Mastery learning (?)

If you’ve been in education lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard of either mastery learning or differentiated instruction.  For those of you who haven’t heard these terms, the basic idea behind both is that education should focus on mastering a topic before moving to the next one.  This sort of mastery is achieved by assessing the skills of each student and then assisting him/her until the skills reach the 80-90% level.

This idea is the one that Salman Khan (founder of the Khan Academy) uses in his resources.  By providing lessons in small bits with ample practice, students can lead themselves through the material and learn at their own pace.  (For that matter, I started doing the same thing nearly a decade before he did, so give me a MacArthur genius grant already.)  Most online tutorials essentially use this model to help students brush up on whatever they’re having problems with.

It’s obvious what the problem with this sort of learning is:  There aren’t enough teachers or enough money to make it happen.  In order to make this work perfectly, the teacher needs to individually assess and come up with a learning plan for each and every student in their class.  There’s not enough time in the day to do this.  Perhaps if five or ten teachers were allowed in a classroom of 30 kids it would be doable, but no school in the world has resources like that to draw from.

However, this isn’t to say that the idea of mastery learning is a bad one, even if it’s not something that can be easily implemented in its entirety.  Let’s look at some strategies that can be used to help students to address their weaknesses in understanding.  I’ll use chemistry as a reference point because it’s what I understand and what most of you probably already teach:

  • Teach and reteach.  Whenever teaching a new topic, find out during the course of this instruction whether anybody has problems with the background information needed for it.  For example, when teaching about Lewis structures it might be handy to ask ahead of time if anybody needs a refresher on naming covalent compounds.  By addressing it in these terms, students won’t feel as if they’re being singled out as being dumb for not knowing the material.
  • Do homework right:  Homework often gets a bad rap because it’s seen as a repetitive waste of time.  And you know what, it usually is.  By giving too many questions of the same sort, we teach students to memorize a standardized way of solving one particular kind of problem.  This is handy for teaching to a standardized test, but not so good for teaching students how to creatively solve problems.  When giving homework, give a problem or two of each type you want them to learn and incorporate previous learning into the questions.  Example:  In a Lewis structure worksheet, add three questions about naming covalent compounds at the beginning.  If a student has problems with this, it’s a simple matter to reexplain.
  • Be willing to teach less material:  With standardized tests, we’re often left with the choice between teaching all of the material and teaching a smaller amount of material well.  I encourage each of you to do the latter – to make sure students know the basics before learning the more complicated stuff.  My reasoning is this:  If all of the students understand the basics, many of them will be able to extrapolate what they know to the material they don’t.  The students that can’t will at least have a solid basis of material that they’re comfortable with, which will improve their scores, too.  And let’s be honest:  When’s the last time a high schooler really needed to understand electrochemistry anyway?

In short, mastery learning is just the natural way that we probably all want to teach.  Teaching to a test is stressful work and leads to teacher burnout and incomplete mastery of material.  However, when teachers use their freedom in the classroom to do things they find interesting and exciting, the students learn better and we have more fun.  When when we have more fun, we do an even better job.

Many readers of this post will rightly state that their administrators will be upset with them for failing to teach to the test.  My answer is this:  So what?  If your students end the school year with a deeper understanding of the subject and the feeling that science is fun, that’s worth far more than an extra ten points on a standardized test.  Most administrators will respond positively to success like this.  And for those that won’t, well, it’s hard to find a replacement chemistry teacher anyway.

Have fun and teach.  Your students will master the material more effectively, and you’ll have more fun.  The rest will take care of itself.



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