Details, Please! Exploring the Benefits of Mastery-Based Learning

Details, Please! Exploring the Benefits of Mastery-Based Learning

Mastery-based learning is a growing area of interest for many educators. A 2019 post on the Hechinger Report website documents both the challenge and the potential associated with this approach to learning, which seeks to assess students’ knowledge and skill levels as they move through various concepts and tasks. Written by Amadou Diallo, the Hechinger Report piece focuses on how mastery-based learning is being put to use at a handful of schools within the New York City public school system. Here is Diallo’s description of the scene at one such school, Maker Academy:

Like a growing number of schools around the country, Maker Academy uses a mastery-based learning model, in which static letter grades on one-off tests and assignments are jettisoned in favor of detailed feedback that students use to revise their work as they progress toward mastery of clearly defined skills.

Although this description is brief, it taps into a few key elements of mastery-based learning. First, summative-only testing and grading systems are discouraged. Second, detailed feedback is used to help emphasize formative assessments as students gain “mastery of clearly defined skills.” Third, revision, reflection, and review are all put to use in the mastery-based model.

Another angle to Diallo’s article is the theory that mastery-based learning has the potential to provide a better shot at success for all kinds of students. As Diallo explained, the New York City public school system is very diverse and yet highly segregated, with “roughly 70 percent of its schools … segregated by race and income.” The result is what many observers see as an unequal system in which schools that are thriving and well-resourced exist alongside “underperforming schools that almost exclusively serve black and Latino students from low-income families.” As a result, there is a stubbornly wide gap in both academic achievement and post–high-school opportunities for those without access to the city’s most vibrant, effective schools.

However, Diallo asserted that access to these schools is not enough when it comes to ensuring more equitable outcomes. With this in mind, around three dozen New York City public schools that are more purposefully integrated have embraced the mastery approach. The students at one such school—Frank McCourt High School—come from a wide range of backgrounds and ability levels, with 20 percent qualifying for special education services. The school's principal, Danielle Salzberg, emphasized to Diallo that McCourt High is committed to meeting kids where they are and helping them go further through deeper student-teacher interactions and engagement informed by the “paradigm shift” of mastery-based learning.


Putting it into practice

Feedback, inclusion, empowerment, and engagement are all said to be central tenets of mastery-based learning, but what do these look like in the classroom?

A 2017 New York Times article traces mastery-based learning back to the 1960s, when education psychologist Benjamin Bloom envisioned a “more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead.” As reporter Kyle Spencer explained, the movement didn’t initially gain much traction because it was too “labor-intensive” for teachers, but with the onset of online and computer-assisted learning, mastery-based learning is once again on the rise. However, the use of computers may present a red flag in the eyes of some education observers, who worry that technology integration might replace teachers and put kids in front of screens all day. Similarly, some members of the field are concerned that a narrow focus on students reaching individual stepping stones on the path to achievement may come at the expense of exchanging ideas with others.

Misgivings related to an overreliance on computers and individual progress tap into a main point about mastery-based learning: It can’t be done well in isolation. Indeed, a look at mastery-based learning by the teacher resource site maintains that “how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is depends on the ecology it is embedded in.” That means every switch to this less traditional form of teaching and learning should ideally be accompanied by “deep and diverse support systems, robust assessment forms, and clear and manageable learning outcomes that are accessible to all learners.” Of course, deciding just what those learning outcomes should be can be challenging—and determining how best to guide students who need extra help adds another layer of difficulty.

Mastery-based learning in action

Kelly Morgan Dempewolf, a high-school science teacher who turned her classroom into a mastery-based learning environment, documented her experience in a 2014 article published in Educational Leadership, a journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. After she realized she wasn’t comfortable sending students out the door at the end of the semester with no real indication of what they had learned, Morgan Dempewolf reimagined her work as a teacher. Simply put, this involved outlining what students should know and then keeping track of who was accomplishing what and at what level of mastery, which she accomplished by setting up a “classroom grid” that allowed her to more precisely address students’ individual needs. Within this setup, those working ahead of others could be prompted to move around the classroom and work with a similarly paced peer group, giving Morgan Dempewolf the opportunity to drill down into what was causing other students to lag behind.

Within this framework, students' active participation is a key element to making a mastery-based learning effort into a successful endeavor; indeed, Morgan Dempewolf’s Educational Leadership piece included detailed, visual examples of students' organizers, which highlighted due dates, suggested pacing schedules, and other important notes in plain view. Empowering students to “own” their own learning and work in collaborative groups based on their progress toward mastery are fundamental concepts behind Morgan Dempewolf’s “student-paced mastery learning” approach, which she described as the “hardest work” she’s ever done.

Still, she insisted, all her effort was “more than worth it.” Ultimately, she was able to cultivate what she described as an environment of improved mutual respect, along with a renewed awareness that more traditional models tend to allow some students to slide through a course regardless of whether they actually learn anything. As the Hechinger Report piece pointed out, this can all too often result in students from marginalized communities slipping through the cracks—and, in the most extreme examples, even graduating high school without the skills they need to succeed.

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