Benjamin Bloom. It is mainly a teacher-paced teaching method where students are taught to cooperate and inter-react with their classmates. Although most mastery learning lessons are group based, at times children are required to work by themselves.

Mastery learning concentrates on the process of learning the material and not on content. The process works best when using the conventional curriculum that focuses on content with well-defined lessons and objectives. The main topics in the curriculum are outlined and then organized into smaller units. In mastery learning, the teacher will divide the class into smaller groups and direct the students what to learn and how to learn it. The students then go off with their groups to learn the material. The teacher receives knowledge feedback from the students by administering diagnostic tests, and will correct any mistakes that they have made.

The curriculum of mastery learning is made up of carefully chosen topics and all students begin at the same time. Students do not proceed to the next topic until they have mastered the first one. Additional instruction is offered to students until they have succeeded in understanding the material at hand. Any student who has completed an assignment early is given extra enrichment activities to work on until the class is ready to continue together.

Mastery learning can also be successfully implemented as a self-paced learning program or as a one-on-one tutoring program. Provided that there are specific learning objectives, the program can be group based and individual based all at the same time. When individualized instruction is necessary, the teacher will concentrate on those students who need assistance while the rest of the groups advance to the next topic. This allows for the teacher to devote more attention to those students who require extra attention and assistance.

Mastery learning is based on the behaviorist theory known as operant conditioning, which asserts that learning takes place when a connection is made between a stimulus and a response. In mastery learning the material that is to be taught is divided into smaller sub-lessons which follow a logical sequence and the student will respond by learning each discrete unit and will not go on until it is well understood.

Mastery learning programs have been proven to help students achieve higher levels of learning and understanding than traditional classroom teaching. Despite this evidence, many schools that have implemented mastery learning programs have abandoned the program. This is due to number of factors. Schools have found that it is difficult to find teachers with the devotion and commitment to the program and it is very difficult to manage a class where each student is following an individual course at his or her own pace.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

School and Classroom Organization
Robert E. Slavin.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Achievement Effects of Group-Based Mastery Learning"
Perspectives on School Learning: Selected Writings of John B. Carroll
Lorin W. Anderson; John B. Carroll.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Problems of Measurement Related to the Concept of Learning for Mastery"
Thinking and Learning Skills: Relating Instruction to Research
Judith W. Segal; Susan F. Chipman; Robert Glaser.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, vol.1, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "A Practitioner's Perspective on The Chicago Mastery Learning Reading Program with Learning Strategies"
Teaching Communication: Theory, Research, and Methods
Anita L. Vangelisti; John A. Daly; Gustav W. Friedrich.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Mastery" begins on p. 379
Learner-Centered Teacher Preparation: A Mastery of Skills
Hewett, Stephenie M.
Education, Vol. 124, No. 1, Fall 2003
Aspects of Teaching Secondary Mathematics: Perspectives on Practice
Linda Haggarty.
Routledge, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Mastery Learning as a Strategy for Differentiation" begins on p. 197
Learning Theories, A to Z
David C. Leonard.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Mastery Learning (Cognitivism)" begins on p. 123
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