What is it?
Traditional teaching keeps time spent on a topic constant and allows students’ ‘mastery’ of curriculum content to vary. Mastery learning keeps learning outcomes constant but varies the time needed for students to become proficient or competent at these objectives.
Mastery learning breaks subject matter and learning content into units with clearly specified objectives which are pursued until they are achieved. Learners work through each block of content in a series of sequential steps and must demonstrate a high level of success on tests, typically about 80%, before progressing to the next unit. Those who do not reach the required level are provided with additional tuition, peer support, small group discussions, or homework, so that they can reach the expected level.
How effective is it?
There are a number of meta-analyses which indicate that, on average, mastery learning approaches are effective, leading to an additional five months’ progress.
The effects of mastery learning tend to cluster at two points; two of the meta-analyses show little or no impact, while the rest show an impact of up to six months’ additional progress. This variation implies that making mastery learning work effectively is challenging.
Mastery learning appears to be particularly effective when students work in groups or teams and take responsibility for supporting each other’s progress (see also Collaborative learning and Peer tutoring). It also seems to be important that a high bar is set for achievement of ‘mastery’ (usually 80% to 90% on the relevant test). By contrast, the approach appears to be much less effective when students work at their own pace (see also Individualised instruction).
Mastery learning may also be more effective when used as an occasional or additional teaching strategy: programs with durations of less than 12 weeks have tended to report a higher impact than longer programs. Schools may wish to consider using mastery learning for particularly challenging topics or concepts, rather than for all lessons.
Mastery learning appears to be a promising strategy for narrowing the achievement gap. Low-attaining students may gain one or two more months of additional progress from this strategy than high-attaining students. Teachers need to plan carefully for how to manage the time of students who make progress more quickly.
In Australia, no high-quality studies of mastery learning appear to have been conducted since the 1980s, although a number of small-scale studies have assessed related approaches such as Response to Intervention. Although mastery learning does not appear to strongly influence teaching practice in Australia, a few out-of-school programs aim to supplement schooling through mastery learning activities, such as intensive learning and homework programs. Individual elements of mastery learning have been examined within an Australian context, and these have had positive impacts on learning.
How secure is the evidence?
The evidence base is of moderate security. There is a large quantity of research on the impact of mastery learning, though much of it is relatively dated and findings are not consistent. In addition, most meta-analyses examining mastery learning use older statistical techniques that may be less accurate.
Despite these potential limitations, the average effect size is consistent with a more recent study in the US, which found that mastery learning approaches can increase learning by six months or more in mathematics for students aged 13 to 14.
What are the costs?
Costs are hard to estimate as much of the expenditure necessary to make mastery learning work lies in professional development and planning time. Additional small group tuition and one to one support are also likely to be needed. Costs are estimated at about $5,900 per class per year to include professional development, additional resource preparation and intensive support for 20% of the class over the year.
What should I consider?
Implementing mastery learning is not straightforward. How will you plan for changes and assess whether the approach is successful within your context?
A high level of success should be required before students move on to new content – how will you monitor and communicate student progress?
How will you provide opportunities for students to take responsibility for helping each other with mastering content?
Mastery learning seems to be effective as an additional teaching strategy. How will you decide which topics and concepts are appropriate for a mastery learning approach?
How will you provide additional support to students who take longer to reach the required level of knowledge for each unit?