April 19, 2022
The premise of Mastery Learning is that students progress through content at their “own pace.” If a student struggles with one objective in the curriculum, in theory, they stay in that objective until they master it. That sounds well and good, but my guess is that like me, you have found that giving students deadlines helps them get actual work done. If students can choose their own pace, then you worry some won’t have any pace. So if this fear is making you hesitate to implement Mastery Learning, I have good news for you. You definitely will be holding kids to a pacing calendar, and it won’t be a nightmare to manage.
The issue of pacing leads to what I believe are the two biggest hurdles to implementing a Mastery Learning Classroom. If you don’t solve these two problems, you might as well not try Mastery Learning. The good news is that these two problems can be solved relatively easily, though it takes significant planning. Secondarily, solving one typically solves the others. The two biggest challenges are:
- Students Who Fall Behind
- Managing students who are working at vastly different mastery levels in the curriculum
So how do you deal with these two enormous challenges? What can be done with students who are behind and students doing too many different things? It turns out that the solutions to these problems are linked. By solving the second problem you will, by definition, solve the first.
Don’t allow Students to Be Working on Too Many Things at Once.
When I first started teaching with Mastery Learning I had some students who were literally three weeks ahead of their peers. I almost gave up—it just was too chaotic in my class. What happened? You see, I made the mistake of letting students work at their own pace instead of what I would call a “flexible pace.” You have to give students some sort of a timetable—a pace that they should roughly follow. You must not let the gap between your students who struggle and your students who are successful become too large.
To that end, I set weekly benchmarks of lessons that students must master. For me, the way I keep students roughly together is to set weekly benchmarks. These are clearly communicated to students. I tell them that by the end of the week they must have gotten through objective 6.3.
That means that if they are on 6.1, then they have to complete three objectives that week. I then monitor where students are at and push each student to master what they need to master. I choose weekly benchmarks because it gives students more freedom and agency. Most students like the leeway of having somewhat flexible deadlines. Note that in every class I have a few students who get a daily benchmark. These are typically my students who are easily distracted and tend to get off track and need a much more structured approach until they earn a weekly benchmark.
In terms of pacing, I simply use previous years’ planning calendars as my guide. I know that, for example, by Oct. 1, my students would have completed through unit 3, so the weekly benchmarks reflect that pace.
Identify Essential vs Non-Essential Objectives
Another way to keep students together is to identify which objectives are “essential” and which are non-essential. In a given unit of study I might have seven major objectives. Most of my students are able to master all of the objectives in a given amount of time. But for those students who struggle, I only expect them to master the essential objectives. In my last unit I identified three essential objectives and two non-essential ones. All students were expected to master the first three and for those who mastered number four and number five they got better grades. My criteria for determining if an objective is essential or not comes back to my overarching objectives for the year. In my class I have a final project that ties together everything we have learned in the course of the year. So my filter is which objectives will students absolutely need to have mastered in order to be successful on the final project. Those objectives that aren’t essential for that project are the “nice to know” objectives.
Have Some Hard Deadlines
As I write this, my students are in the last week of quarter three. (Three students are in my room right now retaking one of their summative assessments). We go on Spring Break this Friday. Since my school requires me to give students a grade for quarter 3 (An A, B, C, D or F), I have told my students that they need to have mastered through level 8 by the end of this week. What this has done is put an urgency in my students to get things done. They have been coming in before school, at lunch and after school to get things mastered. What I have found with giving them a hard deadline is that they get things done. My students still care about getting good grades so right now many students are finally mastering the content. One young lady told me how last night she spent a great deal of time learning the topic, and came in this morning and aced her summative assessment. I wish she would have done this earlier, but having the hard deadline helped her to finally put the pieces together.
Since students know that they must have mastered a specific milestone by a certain date, my experience is that they rise to the occasion. Some come to the party a bit later than others, but almost all of them get there. This especially happens during the first quarter marking period and then as the year progresses, they learn that keeping up in class makes their lives easier. My wife asked me this week what I enjoyed about this week at school. My reply was, “So many of my struggling students are finally putting the pieces together. They are finally getting it.”
And one benefit if you utilize Mastery Learning on a broader basis (not just in one class), is that the first teacher who teaches with Mastery Learning is teaching students how to take more ownership of their learning and when they take subsequent classes they are already trained in how to learn for themselves.
You Can Do this + New Resource
I know implementing Mastery Learning seems daunting. And if you think about it you will realize that solving these two problems, working at different levels and falling behind, is absolutely essential. If you don’t solve these problems, the game is over. These are not the only challenges that you might encounter. To learn more I encourage you to get my soon-to-be-released book: The Mastery Learning Handbook: A Competency-Based Approach to Student Achievement, which will be coming out in October of 2022. ASCD is my publisher and they have done a great job both helping me think through how to help teachers implement a Mastery-based and Competency-based approach.