Tuesday / March 28

What is Mastery Learning?

Revisiting learning targets together throughout a lesson.

Over the past five decades, few programs have been implemented as broadly or evaluated as thoroughly as those based on Benjamin’s Bloom’s model of mastery learning. Despite this thorough research base, many textbook authors, bloggers, and program developers frequently misrepresent mastery learning. To clarify questions and support educators wanting to implement mastery learning, we turn to Dr. Thomas Guskey, who was mentored by Bloom and built on his theoretical work by implementing mastery learning programs across large systems including Chicago Public Schools.

The name mastery learning is applied today to numerous programs in education, many of which have little relation to the instructional strategy originally developed by Benjamin Bloom. While most modern programs for “individualizing” or “personalizing” instruction build on Bloom’s ideas, many depart significantly from the mastery learning process he described. This has led to confusion about what is and what is not mastery learning.

One of the most frequent misunderstandings is the distinction between Bloom’s mastery learning model (Bloom, 1968, 1971) and the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) model developed by Fred Keller (1968). To ensure appropriate and successful implementation, the differences between mastery learning and PSI need to be kept in mind.

Personalized Systems of Instruction

The Personalized Systems of Instruction (PSI) model is an individually based, student-paced approach to instruction in which students learn independently of their classmates. In most PSI classrooms, students determine their own pace and move on to new material only after they have demonstrated complete mastery of each unit. Students may retake mastery assessments at the end of each unit any number of times without penalty. Those who don’t achieve an established level of proficiency on the mastery assessment repeat the original instructional unit and retake the assessment when they believe they are ready.

In PSI classrooms, teachers serve primarily to give individual assistance when needed. Occasional class presentations are considered vehicles of motivation rather than sources of critical information. Thus, carefully designed, computer software or self-instructional materials, organized in “learning modules,” are essential in successful PSI programs (Eyre, 2007; Kulik, Kulik, J. A. et al., 1979; Thompson, 1980).

Advances in technology and the increased availability of asynchronous online courses have led to a surge of interest in PSI applications (Hammerschmidt-Snidarich, et al., 2019; Paiva et al., 2017; Young, 2019). Despite drastic improvements in both computer hardware and software, however, recent studies show little evidence for the effectiveness of these forms of personalized learning (see Enyedy, 2014; Green, 2019). In a recent review, Neil Heffernan (2019) cited evidence showing that individualized programs in which students move ahead on their own schedule “may even worsen existing achievement gaps,” as higher achieving students race ahead while struggling students fall further behind (Steenbergen-Hu & Cooper, 2013: 80).

Researchers further caution that because much of the available evidence on PSI has been extrapolated from studies done at collegiate and professional levels where developmental and motivational factors differ, much remains unknown about its effectiveness in K-12 contexts.

Noted Problems in PSI Applications

Efforts to implement PSI programs on a large scale have revealed serious practical problems, including:

  1. Classroom management difficulties. Because students in PSI classrooms learn at their own pace, there may be ten or more lessons going on in the classroom at one time. This often proves difficult for teachers to manage, even when records of students’ individual progress are recorded within the instructional software and made available to teachers.
  2. A lack of personal instruction or attention. Students in PSI classrooms learn primarily from prepared learning modules or computer-based presentations, with teachers serving primarily as monitors or proctors. Although advances in technology have made online lessons more engaging, this still proves challenging to many students, especially younger students and those who need more personal interaction with the teacher.
  3. A single learning sequence (progression) for all students. Most PSI courses prescribe one learning sequence or progression with few options for students who have different learning preferences or who may learn concepts and skills in a different order.
  4. Students managing their own learning rate. Because students in PSI classrooms determine their own learning pace, individual persistence, initiative, commitment, and determination play a major role in the time students require to complete an instructional sequence. A meta-analysis of highly personalized, online programs involving “student-paced differentiated technology” by Saiying Steenbergen-Hu and Harris Cooper (2013) revealed no positive results in K-12 classrooms from using such technology.
  5. The reinforcement of poor study habits. A study by Heidi Eyre and others (2006) found that college students in PSI courses often did not go back and review previous lessons during the time between assessments, resulting in an extraordinarily high number of reassessment attempts in order to achieve mastery. These researchers concluded that simply having repeated contact with the material was not sufficient for mastery and recommended limiting the number of assessment attempts to increase more appropriate study behaviors among students.
  6. A misalignment with curriculum demands. Many schools face time-based curriculum demands. Students are expected to learn specific concepts and skills by the end of a particular academic term or school year in order to perform well on required assessments and advance to the next grade level or course. When students determine their own instructional pace, only highly motivated, self-directed learners with advanced executive function skills may be adequately prepared (Blair, 2016).

