Now more than ever, our students need emotional support from their schools and teachers. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), since the pandemic started, there has been a 31% increase in adolescent suicide attempts (CDC, June 2021). In October of 2021, “the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared that the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health has become a national emergency (Pew, 2021). Sharon Hoover, co-director of the University of Maryland-based National Center for School Mental Health, says, “Nearly every child in the country is suffering to some degree from the psychological effects of the pandemic” (Pew, 2021).
In my classes, I’m observing anxious and stressed-out students and many of them are on the edge. Though many of my students need more social and emotional help than I can give as a classroom teacher, I know that Mastery Learning is helping students who are struggling through this unique time in our history. It is my contention that if more teachers adopted Mastery Learning, it would have a huge impact on the social and emotional needs of their students.
This article is part of a series in which we discuss how you can make Mastery Learning a reality. In this series, I have been sharing how I, and thousands of other teachers, have transformed classrooms into a place where every student succeeds. In my previous articles, I gave an overview of Mastery Learning, then we learned that you don’t have to lecture to the whole class at the same time ever again, how to create a flexible pace for other students, how to differentiate so it doesn’t drive you crazy, how to facilitate purposeful teacher-student Interactions every day, how Mastery creates a culture of collaboration, and how to manage summative assessments in a Mastery classroom. If you haven’t yet read the other articles, I encourage you to go back so you can see the progression of how to do Mastery Learning well.
Lower Levels of Anxiety
Prior to the pandemic, test anxiety was considered one of the top stressors in young people. In a 2014 study, David Putwain (UK) found that 16.4% of secondary school students were deemed highly “test anxious” (Reducing socioeconomic disparities in the STEM pipeline through student emotion regulation). Added to the test anxiety are COVID anxiety and social media anxiety, which means that we are dealing with some very anxious students.
When I surveyed my students about this article, I asked them what they thought were the key benefits of Mastery Learning:
Mastery learning helps me feel way more confident in my ability to learn the material and takes away so much stress and anxiety that I would have on a test without it. I still worry about tests but with mastery learning, I don’t have the usual test anxiety.
It relieves a lot of stress about tests and quizzes. I know that I will fully comprehend the material fully without being punished for not learning it in a short amount of time. I get to learn at my own pace.
I am able to really enjoy the material and see the benefits of the material without the fast-paced anxiousness of a normal classroom.
Mastery learning overall has been very positive for me. Because we are able to retake tests, the world isn’t over if I don’t do well on one. Because of this environment, I am able to actually focus on learning the content, and we are able to go at the pace we need. Compared to other classes which assume that everyone learns at the same pace.
How do these students feel? They are anxious, and find that Mastery Learning is helping them not only with test anxiety, but also with learning. They love having a variable pace because they realize that not everybody learns at the same speed. Insisting that students actually learn the content improves their social and emotional well-being because they feel a sense of accomplishment when they learn. They don’t feel lost in the curriculum, and in turn, this translates into happier and more emotionally healthy students.
More Time to Build Relationships
The best part of my job is that I get to hang out with teenagers every day. Instead of lecturing (which I haven’t done since 2007), I spend my class time roving around and interacting with my students. Most of my time is spent helping them master the content, but because I spend so much time with each of them, I get to know them better.
I know some of you reading this article are really good at building relationships with students. You are a natural. I envy you. I say that because I am not the world’s best people person. I am an awkward geeky guy who doesn’t know what to do at parties. I am not like the glad-handed politician who can put a smile on everybody’s face.
But something magical has happened in my classrooms since I started utilizing Mastery Learning. I know my students so much better than ever before: I know what they are good at, I know what they struggle with, and I know some of the drama that is par for the course for typical teenagers. I know what sports they play and what activities they participate in. I know some of their weird idiosyncrasies. I just plain know them better. I also know that this knowledge makes me a better teacher. Knowing my students’ strengths and weaknesses helps me to tailor my interactions to meet their individual needs.
One student just left my classroom as he told me about holding his younger brother until 2 a.m. because his brother’s best friend had suddenly passed away.
Another student stopped by to chat.
Interactions such as these get me out of my bed in the morning. I know my students are learning science well, but I get to be a part of their lives on a much deeper level. This is different than when I was a traditional teacher. Sure, I got to know my students relatively well when I didn’t utilize Mastery Learning, but reader—it is so much better now! Even if you are a gifted relational teacher, I promise that if you were to adopt Mastery Learning, you would know your students better.
I attribute this mostly to the fact that I spend almost every moment of every class interacting individually and in small groups with my students. When you take the lecture out of the classroom, time is spent in much better ways. One student said, “A connection with a teacher is easier to achieve because you are able to ask questions one on one.”
I want to share one pro tip that has been super effective: I purchased a gong on Amazon and when students pass their major tests, which we call Boss Battles, I ring the gong and announce that a student “passed” their Boss Battle. This has been a huge hit with students. I have even had students who took their mastery tests alone in a room with me, and once I grade the test, they insist that I ring the gong. This simple act has really helped me realize that all students, even my high school seniors, need to be celebrated for their successes. And this adds a little bit more to their emotional bank accounts.
It Just Works
I’m a huge fan of Apple products. Early on, what drew me to them was that they just worked. Apple had a simple user interface and it didn’t tend to break. Like Apple, Mastery Learning just works. It works with students who struggle, and it works with students who are advanced. Mastery Learning works because it doesn’t expect every student to learn at the same pace and provides more time for students to process the curriculum. It also works because it places the expert learner (the teacher) at the greatest point of need and reduces some of the unnecessary stressors of school. But perhaps most importantly, it works because it allows for positive teacher-student relationships that are encouraging and uplifting. This is why Mastery Learning helps meet the challenging social and emotional needs of students.