Mastery learning

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Mastery Learning (or as it was initially called, “learning for mastery”) is an instructional strategy that makes use of feedback and corrective procedures to improve cognitive and achievement outcomes in learning. This strategy was first formally proposed by Benjamin S. Bloom in 1968. It suggests that the focus of instruction should be the time and the learning conditions required for different students to learn the same material and achieve the same level of mastery. This is very much in contrast with classic models of teaching, which focus more on differences in students' ability and where all students are given approximately the same amount of time to learn and the same set of instructions. In Mastery learning, there is a shift in responsibilities, so that student's failure is more due to the instruction and not necessarily lack of ability on his part. Therefore in a mastery learning environment, the challenge becomes providing enough time and employing instructional strategies so that all students can achieve the same level of learning.[1][2]


Mastery learning is a set of group-based, individualized, teaching and learning strategies based on the premise that the great majority of students can and will, in time, learn what the school has to teach.[3]


The motivation for Mastery Learning comes from trying to reduce achievement gaps for students in average school classrooms. During the 1960s John B. Carroll and Benjamin S. Bloom pointed out that, if students are normally distributed with respect to aptitude for a subject and if they are provided uniform instruction (in terms of quality and learning time), then achievement level at completion of the subject is also expected to be normally distributed. This can be illustrated as shown below:

Comparison between normal curve for aptitude and normal curve for achievement after learning

Mastery Learning approaches propose that, if each learner were to receive optimal quality of instruction and as much learning time as they require, then a majority of students could be expected to attain mastery. This situation would be represented as follows:

Comparison between normal curve for aptitude and normal curve for achievement after optimal learning

In many situations educators preemptively use the normal curve for grading students. Bloom was critical of this usage, condemning it because it creates expectation by the teachers that some students will naturally be successful while others will not. Bloom defended that, if educators are effective, the distribution of achievement could and should be very different from the normal curve. Bloom proposed Mastery Learning as a way to address this. He believed that by using his approach, the majority of students (more than 90 percent) would achieve successful and rewarding learning.[4] As an added advantage, Mastery Learning was also thought to create more positive interest and attitude towards the subject learned if compared with usual classroom methods.[5]

Related Terms[edit]

Individualized instruction has some elements in common with mastery learning, although it dispenses with group activities in favor of allowing more capable or more motivated students to progress ahead of others while maximizing teacher interaction with those students who need the most assistance.

Bloom's 2 Sigma Problem is an educational phenomenon observed where the average student tutored one-to-one (using mastery learning techniques) performed two standard deviations better than students who learn via conventional instructional methods.

More recently, the idea of "Flipped Mastery" gained some popularity. The term was coined by Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, both chemistry teachers. They suggest an implementation model for Mastery Learning that is mixed with flipped classroom. The idea is to use technology to time-shift the individual instruction and eliminate whole-class lectures. The students watch online lectures and move through the content at their own pace. In this way technology frees up the teachers to individualize the learning for each student.[6]


The idea of learning for mastery is not new. In the 1920s there were at least two attempts to produce mastery in students' learning: the Winnetka Plan, by Carleton Washburne and associates, and another approach by Henry C. Morrison, at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Both these projects provided school situations where mastery of particular learning tasks - rather than time spent - was the central theme. While these ideas were popular for a while, they faded due primarily to the lack of technologies that could sustain a successful implementation.[5]

The idea of mastery learning resurfaced in the late 1950's and early 1960's as a corollary of programmed instruction, a technology invented by B.F. Skinner to improve teaching.[5] Underlying programmed instruction was the idea that the learning of any behavior, no matter how complex, rested upon the learning of a sequence of less-complex component behaviors.[7]

Around that same time, John B. Carroll was working on his "Model of School Learning". This was a conceptual paradigm which outlined the major factors influencing student success in school learning, indicating also how these factor interacted.[8] Carroll's model stemmed from his previous work with foreign language learning. He found that a student's aptitude for a language predicted not only the level to which he learned in a given time, but also the amount of time he required to learn to a given level. Carroll then suggests that aptitudes are actually a way to measure the amount of time required to learn a task up to a certain level (under ideal instructional conditions). So Carroll's model is actually suggesting that, if each student was allowed the time they needed to learn to some level, then he could be expected to attain that level.[5]

Later in the 1960s Benjamin Bloom and his graduate students were researching individual differences in school learning. They observed that teachers displayed very little variation in their instructional practices and yet, there was a lot of variation in student's achievements. Bloom used Carroll's conceptual model to create his own working model of Mastery Learning. Bloom realized that, if aptitudes were predictive of the rate at which a student can learn (and not necessarily the level to which), it should be possible to fix the degree of learning expected to some mastery level and then systematically manipulate the variables in Carroll's model such that all or almost all students attained that level.

