Magazine article Talent Development

Mastery Learning in the Adult Classroom: Mastery Learning Is a Veteran Concept, but It Could Have a New Role to Play in Adult Learning

Magazine article Talent Development

Mastery Learning in the Adult Classroom: Mastery Learning Is a Veteran Concept, but It Could Have a New Role to Play in Adult Learning

Article excerpt

If you have not heard of mastery learning, you are not alone. Although its concepts have been around for 40 years, in practice, it is largely a phenomenon of K-12 education, where it has been applied with success. It is, however, largely unknown in the adult-learning arena (or, if it has been accepted, it's a well-kept secret). Mastery learning came to my attention when my daughter was accepted to the Phoenix Middle School in Worthington, Ohio, where a dedicated effort to end a reliance on grades as the sole measure of success has been implemented (www.phoenixms.org).

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Although an admitted cynic at first, I have come to appreciate the promise of mastery learning, and as I thought about the training I have spent a career practicing, I wondered if the concepts of mastery learning could be applied to the world of adult learners in corporate and public-sector classrooms. I have come to the conclusion that, despite some very real and unique obstacles (given the realities of public- and private-sector training), mastery learning can and should be pursued in the adult classroom.

The history of mastery learning and its principles

Mastery learning stems from the work of the late educational psychologist Benjamin S. Bloom, whose 1968 article, "Learning for Mastery," challenged many accepted concepts of grading, student aptitude and achievement, and group learning. Based on the earlier work of John Carroll ("A Model of School Learning," Teachers College Record, 1963), who offered that learning is a function of time (that is, the more time spent instructing leads to a greater percentage of mastery), Bloom's mastery learning proposes, as does Carroll's, that upwards of 90 percent of learners are capable of mastering subject matter.

This represents a departure from what Bloom calls the "normal curve" in which grades are assigned based on an arbitrary aptitude classification system. (The "normal curve" assumes that approximately 10 percent of learners will show mastery, 10 percent will show none at all, and the remaining 80 percent will master only some of the subject matter. Thus, grades are similarly distributed, with As and Fs making up about 10 percent each.) Mastery learning posits that the recognition of individual learner differences is primary and adequate time needs to be spent to get more learners to a mastery level. Researchers such as Thomas Guskey (Implementing Mastery Learning) and James Block (Mastery Learning Theory and Practice) have furthered Bloom's hypothesis and outlined entire mastery learning programs.

However, after 40 years of mastery learning documentation, almost none of it has found its way into the adult-learning world. The question to ask is, "Does it deserve to?" Is there a place for the principles of mastery learning in corporate and private-sector classrooms? My answer is "yes," and a brief review of mastery learning principles indicates that while they may require a change in operational strategy for many training units, they are achievable, and in the long run, sensible.

The tenets of mastery learning are

* recognizing that all learners are capable of learning well

* developing standards and objectives that are measurable and frequently under review

* determining learner readiness

* making learning individualized in a group setting

* measuring learner ability by learning rate (that is, the time it takes the learner to master concepts)

* using formative assessments (those that measure progress after each subunit) along with feedback and corrective exercises to measure individual learning

* creating enrichment exercises for learners who master concepts quickly.

Some of these characteristics--such as the development of measurable objectives--may seem familiar to those in the adult learning world. …

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