Mastery learning

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There is a school of thought that presumes all children can learn if they are provided with the appropriate learning conditions. Learning for mastery or mastery learning, are terms coined by Benjamin Bloom in 1968 and 1971 respectively. Bloom hypothesized that a classroom with a mastery learning focus as opposed to the traditional form of instruction would reduce the achievement gaps between varying groups of students (Guskey 2007). In Mastery learning, "the students are helped to master each learning unit before proceeding to a more advanced learning task" (Bloom 1985) in contrast to "conventional instruction".

Mastery learning has little to do with specific content, but rather is a description of the process of mastering particular learning objectives. This approach is based on Benjamin Bloom's Mastery for Learning model, with refinements made by Block. Mastery learning may be implemented as teacher-paced group instruction, one-to-one tutoring, or self-paced learning with programmed materials. It may involve direct teacher instruction, cooperation with classmates, or independent learning. It requires well-defined learning objectives organized into smaller, sequentially organized units. Individualized instruction has some elements in common with mastery learning, although it dispenses with group activities in favor of allowing more able or more motivated students to progress ahead of others and maximizing teacher interaction with those students who need the most assistance.

In one meta-analysis (Kulik, Kulik & Bangert-Drowns, 1990), the mean effect size (Cohen's d) of 103 studies was 0.52, which is considered a moderately large effect size.

The concept of mastery learning can be attributed to the behaviorism principles of operant conditioning. According to operant conditioning theory, learning occurs when an association is formed between a stimulus and response (Skinner, 1984). In line with the behavior theory, mastery learning focuses on overt behaviors that can be observed and measured (Baum, 2005). The material that will be taught to mastery is broken down into small discrete lessons that follow a logical progression. In order to demonstrate mastery over each lesson, students must be able to overtly show evidence of understanding of the material before moving to the next lesson (Anderson, 2000).

In 2008, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams began to embrace what they call the Flipped-Mastery model. This is mastery learning that used technology to time-shift the individual instruction. They created videos for each learning objective and posted these online so that as students moved through the content, they were able to move at their own pace. Technology freed up the teachers to individualize the learning for each student. (Bergmann, Sams 2012)

Assessment in mastery learning[edit]

In a mastery learning environment, the teacher directs a variety of group-based instructional techniques, with frequent and specific feedback by using diagnostic, formative tests, as well as regularly correcting mistakes students make along their learning path. Assessment in the mastery learning classroom is not used as a measure of accountability but rather as a source of evidence to guide future instruction. A teacher using the mastery approach will use the evidence generated from his or her assessment to modify activities to best serve each student. Teachers evaluate students with criterion-referenced tests rather than norm-referenced tests. In this sense, students are not competing against each other, but rather competing against themselves in order to achieve a personal best.


What does a mastery learning classroom look like? Mastery learning curricula generally consists of discrete topics which all students begin together. After beginning a unit, students will be given a meaningful and formative assessment so that the teacher can conclude whether or not an objective has been mastered. At this step, instruction goes in one of two directions. If a student has mastered an objective, he or she will begin on a path of enrichment activities that correspond to and build upon the original objective. Students who do not satisfactorily complete a topic are given additional instruction until they succeed. If a student does not demonstrate that he or she has mastered the objective, then a series of correctives will be employed. These correctives can include varying activities, individualized instruction, and additional time to complete assignments (Guskey 2007). These students will receive constructive feedback on their work and will be encouraged to revise and revisit their assignment until the objective is mastered.


In general, mastery learning programs have been shown to lead to higher achievement in all students as compared to more traditional forms of teaching (Anderson, 2000; Guskey & Gates, 1986). Despite the empirical evidence, many mastery programs in schools have been replaced by more traditional forms of instruction due to the level of commitment required by the teacher and the difficulty in managing the classroom when each student is following an individual course of learning (Anderson, 2000; Grittner, 1975). Despite the conclusive evidence that an appropriately instituted mastery approach to instruction yields improvement in student achievement, there is a strong movement against it. Critics of mastery learning often point to time constraints as a flaw in the approach. Those that favor breadth of knowledge over depth of knowledge may feel that it is more important to “cover” a lot of material with little detail rather than focus more energy on ensuring that all students achieve learning goals. Many teachers are hesitant to institute a mastery learning approach in their classroom because of fears that they may get behind in their lessons. Some critics argue that allowing some students extra time to complete their work is unfair. They argue that differentiated instruction is inherently unfair because the students who receive extra feedback and time are somehow given an advantage over the students who master the objectives the first time. Most of this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of Bloom’s approach.[dubious ] In Bloom’s ideal classroom, the institution of a mastery learning approach is postulated to eventually lead to a drastic decline in the variation of student achievement, as Students who require more correctives initially would “gain direct evidence of the personal benefits the process offers” (Guskey 2007) and thus they eventually come to employ these varying strategies and techniques on their own, while those students who receive less will make slower progress. As the gap in student achievement shrinks, more time will be devoted to "enrichment activities" for all students than corrective activities (Guskey 2007).

See also[edit]


  • Anderson, J. R. (2000). Learning and memory: An integrated approach (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
  • Baum, W. M. (2005). Understanding Behaviorism: Behavior, Culture and Evolution. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Bergmann, Sams (2012). Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day, ISTE ISBN 1564843157
  • Block, Schools, Society and Mastery Learning. ISBN 978-0-03-088407-8
  • Grittner, F. M. (1975). Individualized instruction: An historical perspective. The Modern Language Journal, 323 333.
  • Guskey, T. R., & Gates, S. (1986). Synthesis of research on the effects of mastery learning in elementary and secondary classrooms. Educational Leadership, 43, 73-80.
  • Guskey, T.R. (2007). Closing Achievement Gaps:Revisiting Benjamin S. Bloom’s “Learning for Mastery. Journal of Advanced Academics. 19, 8-31.
  • Kulik, C., Kulik, J., & Bangert-Drowns, R. (1990). Effectiveness of mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 60(2), 265-306.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1984). The evolution of behavior. Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 41, 217-221.