“Mastery Learning” is a new notion to me, but one I see informing the practice of my young colleagues in the department I work in, who have implemented certain changes that are moving our practice (operational curriculum) in this direction. It has apparently been around a while (testament to my professional ignorance borne out of dogged classroom instruction). As long ago as 1979, Ryan and Schmidt (Ryan, Doris W. and Schmidt, Martha (1979). “Mastery Learning: Theory, Research, and Implementation.” Unpublished microfiche, Ontario Dept. of Education, Toronto) were saying that Mastery Learning
depends on five basic components: formal specification of cognitive objectives, division of course content and objectives into instructional units, formative/diagnostic evaluation, corrective or remedial instruction, and criterion-referenced summative evaluation. A review of the research reveals that mastery learning significantly improves student acquisition of cognitive skills and reduces the variability in achievement within the group. Increased retention and transfer of learning and student attitudes are also indicated. Teachers and administrators using mastery learning strategies find the planning process demanding and recommend developing the process a unit at a time.
According to Eisner (2002), “Mastery Learning” offers a student-based, criterion-referenced approach to the learning process. It begins when curriculum designers formulate “specific levels of mastery–particular objectives (178). This just happens to be what is going on in our department this year. Teachers in professional learning teams are in the process of formulating the literacy achievements over which every graduate of our department (and in fact, our K-12 school district) should have mastery. We have categorized the objectives in a matrix: along the Y-axis are specific cognitive skills, along the X-axis we distinguish activities within the separate literacies–writing, reading, listening and speaking–that can be measured to assess mastery. Where another department might use the norm-based, high-stakes test results of the ACT, our approach is student-centered and criterion-referenced.
Eisner explains that in mastery learning, we
…should evaluate students in relation to their mastery of these objectives, regarless of the amount of time it might take for particular students to attain mastery. Such a theory of educational practice [gives] virtually all students a sense of achievement and, in the long run… [contributes] to their mental health as well as to their competence.” (178)
While few people who are humanely concerned with the welfare of each student would object to the goals of mastery learning, actually implementing this approach might mean structural reform to our school. My new boss, a mastery learning advocate, says that our department must never compromise on one point: we must never allow a student from one level to pass onto the next in our curriculum without his/her having achieved demonstrable learning objectives. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “mastery learning is a method whereby students are not advanced to a subsequent learning objective until they demonstrate proficiency with the current one.”
The “mastery learning” objectives could mean that a significant number of students will need extra supervision and instruction–perhaps one-to-one attention–before they can independently achieve. This could mean new staff–specialists who are skilled at various literacy “responses to interventions,” and possibly extra summer school sections. Will mastery learning mean fifth, sixth, seventh-year seniors? Will it mean alternate scheduling (night classes? blended classes?) As she brought up her idea of making mastery learning our new norm, our new boss allowed that these changes might have to happen in our department–to me an exciting prospect.