In the same year that Bloom published his first paper on Mastery learning, Fred S. Keller published a paper called "Good-bye, Teacher...", where he presented his own system of instruction, also geared towards ensuring mastery learning of small units of content. In this seminal paper, Keller describes the five components of his Personalized System of instruction (PSI) - sometimes referred to as Keller Plan):

  • Self-pacing,
  • Progressively sequential units,
  • Lectures as vehicles of motivation,
  • Teacher-student communication via text,
  • Use of proctors.[9]

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, there was a surge of research on both Keller's and Bloom's instruction methods.[10] Most of these studies showed that mastery learning has a positive effect on achievement, for all subjects and at all levels. Also, mastery learning brings positive affective outcomes for both students and teachers. These studies also showed that there are many variables that are either affected by mastery learning or that influence it somehow: student entry variables, curriculum, type of test, pacing, level of mastery, and time.[11]

Despite those mostly positive research results, interest in mastery learning strategies decreased throughout the 1980s, as reflected in publication activity in professional journals and presentations at conferences. Many explanations were put forward to justify this decline, like alleged recalcitrance of the educational establishment to change,[12] or the ineffective implementations of mastery learning methods,[13] or the extra time demanded in setting up and maintaining a mastery learning course[12] or even concerns that behavioristic-based models for teaching would conflict with the generally humanistic-oriented teachers and the surrounding culture.[14]


Mastery learning strategies are best represented by Bloom'’s ‘Learning For Mastery (LFM) and’ Keller'’s ‘Personalized System of Instruction (PSI).’ Bloom'’s approach was focused in the schoolroom, whereas Keller developed his system for higher education. Both have been applied in many different contexts and have been found to be very powerful methods for increasing student performance in a wide range of activities. Despite sharing some commonalities in terms of goals, they are built on different psychological principles.

Variables for LFM[edit]

Bloom, when first proposing his mastery learning strategy in 1968, was convinced that most students can attain a high level of learning capability if the following conditions are available:

  • instruction is approached sensitively and systematically
  • students are helped when and where they have learning difficulties
  • students are given sufficient time to achieve mastery
  • there is some clear criterion of what constitutes mastery.[15]

Many variables will influence achievement levels and learning outcomes:


Quality of Instruction[edit]

Ability to Understand Instruction[edit]


Time Allowed for Learning[edit]

Personalized System of Instruction (PSI)[edit]


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.

LFM Strategy[edit]

LMF 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.


Operating Procedures[edit]

Formative Evaluation[edit]
Alternative Learning Resources[edit]


Cognitive Outcomes[edit]
Affective Outcomes[edit]

PSI Strategy[edit]

There are five main elements in PSI as described in Keller's paper from 1968:

  1. The go-at-your-own-pace feature, which permits a student to move through the course at a speed commensurate with his ability and other demands upon his time.
  2. The unit-perfection requirement for advance, which lets the student go ahead to new material only after demonstrating mastery of that which preceded.
  3. The use of lectures and demonstrations as vehicles of motivation, rather than sources of critical information.
  4. The related stress upon the written word in teacher-student communication.
  5. The use of proctors, which permits repeated testing, immediate scoring, almost unavoidable tutoring, and a marked enhancement of the personal-social aspect of the educational process.[9]


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.


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). 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. 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]


  1. ^ Benjamin S. Bloom (1981). All Our Children Learning - A Primer for Parents, Teachers, and Other Educators. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 9780070061187. 
  2. ^ Daniel U. Levine (1985). Improving student achievement through mastery learning programs. Jossey-Bass. ISBN 9780875896458. 
  3. ^ Anderson, Lorin W. (March 1975). "Major Assumptions of Mastery Learning". Annual Meeting of the Southeast Psychological Association. 
  4. ^ Bloom, Benjamin S. (March 1968). "Learning for Mastery" (PDF). UCLA - CSEIP - Evaluation Comment 1 (2). 
  5. ^ a b c d James H. Block (1971). Mastery learning: theory and practice. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 
  6. ^ "In 'Flipped' Classrooms, a method for mastery". The New York Times. 2013. Retrieved 18 June 2015. 
  7. ^ Skinner, B. F. (1954). "The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching". Harvard Educational Review 24: 86–97. 
  8. ^ Carroll, John B. (1963). "A Model of School Learning". Teachers College Record 64 (8): 723–723. 
  9. ^ a b Keller, Fred S. (1968). "Good-Bye, Teacher…". Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 1: 79–89. 
  10. ^ Grant, Lyle; Spencer, Robert (2003). "The Personalized System of Instruction: Review and Applications to Distance Education". The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 4. 
  11. ^ Anderson, Stephen A. (1994). "Synthesis of Research on Mastery Learning" (PDF). ERIC Archives. 
  12. ^ a b Buskist, W.; Cush, D.; DeGrandpre, R. J. (1991). "The life and times of PSI". Journal of Behavioral Education 1: 215–234. 
  13. ^ Sherman, J. G. (1992). "Reflections on PSI: Good news and bad". Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 25: 59–64. 
  14. ^ Horton, Lowell (1979). "Sound In Theory, But...". Educational Leadership 37: 154–156. 
  15. ^ Bloom, Benjamin S. (1976). Human characteristics and school learning. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 9780070061170. 
  • Baum, W. M. (2005). Understanding Behaviorism: Behavior, Culture and Evolution. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • 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.