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Applying the Principles of Mastery Learning

Ch. 9, p. 304

Applying the Principles of Mastery Learning

There’s a classic Rolling Stones song called “Time Is on My Side.” There probably couldn’t be a less appropriate theme song for teachers. Yet because a significant element of mastery learning is the varying of time to meet individual needs, we cannot discuss the application of this approach without addressing realistic strategies for working within the time constraints of today’s classrooms.

The basic assumption of mastery learning is that almost all students can learn the essential knowledge and skills within a curriculum when the learning is broken into its component parts and presented sequentially. To implement this approach effectively, teachers must meet several challenges.

The first challenge is to divide the content and/or skills into small units that you can present sequentially using sound teaching strategies. Then you will need to assess your students. The data you obtain will help you determine where in the sequence of the curriculum your instruction should begin. Quality assessment will allow you to link your instructional activities to individual student needs.

While you are involved in actual instructional activities, another challenge you will face is how to address the variations in student learning. For students who quickly grasp concepts, you will need to promote learning by developing relevant enrichment opportunities. This extension of basic concepts will allow these students to remain engaged in appropriate higher-level learning activities while simultaneously allowing you to extend the learning opportunities of the students who need more time to master the basics.

To increase the effectiveness of the instructional process and subsequent student learning, you should engage in ongoing formative evaluations: frequent assessments of student learning that will enable you to adjust your instruction to meet the individual needs of your students. You will then need to prepare summative evaluations, or final evaluations on each objective. These are likely to reveal that some learners still have not reached a mastery level of the basic knowledge/skills within the time frame you have provided. You will need to develop creative ways for reteaching, presenting alternative learning opportunities and/or extending practice. Strategies such as after-school corrective instruction, peer or cross-age tutoring, or use of paraprofessionals can help students achieve mastery of the essentials.

Because a mastery learning approach can be labor and time intensive, you will want to be selective in its application. Identifying the key aspects of the curriculum to which mastery learning is most relevant and limiting the use of this approach to situations where prerequisite knowledge/skills are essential for future learning will enhance your ability to apply mastery learning principles effectively. You and your students will feel you’ve made a wise investment of time and energy when the payoff is increased achievement for all.

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