Mastery Learning – Point/Counterpoint

My next few blog posts are going to be about techniques/methods/ideologies that I want to use aspects of in my classroom next year. I will be playing “point-counterpoint” with myself as I critically analyze each of these ideas. If you can think of any advantages/disadvantages I may not have come up with, please share in the comments!

Mastery Learning

I recently read the book “Mastery Learning in the Science Classroom” by Kelly Morgan. It was my first exposure to the idea of mastery learning – a term that I had not encountered until I joined twitter and started reading blogs. It never came up at the faculty of education I attended, nor had I heard any of my colleagues discussing it. So I decided to learn more and see if it was something that could be of use to me next school year.

To summarize very briefly, mastery learning is when students must demonstrate that they understand and can apply or use a concept or skill before they are able to move forward in the course. Learning is scaffolded as students are exposed to a variety of instructional strategies until they are able to achieve the required goal. Students are given quizzes that they can retake until they have achieved the level of mastery as set by the teacher.

Image URL:

Point – Counterpoint

Point: It’s a great way to allow for differentiated instruction. The teacher’s role is to create multiple pathways for the students to understand the material to suit the needs of all the diverse types of learners in the classroom. For example, one student may choose to watch a video on the subject, take the quiz and fail to demonstrate understanding. That same student can then try another route to learning the material and then re-take the quiz. Maybe they try a hands on activity, a small group discussion, peer tutoring, one-on-one time with the teacher, reading the textbook etc….until they find what works for their learning style and are successful on the quiz thus demonstrating mastery.

Counterpoint: OMG this is going to be SO MUCH WORK! I’m supposed to come up with around five different ways to teach every single concept? I can see some teachers using the same 5 choices and modifying for each learning objective: #1 Video #2 Lecture #3 Group discussion #4 Make a model #5 Worksheet…but I think that would be SO BORING and generic not to mention ineffective. To make this work you would have to tailor the “learning opportunities” (as Kelly calls them instead of assignments – love that!) for each concept/topic/unit. I’m not saying I’m unwilling to do it. I’m just saying that I will miss my already meagre social life…that’s all…I guess once you have a foundation though, next time will be easier as you are just modifying and building on what you’ve started.

Point: Students can work at their own pace. This is great for lower AND higher level students. It’s no secret that as teachers we tend to teach to the middle. And usually we are the ones who decide when more practice is needed for the class or when it is time to move on to the next topic. A student complained to me last year that while she appreciated that her teacher made sure that every single student understood a concept, she was dying of boredom and just wanted to move on and LEARN! I feel bad for the students that get it right away and want to be challenged and not held back by those that need extra help. And I feel bad for the students that need more time with a concept that don’t ask questions because they don’t want to hold up their peers. This way both groups of students get what they need. And the interesting thing is that because biology is such a diverse course, these students will inevitably switch roles at some point! Some students struggle so much with evolution, but can do even the most challenging genetics problems with ease. I like the remedial AND enrichment opportunities that mastery learning provides.

(a) My students (like myself when I was a high school student to be honest) will try to take the easiest way out. I can just see them picking the simplest activity from the options instead of the one that will benefit them the most. Then they will rush to do the quiz, pass that, and on to the next! I feel like if I don’t force them to do some of the activities that I think are important, they will be missing out on something valuable or a chance to learn a bit deeper and perhaps really enjoy it! On the other hand some students will rush to the quiz and fail immediately – possibly more than once – which is a waste of my time and theirs. Kelly addresses this in her book and says that over time students realize that this is NOT the best path and they self-correct. I hope that will be true for my students. I just know how stressed out and busy they are all the time so if they can get through material quickly and have more time in class to work on other homework assignments, they will do so. And really, can I blame them? That’s what I would do if I was in their shoes. There’s not a lot of time for enrichment or reinforcement in a busy IB student’s schedule. Every free moment is precious! Kelly also proposes another way to overcome this problem – she suggests that some “learning opportunities” be made mandatory. For example, students can choose 3 before they are even allowed to attempt the quiz. I love, love, love this idea. It might not be part of the pure mastery model, but it’s a personal modification that would really work for me and my students.

