Understanding Mastery Learning
What is Mastery learning? Simply put, it is instruction crafted to drive completely proficient understanding of each concept taught. With this approach, the idea is that every student has not only the ability to learn each subject and it’s content, but to fully master it. The question is not if they can obtain mastery, it is how that mastery is obtained and how long that process will take.
Mastery learning is not synonymous with montessori-based learning. In order for students to truly master concepts, they do not need to “find their own way” through self-directed learning.  Yes, students’ curiosity must be encouraged. But this is where mastery based learning differs from many montessori-style trends. In mastery learning, a teacher works directly with students to learn a concept. While the students work through the material, they ask questions. (This is encouraged.) Inevitably, the students will begin to recognize characteristics that were not directly taught and make a connection.
Notice how the mastery of the material is not shown merely on a pen and paper test. These types of assessments are important, as they inform the teacher of either progress toward or mastery of a concept. However, in a mastery learning environment, these instruments are just one tool to assess mastery.
Mastery learning is graded, just not on a traditional average of all assignments. In a mastery based learning environment, as students work toward mastery, a teacher may give multiple assessments, both formal and informal, to determine if mastery has been achieved. Once that mastery is demonstrated, none of the assessments used to show areas of misunderstanding are included in the scores. Their purpose was served when reteaching occurred. To continue to judge a student based upon these interim “reports” of progress would be akin to judging an author on her first few attempts at writing.
This process of assessing and reteaching material until a student achieves mastery is what drives the individual learning and pacing in mastery based learning. A student who is still working to master the basic structure of the United States government system continues to research and study that material rather than just being assigned a percentile grade before moving to the next topic.
Mastery learning is more than just altering the pace of a student’s learning. For more on this topic, check out these articles:
For a look at a school utilizing mastery-based learning, check out this article: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/53241/how-mastery-based-learning-can-help-students-of-every-background-succeed