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5 Myths about Mastery-Based Learning

Posted in Ed Tech on November 18, 2011 by

Whether or not you’ve heard the term “mastery-based learning,” you’ve probably encountered it in practice, in school or on the job. In any situation where you’re given a set of labs, problems, or activities where your progression is dependent on successful completion of various tasks rather than seat time, you’re engaging in mastery-based learning–a teaching method premised on the idea that student progression through a course should be dependent on proficiency as opposed to amount of time spent on academic work.

As every teacher knows, classroom management is a consummate juggling act. To remain attentive to the needs of all students, teachers must engage the more advanced students while helping the struggling ones catch up. At any given point in a lesson, a teacher must decide whether to move through the material aggressively and add more challenges and twists to the problems presented, or build in more of cushion for those who are confused. Any one of these strategies is bound to leave some students feeling bored or confused. Mastery-based learning aims to help teachers in this respect by allowing students to move through coursework at their own pace.

Key features of mastery-based learning (MBL):

1. Curriculum design hinges on assessments
2. Assessments may take any form as long as they determine proficiency
3. Graduation to the next grade/level/topic is contingent upon successful completion of prerequisite assessment.
4. Curriculum is committed to the success of all students; students are not “allowed” to give up.

It turns out that there are quite a few misconceptions about mastery-based learning. Given new technology that can help us reimagine mastery-based learning, it’s prime time to debunk these myths.

Myth 1: Mastery-based learning is difficult to implement.

Mastery-based learning was first introduced in the 1920s through the Winnetka Plan, an educational experiment engineered by district superintendent Carleton Washburne of Winnetka, Illinois. The experiment was inspired by John Dewey’s research in the University of Chicago Laboratory School and designed to expand the focus of education to include creativity and emotional and social development. Under early implementations of mastery-based learning, a teacher could provide students with the same labs, quizzes, and tests (through which they could move at their own pace by demonstrating proficiency and having the work checked off) but the teacher still had to evaluate assessments and coach students individually on top of delivering lectures that transmitted the knowledge in the first place.

While the plan received widespread attention, efforts to promote mastery-based learning stagnated after a few decades, given the absence of a technology to help implement it. During this period, it was difficult to conceive of how students might move forward at their own pace and still function within the existing structures of school (classrooms, grades defined by age, rigidly defined schedules) which had evolved by mid-20th century America to seem fairly incontrovertible. Mastery-based learning also created some administrative burden for teachers who had to track students through their self-paced courses and offer remediation when necessary.

New technology allows us to re-envision mastery-based learning, so that it is far more flexible. By breaking up course materials into units of learning objectives and chunking those objectives into digestible modules, educators have developed self-paced courses of study that fit neatly in the most rigid schedules. Computerized adaptive systems bring this modularity to a new level, making the resulting courses both easier to implement and more effective for students. Because academic concepts can now be tagged at the atomic level, it is possible to conceive of corresponding academic work and assessments in smaller and smaller components. Since a computerized system can capture performance and activity on these components, it is possible to offer courses that adapt to student needs on the most precise level. This reduces the work load for teachers who, in previous versions of mastery-based learning, had to coach students individually through their respective courses of study.

Myth 2: Mastery-based learning is expensive.

In the past, MBL has been used in some districts to justify increased funding, increased testing requirements, and a great deal of energy investment from students, parents, and teachers. This does not mean that mastery-based learning is inherently expensive, however. If implemented through online adaptive technology (as described above), mastery-based learning can be introduced at minimal cost.

Mastery-based learning can also provide a fairly inexpensive solution to a number of challenges facing administrators–including the acceptance of an increased diversity of students and the expansion of curriculum knowledge for teachers to cover. Because an adaptive system responds to the exact needs of each individual, it can be used for a wide range of students. And because such a system is computerized and involves a precise tagging system, it is easy to organize large amounts of content and track performance on that content.

Myth 3: Mastery-based learning makes grading and reporting more difficult.

Because MBL requires that students be judged on their mastery of material in an absolute sense as opposed to their performance relative to others, proper reporting requires attention to a whole series of outcomes. In traditional schooling, students typically receive an “A” or a “B” as a grade that summarizes their achievements relative to others (while an “A” may always mean an “A” in some minds, it typically reflects a student’s performance in relation to the rest of the class he or she happens to be in). If MBL is strictly implemented, however, one must report that a student mastered “verbs,” “tenses,” and “parallel sentence structure” but not “idioms” instead of just issuing a “B.” This is understandably more difficult to report and reflect in a transcript.

Adaptive technology provides a ready solution. With a comprehensive dashboard served by an adaptive system, student outcomes can be aggregated and teachers can view all the concepts and skills a student has mastered in a single glance. Trends and patterns of mastery across the class (and even across a grade or district) also become apparent.

Myth 4: In mastery-based learning, too many students will fail (because standards are too high).

As described above, mastery-based learning is premised on the fact that no one is allowed to fail and that everyone (regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status) will succeed, given the right conditions. The emphasis on mastery or proficiency as opposed to effort and seat time, however, makes some nervous and raises some questions: what about those who do not pass, who do not demonstrate mastery? And who try and fail repeatedly?

Although it is true that MBL holds all students to the same high standards, the teaching method creates an environment that helps students meet those standards. Anyone who has ever struggled in a classroom knows that missing an insight everyone else experiences can be stressful. Feeling left out or slow in a public situation can indeed exacerbate the challenge, but the self-paced nature of a mastery-based approach allows students who are self-conscious to relax into their learning and make significant gains in a seamless and natural way.

As far as remediation is concerned, any mastery-based system can provide a wealth of triage opportunities, if enough quality content is available. And, with the development of adaptive technology, triage opportunities have the potential to be even more sophisticated than before. An adaptive system can determine the exact needs of each student and match him with learning objects and activities that bring him up to speed quickly.

Myth 5: In mastery-based learning, standards are too low and advanced students are not challenged.

In mastery-based learning, advanced students can progress through material at their own pace and remain engaged by pursuing more challenging work. The richer the content within the learning system, the more material a student can explore if he advances at a swifter pace than the others in his cohort. In this sense, the standards for such students are not low at all–they stretch to help each student maximize potential.

Because success is defined on an absolute and individualized basis, students cannot be satisfied with their achievements relative to others; they are encouraged to seek their own course and take responsibility for their own learning. A sophisticated adaptive learning system can take this to a new level. Because an adaptive system is computerized and involves tagged content, it can be hooked up to enormous repositories of expert material that normally lie beyond the realm of school. When appropriate, such a system can direct students to specific articles, studies, reports and books created by experts, for experts. Adding even a slight degree of adaptivity to the sheer amount of digital content available has the power to significantly amplify the learning experiences we are currently familiar with.

For a more detailed treatment of how adaptive learning can expose students to advanced work, check out my blog post, Why Students Don’t Like School Part IV.