What is Mastery Learning?

Each fall, there is always some new demand I have to make sure is part of my instruction. Moving three years ago to a new district is was innovation and tieing everything to the real world. It really wasn’t about moving students but what they would face in the real world. Well, after a year, I found you can have both.

Many innovations include elements of more established strategies for which do move students--like Master Learning.

So what is it??

The concept is simple: Students master concepts and skills before going onto other learning. How do you know they mastered it? You give them tests. If they do not reach mastery, then they go back and study and take the test again until they pass it. Benjamin Bloom, of Bloom's Taxonomy fame, came up with mastery learning in 1971.

I had noticed that because of the limited time I had with my groups, I always had a couple who need way more time than the everyone else. I also discovered that some of the basic skills had not been taught as I had been told. (You know how some IEPs are written.) I realize that part of the difficulty is that I am required to move these guys, no matter how big the gap.

What it looks like in my room?

Most mastery learning models stress the importance of giving quick and targeted pre-assessment to all students before beginning instruction to determine whether they have the prerequisite knowledge and skills for success in the upcoming learning sequence.  I do monthly progress monitoring and I give them the grade level assessment but also the grade under. I’m looking for the skills they don’t have. I’m also looking for data to support they have mastered the previously taught skill. I don’t have time to get both pre and post assessments. (EasyCBM.com has reading and math K-6. It’s free, has norms, and students can take it online.)

For students whose pre-assessment results suggest deficiencies, mastery learning teachers take time to directly teach them the needed concepts and skills. In other words, I break the skills down and teach just that subskill. When they have that one I move on to the next. In math, skill accuracy is king. With my reading groups, if my group of 10s is working on picture clues--I’ll use two or three-word books to focus on picture clues or reading what is written. When that skill is mastered go back to 10s and move to the next skill they need to work on. (When working on skills go back to an easier level. This is important when working on comprehension skills, so they are using all their energy on decoding the text.)

To help students out, I rely on learning targets. I post them and they always reference the bog outcome. We talk about what it looks like and in some cases what it sounds like. I find this helps everyone get real clear about what their job is.This has saved me more than a couple times when an administrator pops in.

As a teacher, I’m not going to tell you this makes planning an easier for me and I find I have to be very clear about the steps needed to do a task. Backwards planning has become key when I’m planning. Backwards planning also helps make sure I’m hitting IEP goals.

Mastery Learning helps me balance focusing on students’ strengths and interests. Together, IEPs and mastery learning helps students to work on weaknesses and a customized path that engages their interests and helps them “own” their learning.

Mastery Learning can also give students the chance to build self-advocacy skills. I encourage students when they don’t understand a step or are lost “where are you confused?” If they everything, I try to get them to be more specific. This helps them focus on their own learning but also helps guide my own instruction to fill in that hole before moving on. We all think primary students are too young to self-advocate but how many times are will serious thinking about adding it to an IEP.? (stepping stones now)

The Hard Part?

The extra planning and comes with analyzing data. Some days I feel I’m drowning in data. But I have found if I’m truly teaching to IEP goals, then I’m progress monitoring IEP goals too. I don’t teach random stuff that has nothing to do with IEP goals. I only teach the IEP goals. The 30 minutes that student is out of his classroom, he is working on his IEP goals. Backwards planning and data dialogues help to ensure I’m hitting that target.

The key is to make sure that mastery learning is targeting the small skills needed to meet a larger target. By doing this, I can innovate how they demonstrate mastery--sometimes this is with technology and sometimes it's with STEM tasks.

At the end of the day is student growth. My goal is to work myself out of a job.

Until Next Time,


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Welcome to my all thing special education blog. I empower busy elementary special education teachers to use best practice strategies to achieve a data and evidence driven classroom community by sharing easy to use, engaging, unique approaches to small group reading and math. Thanks for Hopping By.
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