(b) This means I have to give up CONTROL. Yes, surprise surprise – a teacher who’s a control freak! Ok I don’t really mind that part of it. If a student doesn’t want to do my super cool activity that I worked really hard on then FINE! I won’t take personal offence if I know it doesn’t match their learning style. Besides this model is such a great way to help students take control of their own learning. It’s empowering for them and that’s the point of education so I will have to suck it up!

(c) It might get *gasp* DISORGANIZED up in here. I like to be super organized (see “control freak” above). It’s going to be tricky keeping track of where every student is in the course and what they are doing during class time. But there are ways that Kelly has thought of to help this.

1. Be prepared – for each unit make sure you have all the activities and labs set up, worksheets photocopied etc…
2. Have a classroom calendar – this calendar can help students to see where they should be in the unit for each week
3. Have a unit “packet” – this provides goals, lists of learning opportunities (both required and optional), suggested completion dates etc… that students write in every day to keep track of their learning.

(d) It might be hard to make sure students are engaged in every part of the learning cycle I love – engage – explore – explain – extend – evaluate. If everyone is at a different place and everyone is choosing different activities, I might lose the “explore first, explain later” approach that I want to get back to. Ramsey Musallam talks about this in episode 3 of the Flipped Learning Network Podcast. His number one priority in his class is inquiry vs. mastery and I see where he is coming from. This is my number one concern when employing this model. Is there a way to harmonize the two? I am going to write about my ideas in the next post.

Point: It’s fantastic for courses like chemistry, math and physics. These are subjects where students do a lot of problem solving. Once they master a skill such as balancing equations, they can demonstrate that easily on a quiz and move on. These type of subjects are also cumulative. What I mean is that if a student hasn’t grasped the skills/understanding at the beginning they have no way of being successful later on i.e. if they don’t know atomic structure, they will struggle later with bonding.

Counterpoint: How exactly would this work in biology?
(a) The units don’t really build on each other. They are often disjointed and connections between them aren’t always obvious. For example, a student can master the cells, plants and human physiology units, but may never be able to do a genetics problem to save his/her life. But they can still get a high mark in the course! You don’t HAVE to master genetics to understand plants. You don’t HAVE to master plants to understand evolution. I’m just not sure how it would work. On the other hand, I could see how this would be useful WITHIN units. For example, a student can’t do a dihybrid cross if they don’t understand a monohybrid cross. Within the genetics unit, mastery is necessary to move forward. Another example would be that students must master the four levels of protein structure before they can truly understand the properties of enzymes. Now there are of course lots of connections between units. For example, students must master the methods of cell transport before they can really understand absorption of nutrients. I’m just saying it’s not as OBVIOUS or as necessary in biology as it is in chem, physics and math.

(b) It’s hard to come up with 10 versions of a biology quiz! For chem/math/physics you can change the numbers around or use different scenarios for word problems. You are testing the same skills, but in slightly less familiar situations. In biology I need students to be able to explain concepts. For certain BIG ones like protein synthesis I could probably create several versions of a quiz. Maybe 5 multiple choice questions, label a diagram, several short answer – it would be relatively easy to make a few versions of that quiz because the topic is so huge. However, if I am breaking down each unit into small sets of skills/concepts students must master, it is going to be REALLY tough to create more than one quiz if a student fails the first time! Gotta think more about this…

Point: Mastery encourages respect for students. It shows them that you respect their unique learning styles and will work hard to accommodate them. It shows the students who are really proficient in a unit that you respect their time and won’t waste it making them sit through remedial lectures when they could be moving on to other things. It shows the students who are struggling that you are not going to give up on them. It shows them that you respect that they are mature enough to self-direct their own learning and you don’t have to spoon feed them all the time.

Counterpoint: Don’t really have one for this! Respect is good.

I want you to read Kelly’s book so I’m not going to go into detail about all her tips and tricks. Alternatively you can visit her websites: – has lots of resources and examples of stuff she has made/uses; her science site – and finally her blog – You can also follow her on Twitter @kmorgan_sci_ed (although she hasn’t tweeted since March 2011).

Summary: I like the method and I want to modify it to meet my students’ needs. I’ll discuss further in my next post.

Next post…Mastery Learning – Putting it into Practice



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s