What is Mastery Learning?

Mastery Learning - 21st Century Learning That Works.

Some refer to Mastery Learning as advanced flipped learning. Mastery Learning enables students to take responsibility for their own learning. Students conduct experiments, watch vodcasts, work on assignments, interact with the class learning management site, have one-on-one discussions with their teacher, and get tutored by their peers and cadet teachers. This is Mastery Learning at work.

Mastery Learning allows students to work at their own pace through the curriculum. When they complete a unit they must demonstrate that they have learned the content by taking an exit assessment that includes both a project and an exam. If students score less than 85% on these exit assessments, they must go back and re-learn those concepts they missed and retake the exam. Grades are no longer determined by a percentage but rather how much content they have mastered.

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Frequently Asked Questions: Mastery Learning

  1. Could you tell me how you keep students from cheating on tests?
  2. What's the incentive to advance through multiple units? Are there kids who "play" this system and purposely advance as slowly as possible?
  3. Do kids take responsibility for their own learning?
  4. How are final grades assessed if one person finshes half the units that another student completes?
  5. How big are you classes? Does this work with regular, honors, and AP classes?
  6. Could This Work with POGIL?
  7. Will this work in a 4x4 Block?
  8. Will this help my students on state tests?
  9. What will you do 2nd Semester with kids who are behind?
  10. I am curious about logistics of labs, i.e. how do students do labs? Do they have to sign up in advance? etc.
  11. How does Grading and Testing work?
  12. Do you use POGIL and Inquiry?
  13. Would this work with other subject matter?

Could you tell me how you keep students from cheating on tests?

Since students can take the test multiple times we obviously had to work on this.  This requires different versions of the exam.  We have also set aside some corners of the room where students take the tests and there is little chance of them cheating.  We are right now working on doing many of our tests on a computer using Moodle.  With Moodle I can write questions such that each kid gets a different question.  For example a student might get a limiting reactant problem but student A starts with 3.4 grams and student B starts with 4.6 g.  that way each student gets a unique exam, and in fact each time a student takes the exam they get a unique exam.  We are right now working out the bugs of the system, but it is coming along nicely.

What's the incetive to advance through multiple units? Are there kids who "play" this system and purposely advance as slowly as possible?

The students each week are given benchmarks: So for this coming week they must have completed:

  • A = Pass Unit 5 Exam (85% or better)
  • B = Unit 5 Podcast 5.3
  • C = Pass Unit 4 Exam (85% or better)
  • F = anything than less than above.

We thus change which assignment they need to "get to" each week. So there is a moving line. And ultimately there is an assignment that they need to "get to" by the end of the semester and the end of the year. We also limit them taking tests once per day. So taking the exam multiple times costs them time that they could be progressing through new content. They are uncomfortable getting behind.

We also celebrate every time a kid scores an 85% or better on an exam. I am looking for a gong (on ebay) to celebrate each successful passing of each exam.

Do kids take responsibility for their own learning?

Yeah, it sounds kind of crazy, but we are seeing kids take responsibility for their own learning and they are actually learning the stuff.

If you need help in getting things set up we would be glad to help.  It has taken us quite a bit of time to make this work, but it really does. . .

How are final grades assessed if one person finshes half the units that another student completes?

The further you get in the content the higher the student's grade.  So for our first semester, to earn an A students must master half way through our unit 6.  This includes taking, and mastering our final exam from last year and doing a project.    Last year we finished the semester at the end of unit 5 (stoichiometry) so we set the bar for an A past that point.  We have students now who are starting unit 6 and I anticipate that they will finish unit 6 and go above and beyond the "A" grade. 

For student to earn a B they have to have completed unit 5, done last year's final (with mastery) and do a project.  For a student to earn a C they must finish unit 5 and then master the final.  So we have it scaffolded that way. 

Right now we are thinking of actually delineating this even more.  In the future we think that we could have all students who are taking a first year course in the same classroom at the same time.  At our school we only have 2 levels of first year Chemistry:  Principles of Chemistry (1 section) and Chemistry (7 sections):  {We also have 2 sections of AP}.  So what we are thinking is that students who just learn slower will have the option of getting Principles of Chemistry credit:  Students who work at an average pace can get Chemistry credit, and for those students who excel and learn faster, they can earn Honors Chemistry credit (a class we don't currently offer).  Students would all work through the same content, but their grade would be determined by how much material they master. 

