There has been a lot of talk in educational circles about mastery learning. In August of 2022 Khan Academy and Arizona State University launched the first full mastery high school called Khan World School.  Sal Khan recently did an interview with Edsurge discussing the new school and the approach that it would take to mastery learning.  The non-profit Khan Academy has been interested in mastery learning for years. Here is Sal Khan’s Ted Talk with an excellent summary of his views:

Beginning with Benjamin Bloom’s research, mastery learning has been one of the most highly investigated teaching methods over the past 50 years. While it has been the subject of criticism, it has also been found to have resounding success when implemented correctly.

A meta-analysis by Guskey & Pigott (1988) looked at 46 studies that implemented group-based mastery learning classrooms. There were positive effects for “student achievement, retention of learned material, involvement in learning activities, and student affect”. STEM courses like science, probability, and social studies showed the most positive results, and other subjects were less consistent.

Effectiveness of Mastery Learning Programs: A Meta-Analysis conducted by Chen-lin Kulik (1990) investigated 108 studies of mastery programs being implemented at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary level. Results showed positive effects for mastery learning, with students also reporting positive attitudes toward it. Possibly the most important finding was that, according to this study, mastery learning was most effective for weaker students.

One of the biggest problems with mastery learning is the difficulty teachers have teaching each of their students at the appropriate level. But recent technological breakthroughs might have made those problems easier.

Involving students more closely in their own learning is key. Getting students engaged in the process of exploration is a change from the rote learning that dominates a lot of K-12, but letting a student find their creativity is the only way to change the calculus behind student motivation.

Because the truth is that we will never be able to implement mastery learning on a wider scale until we deal with grading. Any push toward mastery learning begins with an examination of A-F grades and 1-100 scores. And it is easier to understand why we need to change the grading system when we understand where that system came from.

The use of letter grades to evaluate student performance dates back to the late 19th century. Prior to this, students were evaluated using a pass or fail system, much like mastery learning. The use of letter grades was seen as a way to provide more detailed and specific feedback on student performance, with the hope that they could understand how close they were to passing and how much they had exceeded a pass. But letter grades became widespread, and gradually the wider perception of A-F has morphed. No longer is a “C” an acceptable passing grade, anything short of an A is a fail for any student trying to maximize their GPA.

Some of the downsides of the current system are

  • Outcomes for students can vary depending on the teacher and the grading system used.
  • Students may focus on getting a high grade rather than truly understanding the material, leading to shallow learning and cramming.
  • Students who consistently receive low grades may lose motivation and create negative internal narratives, leading to poorer future learning and success.

On the other hand, with mastery learning

  • Outcomes for students evaluated tend to be more positive.
  • This approach focuses on mastery of the material, leading to deeper learning.
  • Students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding (take a test), allowing them to work at their own pace and build confidence.
  • Students receive immediate feedback on their progress, allowing them to adjust their learning strategies and improve their understanding.

According to Joe Feldman, author of Grading for Equity, “Research has found that once we put a score or a grade on an assignment, the student is less likely to review comments or learn from that grade (Butler & Nisan, 1986). Students stop trying once they are assigned a letter grade. We have punished them because they didn’t learn everything. They know that test scores are now a part of their final grade. And often students are graded on a curve. All the traditional grading curve tells us is that we have failed to teach the majority of students important information. 

Feldman’s ideas in Grading for Equity are pushing toward mastery-based or standards-based assessments. He thinks teachers should base grades on a student’s final mastery of the material. He thinks we should eliminate all of the padding of student grades like homework scores, class participation, punctuality and extra credit. If we eliminate the extra work it takes to grade all of these “extras” it gives both students and teachers  extra time. And with new technology, tests can be focused on just the areas students are having problems. The teacher doesn’t even have to create the test.

According to Feldman’s 2018 report, School Grading Policies Are Failing Children: A Call to Action for Equitable Grading, with data from external evaluators culled from a survey of grading in two districts before and after they adopted equitable grading practices. The first district, comprising four suburban or rural high schools, surveyed 3,700 grades issued by 24 teachers. The report’s data also show a narrowing of achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students and between students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds

The way schools grade students is a holdover from industrial revolution conditioning. It doesn’t reflect mastery of content, is open to bias, and does not motivate learning by creating intrinsic motivation. Letter grades tell us nothing about what the student has learned and what they are still missing. 

A study by researcher Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam found that mastery learning was effective in improving student outcomes, especially for students who struggled with traditional instructional approaches.

If you are curious about how teachers are already implementing mastery, here Catherine Stanley talks about how she used self-paced, or mastery teaching to help her struggling students and a video of Adrianne Rose, a special needs teacher. 

This approach allows students to progress at their own pace and provides immediate feedback on their understanding, so they can adjust their learning strategies as needed. Additionally, mastery learning encourages students to take ownership of their education and fosters a growth mindset, which can lead to a lifelong love of learning. With its focus on individualized learning and mastery, this approach has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach education and provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

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