Mastery Learning

Unlike PSI, mastery learning is a group-based, teacher-paced approach to instruction in which students learn, for the most part, collaboratively with their classmates. Mastery learning is designed for use in typical classroom situations where teachers have charge of twenty-five or more students, the curriculum is set, and instructional time is relatively fixed. The model can be adapted, however, to individually-based, student-paced contexts in situations where the format, curriculum, and instructional time are more flexible.

In mastery learning classrooms, the pace of the original instruction is determined primarily by the teacher, with sensitivity to the learning backgrounds and characteristics of students.

Support for this idea comes from studies that show younger students in elementary grades and those with low entry-level skills often lack the self-discipline, motivation, and self-regulation to be good managers of their own learning (Kirschner & van Merrinboer, 2013; Raiser, 1980; Ross & Rakow, 1981). Furthermore, if left on their own to determine the instructional pace, students of all ages frequently suffer “procrastination effects” that can stifle their learning progress (Lamwers & Jazwinski, 1989; Sherman, 1992).

The group-based focus of mastery learning also allows teachers to take advantage of collaborative learning opportunities that can’t be accessed in a strictly individualized experience. As E. D. Hirsh (2017) explains:

Under child-centered principles, it would be seen as malpractice to have all the children in a class read the very same title and then discuss the contents. Under a communal view of education, such whole class activity would seem the most natural thing in the world. It is by far the most lively and productive kind of classroom. (pp. 74-75).

Furthermore, in mastery learning environments, a high level, but not a perfect level, of performance is required of students on each formative assessment. This stems from recognition that (1) not all learning is perfectly sequential for all learners; (2) the assessments themselves may be less than perfect – that is, they may contain poorly worded items or ambiguous learning criteria; and (3) perfect performance may be an unrealistic or unnecessary expectation.

The role of the teacher in mastery learning classrooms differs as well. In a mastery learning class, the teacher serves as an instructional leader and learning facilitator who directs a variety of group-based instructional activities together with accompanying individualized feedback and corrective procedures.

Major Differences Between Mastery Learning and Personalized Systems of Instruction

Teachers generally find the mastery learning model to be more flexible than the PSI model. When beginning implementation, teachers are typically encouraged to adapt the essential elements of mastery learning to their personal teaching style, their classroom context, and the specific needs of their students. In fact, most teachers find they already include some aspects of mastery in their regular instructional procedures.

As they learn more about the mastery learning process, they discover they are able implement those essential elements more purposefully and intentionally.

Summaries of research into mastery learning show that when compared to traditionally taught classes, students in mastery learning classes consistently learn better, reach higher levels of achievement, and develop greater confidence in their ability to learn and in themselves as learners (Anderson, 1994; Guskey & Pigott, 1988; Klecker & Chapman, 2008; Kulik, C. C. et al., 1990; Miles, 2010). Knowing the essential characteristics of mastery learning and how it differs from most modern programs for “individualizing” or “personalizing” instruction is essential to successful implementation.

Written by

Thomas R. Guskey, PhD, is Professor Emeritus in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. He is the author/editor of twenty-five books and over three hundred articles published in prominent research journals as well as Educational Leadership, Kappan, and School Administrator. His most recent book, Implementing Mastery Learning, 3ed is essential reading for teachers, school leaders, professional learning communities, and anyone who believes that all students can learn well, achieve success, and become confident learners.

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