Education resources › Blog › Mastery learning: What it is and how it can help students

Mastery learning: What it is and how it can help students

Mastery learning: What it is and how it can help students

5 min read
  • The science of learning

Mastery learning is a teaching method, first introduced by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom in 1968. Although the idea has been around for a while, it has gained popularity across the education community in recent years.

But what actually is it? What does the research say on it? And how can we implement it most effectively?

Mastery learning is the idea that students need to ‘master’ a certain concept before learning new, related concepts. Essentially, it’s about consolidating learning before moving on to the next step.

What is mastery learning?

Mastery learning breaks down the information students need to learn into units with clear learning outcomes. Students must continue to work on a given unit until they achieve the learning outcomes.

If a student doesn’t achieve ‘mastery’ on a knowledge test (normally set at about 80%), they receive extra support, such as discussions, small group teaching, homework, and peer support, to help them meet the desired learning outcomes, after which they can test their knowledge again. This continues until the student meets the required level of mastery, and then they can move on to the next stage.

How is this different to other teaching methods?

The key point of mastery learning is that it allows students to work at their own pace as they learn new knowledge and skills. It focuses on all students being able to learn the same content and achieve the same level of ‘mastery’, allowing them to take varying amounts of time; some students will take longer than others. In contrast, the more typical approach in teaching is to give all students more or less the same amount of time to learn a certain piece of content, not allowing each students’ grasp of the topic, or their level of ‘mastery’, to vary.

Mastery learning allows every student the opportunity to achieve learning outcomes. Within this model, if a student struggles to reach certain learning outcomes, a mastery learning approach would put this down to the teaching they’ve received, rather than a lack of ability. This moves the focus away from shaming students, and towards how teachers can provide enough time, and use effective teaching strategies, to help all students reach the same level of learning. What’s more, the sense of success students feel when reaching ‘mastery’ will boost their intrinsic motivation to continue learning. 

How effective is mastery learning?

The effectiveness of mastery learning has been widely investigated. In 2018, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published a report based on several meta-analyses of mastery learning. The EEF found that, while the majority of these meta-analyses suggested a large impact of mastery learning, helping students to gain up to 6 months’ additional progress, two meta-analyses found mastery learning to have little or no impact. Due to the inconsistent findings on the topic, the report concluded that mastery learning has “moderate impact for very low cost, based on moderate evidence.

One particular advantage of mastery learning is its potential for narrowing the attainment gap. Another recent report by the EEF, on the impact of school closures during the Covid-19 crisis, suggests that the attainment gap is getting wider, with year 2 children who are eligible for free school meals now being around 7 months behind their peers who are not eligible for free school meals. Mastery learning, through allowing the time to help all students reach the same level of learning, may be a promising strategy to reduce the concerning attainment gap. The EEF suggests that it can help low-attaining students to gain one or two months of additional progress compared to high-attaining students.

Practical, evidence-informed Teacher CPD your staff will actually love. Develop Teaching & Learning at your school thanks to Cognitive Science research.

Using mastery learning in your classroom

Although it has relatively low costs, mastery learning does require thoughtful consideration and planning before use. For example, as teachers and educators, you’ll need to consider how you can manage students working at different timescales, what kind of additional instruction you’ll provide to students who don’t achieve ‘mastery’ with the first knowledge test, and how you’ll manage the time of students who progress more quickly. In addition to this, how will you measure whether a mastery learning approach has been successful in your classroom? These are all important things to consider.

Based on this, here are some key points to guide you when using mastery learning:

  • Mastery learning is likely to be more effective when used selectively for certain subjects and topics, rather than for all classroom teaching. It might be best to reserve mastery learning for challenging topics, as a short-term boost to learning rather than a long-term initiative.
  • For mastery learning to be effective, the level of ‘mastery’ required in a certain concept should be set high – 80-90%. Otherwise, it may not have the same beneficial impact on learning.
  • Mastery learning may be more effective when used with group work, where students support each others’ learning and help each other move forward.
  • There are several ways to assess the effectiveness of using mastery learning for a particular concept. There is the obvious answer of seeing whether academic results improve, but you can also check whether student understanding has improved (and that they have retained this understanding) through asking students to explain certain concepts back to you. For older students, you could ask for their opinions too, about whether they feel the mastery learning technique has helped them at all.

Final thoughts

Mastery learning has several important benefits. It helps all students reach the same level of learning, it helps to motivate students, it allows you to closely monitor student progress… It also ensures you are following Rosenshine’s 6th and 7th Principles of Instruction, of checking for understanding and obtaining a high success rate. Also, giving students regular knowledge tests means you are making use of another, highly effective learning strategy: retrieval practice.

If you enjoyed learning about mastery learning, and want to learn more about other teaching techniques, why not have a read of our blog on Rosenshine’s 10 Principles of Instruction?

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Follow on XConnect on LinkedIn