As part of the Early Career Framework, it is expected that early career teachers learn that… Ensuring pupils master foundational concepts and knowledge before moving on is likely to build pupils’ confidence and help them succeed.
According to the Education Endowment Foundation, mastery learning was originally developed in the 1960s. According to the early definition of mastery learning, learning outcomes are kept constant but the time needed for pupils to become proficient or competent at these objectives is varied.
Subject matter is broken into blocks or units with predetermined objectives and specified outcomes. Learners must demonstrate mastery on unit tests, typically 80%, before moving on to new material. Any pupils who do not achieve mastery are provided with extra support through a range of teaching strategies such as more intensive teaching, tutoring, peer-assisted learning, small group discussions, or additional homework. Learners continue the cycle of studying and testing until the mastery criteria are met.
Mastery learning is the approach of focusing on making sure a child masters a certain area of a subject before moving on to the next stage. It’s how we traditionally learn subjects outside of school, such as musical instruments or dance.
Mastery learning approaches aim to ensure that all pupils have mastered key concepts before moving on to the next topic – in contrast with traditional teaching methods in which pupils may be left behind, with gaps of misunderstanding widening. Mastery learning approaches could address these challenges by giving additional time and support to pupils who may have missed learning, or take longer to master new knowledge and skills.
In order for mastery approaches to be effective for pupils with gaps in understanding, it is crucial that additional support is provided. Approaches that simply build upon foundational knowledge without targeting support for pupils that fall behind are unlikely to narrow disadvantage gaps.
When teaching with the mastery approach method, teachers should break up their curriculum into a series of skills or instructional units. Then they will usually teach a topic before carrying out an evaluation to see how well the students understand that topic.
Students who have mastered the unit can go on to do enrichment activities while students who didn’t meet learning goals are given additional time to practice their skills.
The Mastery Model can be used alongside Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK). Both of these models, when used effectively in the classroom, can lead to mastery.
A previous post on Bloom's Taxonomy goes into more detail about how to use this in the classroom. The original framework involves the levels of cognitive taxonomy starting with knowledge (simplest tasks) and moving up the levels through comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and finally to the top level of evaluation (most complex tasks). In 2001, the original taxonomy was updated by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl, to the current framework (Figure 2). The terms changed from nouns to verbs, such as knowledge to remember and comprehension to understand. However, the essential meaning of the concepts did not change. One of the biggest change is switching the order of Evaluation/Evaluate to come after Synthesis/Create (Armstrong, 2017). As before, these six categories start from the simplest (remember), to the most complex (create).
As you move through the categories, you have a better picture for the level of cognitive rigor involved in a learning.
Depth of Knowledge or DoK is another type of framework used to identify the level of rigor for an assessment. In 1997, Dr. Norman Webb developed the DoK to categorise activities according to the level of complexity in thinking. Test scores are not necessarily a demonstration of mastery, we must assess students' knowledge and also understanding of a particular topic, concept, process or skill before moving on to the next. The creation of the DoK stemmed from the alignment of standards to assessments. Standardised assessments measured how students think about a content and the procedures learned but did not measure how deeply students must understand and be aware of a learning so they can explain answers and provide solutions, as well as transfer what was learned in real world contexts (Francis, 2017).
Essentially, the goal of DoK is to establish the context—the scenario, the setting, or the situation—in which students express the depth and extent of the learning (Francis, 2017). This framework consists of 4 levels, level 1 being the simplest and level 4 being the most complex.
Strategies for a Mastery Approach
Take time to plan your curriculum and break it down into units, writing down learning goals or objectives for each one. Make sure the units are planned in a sequential manner and that adequate time is given to develop critical skills.
Plan out how you will evaluate the relevant skills. Formative assessment strategies can be used to give an effective evaluation.
For students that meet their learning goals, think of various enrichment activities that could be used to take their learning further. Some ideas are games, working in pairs or group projects.
For students who struggle to meet learning goals, give them activities that will help them further practice their skills. The activities should be different to the original ones that help accommodate a greater range of learning styles such as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. Afterwards, reassess these students to evaluate mastery of skills.
Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.
Bailin, S., Case, R., Coombs, J. R., & Daniels, L. B. (1999) Common misconceptions of critical thinking. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31(3), 269-283.
Ball, D. L., Thames, M. H., & Phelps, G. (2008) Content knowledge for teachers: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education, 2008 59: 389 DOI: 10.1177/0022487108324554 [Online] Accessible from: https://www.math.ksu.edu/~bennett/onlinehw/qcenter/ballmkt.pdf.
Biesta, G. (2009) Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1).
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Cowan, N. (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.
Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning [Online] Accessible from: https://deansforimpact.org/resources/the-science-oflearning [retrieved 10 October 2018].
Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports [retrieved 10 October 2018].
Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from:
Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/ [retrieved 10 October 2018]
Guzzetti, B. J. (2000) Learning counter-intuitive science concepts: What have we learned from over a decade of research? Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 16, 89 –98. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/105735600277971
Jerrim, J., & Vignoles, A. (2016) The link between East Asian "mastery" teaching methods and English children's mathematics skills. Economics of Education Review, 50, 29-44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2015.11.003
Machin, S., McNally, S., & Viarengo, M. (2018) Changing how literacy is taught: Evidence on synthetic phonics. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 10(2), 217–241. https://doi.org/10.1257/pol.20160514
Rich, P. R., Van Loon, M. H., Dunlosky, J., & Zaragoza, M. S. (2017) Belief in corrective feedback for common misconceptions: Implications for knowledge revision. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(3), 492-501. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000322
*Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. https://www.aft.org//sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf
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*Shanahan, T. (2005) The National Reading Panel Report: Practical Advice for Teachers. Accessible from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489535.pdf
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Willingham, D. T. (2002) Ask the Cognitive Scientist. Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise. American Educator, 26(4), 31-33. Accessible from: https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/winter-2002/ask-cognitive-scientist .