I think I have said this before:  But this is working out VERY well.  Students are being "forced" to learn.  They can't just attend class, do some assignments, and then hope for the best on the exam.  They are discovering that they really can learn.  An interesting anecdote:  We had a couple of students who were doing well on all of the assignments and then when they go to take the exam they don't even have a clue as to what to do.  At first we thought of this as test anxiety, etc.  Well, come to find out, they essentially were copying all of the other kid's work and it just looked like they were learning.  After a hard conversation with these students, they acknowledged what they were doing and are now going back learning the material that they never really learned in the first place.  So this system doesn't allow the kids to not learn.  And for those students who are fully invested in the program, I am seeing them truly take ownership for their own learning.  you can probably feel my enthusiasm for the program.  It has been a truly remarkable year.

How big are you classes? Does this work with regular, honors, and AP classes?

We are starting this program with our first year chemistry students.  We also teach AP chemistry but with them we decided to not "experiment" with them.  So they are doing what we call our pre-vodcasting model where students watch the podcast lectures at home and in class we get lots more labs and directed problem solving time with them.  We are uncertain if we will do the mastery model with our AP students next year.  That is still in discussion.

Could This Work with POGIL?

I have been thinking that this is my next step.  I have not been to a POGIL training, but have read quite a bit on the topic and think this ultimately would be the most effective method. . .

Will this work in a 4x4 Block?

I don't see any problems doing this with a 4x4 block.  In fact I think it might even be better than what we do (1 block every other day for the year).  Kids would have concentrated time to do their work with less classes getting in the way.

Will this help my students on state tests?

As of right now, Colorado does not a have state exam for Chemistry.  However, I am on the committee, that will be mandating that in the near future.  (Actually I am on the governors commission that oversees the re-writing of the standards which will ultimately lead to course exams in all subjects, Chemistry included).

That said: And I think that the mastery program will help test scores.  Since my students actually are ALL learning Chemistry, though at different paces, I think that they will do better on any state exam.  I guess it is possible that students might not have mastered some content, but with my system they will learn things more deeply.  And everybody else out there on the list-serv.  I welcome the questions and dialogue.  This is great discussion and collaboration.

What will you do 2nd Semester with kids who are behind?

We had to think this through.  For what it is worth, here is what we have come up with.  We are going to set the "ultimate" benchmark for the year.  We don't honestly know where that will land at the end of this, our first, year.  So in our system at the end of this semester the benchmarks are:

  • A= Pass the Final with 80% + do a project and be 1/2 way through Unit 6
  • B = Pass the Final with 80% + do a project
  • C = Pass the Final with 80%
  • F = Anything less than above (We did away with D's and so far nobody has challenged us on this—we never asked administration we just did it—we shall see if it flies in the future)
So a student has to have completed unit 5 and gone one step past that.  If they don't then they get an F.

So next semester they have to start where they left off.  But what we are telling them is that if they "cross" the A line by the end of the school year then regardless of what grade they got 1 st semester we will give them an A for both semesters.  This will require us to manually go back and change their grade.  This only seems fair, since they truly have mastered to the A level.  This also is giving hope to our kids who got behind 1 st semester.  In the past week we have met with each kid and discussed where they are at and what they need to do to get to their target grade.  There is only 3 weeks left until our semester ends on Dec 19 th .  What we are finding right now with our students who have gotten behind is that they are working very hard right now and frankly, we think that about 1-2 students per class will end up failing.  This is actually better than when we taught a traditional curriculum.  Of course this is just my sense, but I will know in 3 weeks.  The other think I am seeing is a lot more kids coming in at lunch working on labs, working on assignments, etc.  It has been pretty cool seeing them beginning to take ownership for their own education.  I would love for our Algebra classes to start this sort of program and start training the kids to do this.  Then I think they would learn that learning is their responsibility.  I think that before students had school "done to them." And with this model, for them to be successful, they must actually LEARN the content.  My role is totally switched:  I am a Chemistry coach, not the teacher authority figure.

I am curious about logistics of labs, i.e. how do students do labs? Do they have to sign up in advance? etc.

