Mastery learning is one of the most discussed but little pursued concepts in education. We hear a lot of talk about mastery learning, but how many teachers actually do it? I mean actual mastery learning, where students have the opportunity to establish "a level of performance that all students must master before moving on to the next unit" (Slavin, 1987). Sure, we might see the odd educator referring to test rewrites as "mastery learning," but that is hardly establishing "mastery" of the material. At best, it is a chance to revisit the material once. At worst, it is simply marking a test twice.
Unlimited mastery learning across the entire curriculum of a given course is, without a doubt, a daunting prospect. However, it can be done. As long as a teacher leverages the tools currently available, and maintains focus on the true intent of mastery learning, then mastery learning can indeed be achieved in many modern learning environments. What follows are a few of the keys to mastery learning that I have discovered in my practice, as well as some practical advice on implementing these keys.
Key 1: Mastery learning is mastery learning... not mastery marking.
Mastery learning occurs at the formative level. Multiple opportunities provided to student to improve their summative marks is a separate (albeit related) issue from mastery learning. Make no mistake: true mastery learning is about learning – not marks. (More on that later.) Assessment designed to provide feedback and direction for improvement is, by definition, formative assessment. Ergo, genuine mastery learning occurs at the formative level. The relationship between mastery learning and the student’s summative marks should, if the endeavour is pursued correctly, simply follow as a natural positive correlation. Now, as for the whole "pursued correctly" thing, well... that's the whole trick of the endeavour. (Again, more on that below.)
Key 2: Mastery learning can occur anywhere, but is most important to pursue for foundational concepts.
I will never be a master of memorization. My brain just doesn’t work that way. However, many people have incredible memories. We don’t want to design formative assessments to promote mastery memorization, though. The memorization of facts is, without a doubt, critically important to learning: even skill-based learning. As is often said amongst brain researchers, “You need to know something before you can think about something.” I will certainly concede that there is great value in memorization of knowledge, and I will also concede the fact that mastery learning can in fact reinforce that knowledge. (Just ask any music student who has repeatedly used flashcards to memorize the notes of the treble or bass clef.)
Indeed, knowledge is the soil from which thinking grows, and thinking can be thought of as the branches from which the leaves of creativity spring. Yes, people, organizations, businesses, society, and civilization all need people who can think and exercise creativity, but before any of that can happen, knowledge (actual knowledge... not opinion) must be in place.
Key 3. Formative assessment can only generate mastery learning if students have some way to examine and understand their own formative results.
I cannot emphasize enough the need for the student to understand… not be told by someone else who understands. The student must have the opportunity to engage in self-assessment (i.e. assessment as learning) following each formative assessment. Otherwise, the student is essentially spinning a dial each time he takes the assessment, and hoping that the dial will eventually land on “Mastered!”
The formative assessment must not only provide a mark to the student, and record that mark for both the student and the teacher, but that mark must be broken down into its constituent parts as well. In other words, a quiz comprised of ten questions must present the student with a result for each question.
As counter-intuitive as this might seem, providing feedback to the student on each and every aspect of a given formative assessment, is, almost by definition, not particularly required for assessment “as” learning. The more salient issue is whether the student has the opportunity to look at an incorrect result and process, for himself, why the result is wrong. Only when that critical step is facilitated, and then the student has the opportunity to test and confirm his new understanding in subsequent assessments, will the student experience what is perhaps the most powerful form of learning available: assessment “as” learning.
But... who can do all that marking?!
A very small percentage of teachers have ever pursued unlimited mastery learning across their entire curriculum. Ask most teachers about the least favourite part of their job, and they will undoubtedly say it's the marking. Marking is relentless, and most teachers find the prospect of marking all of their assessments just once to be incredibly challenging at best. (At worst, it's impossible.) Now, add into this equation the following realities associated with formative assessment in a mastery learning environment:
Remind most teachers of these elements, and they will tell you that true, unlimited, mastery learning is simply not a reality.
Enter the new reality
For the most part, teachers who balk at the idea of genuine mastery learning would be correct were it not for one thing: the incredible opportunities now provided to educators by way of technology. The technological tools and applications available today provide educators with the opportunity to provide their students with assessments that are not only completed online, but marked immediately by the online application and then recorded in the application's central grade manager. Admittedly, that’s a lot of data crunching, but remember: that’s what computers do.
Make no mistake though, in order for genuine mastery learning to be pursued, teachers must leverage technology that can manage the recording and tracking of marks. (Remember what I said about the "impossible" thing above. A teacher's memory and vague impressions will not suffice in the effort to administer formative assessment.)
Developing a Mastery Learning Lab
So now, what can you do in your classroom to start implementing true, unlimited, mastery learning, today? You can go out on the web and register yourself with any number of free online learning management systems (such as CourseSites or Schoology to name just a couple) or set up an account with one of the pre-developed learning systems (such as Khan Academy or Mathletics), and then establish an online Mastery Learning Lab!
To create a Mastery Learning Lab (MLL), you will need to develop a collection of quizzes and activities that the Learning Management System (LMS) can mark and record, or you will need to register for a pre-developed system that marks and records its own pre-existing quizzes and activities. Either way, the quizzes in your Lab are "mastery learning" quizzes because you can invite your students to take these quizzes repeatedly until they master them. (Note: Online Learning Management Systems generally provide teachers with the option of emphasize the most recent mark, the highest mark, or the average of all attempts on a given quiz or activity.)
An important caveat about formative assessments
Formative assessment is great, but it's not perfect. Let's just acknowledge two elephants in the room when it comes to formative assessment: students often don't do them, and, when they do, they don't tend to provide them their best effort.
A simple solution: Make your Mastery Learning Lab the best of both worlds!
Did you know there's no law against making an assessment both formative AND summative? Yup. It's true. Go ahead... look it up. No law!
So, here's what you do. You make sure that your students understand that the quizzes and activities in your Mastery Learning Lab are "formative" during a unit because they are mastery quizzes that students can take over and over again during the unit to help them develop their understanding of the topic. Moreover, the results on these assessments will help both the student and the teacher identify areas of strength and weakness as you move through a unit, thereby helping to guide next steps. However, at the conclusion of the unit these quizzes and activities become "summative" because their final marks will indeed be counted toward the final grade as of the conclusion of a given unit. (See more on this approach by examining the post on Index Marking.)
Boom! Best of both worlds! The student gets to attempt assessments in a non-threatening, low-stress, mastery environment that is formative during the unit, but the students are also motivated to not only do these assessments but to provide them their best effort because they know that the assessments will eventually count toward their grade.
Setting up a Mastery Learning Lab is definitely a big time investment. This investment can be reduced markedly if one utilizes a pre-developed learning system such as Mathletics or Khan Academy, but, either way, it requires an investment. The question then becomes: Is it worth the investment? In my opinion, it is well worth the investment. Especially if you are confident that you will be teaching the same course for a number of years. I might even suggest that the payback period on a teacher's investment in a Mastery Learning Lab could be as little as two years. In other words, the time you put into your Lab will be returned, with dividends, after two years.
Consider setting up a Mastery Learning Lab for one of your courses today, and let me know how it goes.
Slavin, R. E. (1987). Mastery learning reconsidered. Review of Educational Research, 57, 175-213.
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