We had to deal with this issue in class. We think some of the students were copying others's labs and so we decided to make sure that each student had done each lab. Students must get our signature to verify that they have actually done the lab. What I am now doing is also asking that they answer a key question about the lab in order to get "credit." In doing this I have "caught" a few kids who were copying work (mainly worksheets)and then I have had stern discussions with them about how they are not going to ever pass an exam unless they individually understand the Chemistry. I guess the moral of the story is that some kids will try and find ways to cheat. With a new system such as ours students will try and find the loopholes just as they always have in the past. I think our system actually "catches" more of these kids. No longer can a kid cheat his way through Chemistry.

Lab Logistics: We have set up around the room several labs. I would guess that there are 4-6 labs set up at a time. We label them and students go to that station to do the labs. Before students actually "do" the labs I require that they spend a few minnutes with me discussing the lab with me. This discussion includes:

  1. Safety
  2. Pre-Lab Discussion
  3. Procedure
  4. Any other of the key points that I want to make. For example: What is the key concept that students must get out of a particular lab, etc.

Grading of Papers
One thing that we have been doing is checking the students work in real time. Students bring me their assignments (worksheets, labs, and even tests). I then grade them on the spot. If I see mistakes I hand them back and ask students to do them over. This is also done with tests and labs. So I don't end up taking papers home to grade. So much of my class time is used by me grading the student work. This makes class time truly crazy, but I think that the immediate feedback is very helpful to the students. It also allows me to differentiate. My top students must turn in "perfect" work. For those students who I know are going to barely pass the test with the 85% (often on the 2nd or 3rd try) I allow less than perfect work. If they generally get the topic then I mark them down as mastering the content. These students are usually behind the main group of students and it gives them some hope as they move along.

How does Grading and Testing work?

What has morphed over the past two years is a system that seems to work.  50% of a student's semester grade (not including their final) is their test grade.  Remember that each student must keep taking each unit exam until they get at least 75%.  If they do not get that grade they get 0% until they pass it.  This motivates the kids to "pass" the exam.  If they score greater than 75% and are still unhappy with their score they may take it as many times as they like.  Also note that with Moodle we are able to give almost an infinite amount of versions of the exam.

The other 1/2 of their grade is what we are calling the weekly benchmark.  At the beginning of each week (or the Friday before) we tell each class which assignment they must get through.  If they get through assignment the weekly benchmark then they receive a 90% for the week.  If they exceed that grade then they get a higher grade.  And if they don't meet that grade then they get a lower grade.  This undoubtedly is a "squishy" grade.  It is somewhat subjective, but with the hard and fast testing grade it seems to be working. 

And then at the end of the semester we will give a final.  We will, in the spirit of our system, allow students to take it whenever they have mastered the 1st semester content--that might not be on the final day of the class.  Hopefully that will be sooner. Thus if they take an exam and are unhappy with their score we will allow them to take a new version again (and again and again, etc).  This will be worth 20% of their overall grade.

So essentially we really have:

  1. 40% Tests
  2. 40% Weekly Progress
  3. 20% Final Exam.

Do you use an online homework system?

We have flirted with the idea of doing this, but have rejected it because frankly we don't have access to the technology for this.  Since much of the class time is taken up in kids working and learning, that would necessitate lots of computers in our classrooms.  Right now we have 6 ten yr old laptops in each of our rooms.  They are usually taken up by students doing exams and in some cases watching podcasts.  So we have kept with the paper and pencil.

Do you use POGIL and Inquiry?

At the beginning of each unit we hand out a "packet" that contains all of the problem sets, labs, etc.  This packet has all of the info for a unit.  Right now students are starting our chemical reactions unit.  We believe in inquiry so we are still using many of the same inquiry labs that we have used forever.  And now that we are getting a hand on POGIL, some of our activities are directly from POGIL.  So in short:  yes--we are doing that.

Would this work with other subject matter?

I also teach freshmen Earth/Space Science.  I am using the same mastery method and it is working brilliantly.  And we are having some math teachers starting to think more this way as well.  This method is not just for chemistry teachers.  In fact I would argue that it is the hardest subject to do it with since we have to deal with dangerous chemicals, and such.  Math and foreign language seems the best match for this kind of teaching.

Contact for this page

Jerry Overmyer
Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity/Title IX