Few programs have been implemented as broadly or evaluated as thoroughly over the last four decades in education as those associated with mastery learning. Programs based on mastery learning principles operate today in nations throughout the world and at every level of education. When compared to traditionally taught classes, students in mastery learning classes consistently have been shown to learn better, reach higher levels of achievement, and develop greater confidence in their ability to learn and in themselves as learners (Guskey, 1997, 2001).
Although the basic tenets of mastery learning can be traced to such early educators as Comenius, Pestalozzi, and Herbart (Bloom, 1974), most modern applications stem from the writings of Benjamin S. Bloom of the University of Chicago. In the mid-1960s Bloom began a series of investigations on the variation that existed in student learning outcomes. He recognized that while
students vary widely in their learning rates, virtually all learn well when provided with the necessary time and appropriate learning conditions. If teachers could provide the time and more appropriate conditions, Bloom reasoned that nearly all students could reach a high level of learning.
To determine how this might be practically achieved, Bloom first considered how teaching and learning take place in typical group-based classrooms. He observed that most teachers begin by dividing the concepts and skills that they want students to learn into smaller learning units. Following instruction on the unit, teachers administer an assessment to determine how well students have learned those concepts and skills. Based on the assessment results, students are sorted, ranked, and assigned grades. The assessment signifies to students the end of the unit and the end of the time they need to spend working on the unit material. It also represents their one and only chance to demonstrate what they have learned.
When teaching and learning proceed in this manner, Bloom found that only a small number of students learns well and the pattern of student achievement was similar to the normal curve distribution shown in Figure 1.
Seeking a strategy that would produce better results, Bloom drew upon two sources of information. He first considered the ideal teaching and learning situation in which an excellent tutor is paired with each student. In other words, Bloom tried to determine what crucial elements in one-to-one tutoring could be transferred to group-based instructional settings. Second, he reviewed descriptions of the learning strategies of academically successful students in group-based learning environments that distinguish them from their less successful classmates.
Bloom saw value in organizing the concepts and skills to be learned into units and assessing students' learning at the end of each unit as useful instructional techniques. But the classroom assessments most teachers used seemed to do little more than show for whom their initial instruction was and was not appropriate. Bloom believed that a far better approach would be for teachers to use their classroom assessments as learning tools, and then to follow those assessments with a feedback and corrective procedure. In other words, instead of using assessments only as evaluation devices that mark the end of each unit, Bloom recommended using them as part of the instructional process to identify individual learning difficulties (feedback) and to prescribe remediation procedures (correctives).
This is precisely what takes place when an excellent tutor works with an individual student. If the student makes a mistake, the tutor first points out the error (feedback) and then follows up with further explanation and clarification (correctives) to ensure the student's understanding. Similarly, academically successful students typically follow up the mistakes they make on quizzes and assessments. They ask the teacher about the items they missed, look up the answer in the textbook or other resources, or rework the problem or task so that they do not repeat those errors.
With this in mind, Bloom outlined an instructional strategy to make use of this feedback and corrective procedure, labeling it “Learning for Mastery” (Bloom, 1968), and later shortening it to simply “Mastery Learning” (Bloom, 1971a). With this strategy, teachers first organize the concepts and skills they want students to learn into learning units that typically involve about a week or two of instructional time. Following initial instruction on the unit, teachers administer a brief quiz or assessment based on the unit's learning goals. Instead of signifying the end of the unit, however, this assessment's purpose is to give students information, or “feedback,” on their learning. To emphasize this new purpose Bloom suggested calling it a formative assessment, meaning “to inform or provide information” (see Scriven, 1967). A formative assessment identifies for students precisely what they have learned well to that point, and what they need to learn better (Bloom, Hastings, & Madaus, 1971).
Paired with each formative assessment are specific “corrective” activities for students to use in correcting their learning difficulties. Most teachers match these “correctives” to each item or set of prompts within the assessment so that students need work on only those concepts or skills not yet mastered. In other words, the correctives are “individualized.” They may point out additional sources of information on a particular concept, such as page numbers in the textbook or workbook where the concept is discussed. They may identify alternative learning resources such as different textbooks, learning kits, alternative materials, CDs, videos, or Web-based instructional lessons. Or they may simply suggest sources of additional practice, such as study guides, computer exercises, independent or guided practice activities, or collaborative group activities.
With the feedback and corrective information gained from the formative assessment, each student has a detailed prescription of what more needs to be done to master the concepts or skills from the unit. This “just-intime” correction prevents minor learning difficulties from accumulating and becoming major learning problems. It also gives teachers a practical means to vary and differentiate their instruction in order to better meet students' individual learning needs. As a result, many more students learn well, master the important learning goals in each unit, and gain the necessary prerequisites for success in subsequent units.
When students complete their corrective activities after a class period or two, Bloom recommended they take a second formative assessment. This second, “parallel” assessment covers the same concepts and skills as the first, but is composed of slightly different problems or questions, and serves two important purposes. First, it verifies whether or not the correctives were successful in helping students overcome their individual learning difficulties. Second, it offers students a second chance at success and, hence, has powerful motivational value.
Some students, of course, will perform well on the first assessment, demonstrating that they have mastered the unit concepts and skills. The teacher's initial instruction was highly appropriate for these students and they have no need of corrective work. To ensure their continued learning progress, Bloom recommended that teachers provide these students with special “enrichment” or “extension” activities to broaden their learning experiences. Enrichment activities typically are self-selected by students and might involve special projects or reports, academic games, or a variety of complex, problem-solving tasks. Figure 2 illustrates this instructional sequence.
Bloom believed that through this process of formative classroom assessment, combined with the systematic correction of individual learning difficulties, all students could be provided with a more appropriate quality of instruction than is possible under more traditional approaches to teaching. As a result, nearly all might be expected to learn well and truly master the unit concepts or learning goals (Bloom, 1976; 1977). This, in turn, would drastically reduce the variation in students' achievement levels, eliminate achievement gaps, and yield a distribution of achievement more like that shown in Figure 3.
Bloom emphasized, however, that reducing variation in students' achievement does not imply making all students the same. Even under these more favorable learning conditions, some students undoubtedly will learn more than others, especially those involved in enrichment activities. But by recognizing relevant, individual differences among students and then altering instruction to better meet their diverse learning needs, Bloom believed the variation among students in how well they learn specific concepts or master a set of articulated learning goals could eventually reach a “vanishing point” (Bloom, 1971b). In other words, all students would be helped to learn well the knowledge and skills prescribed in the curriculum.
In some instances “mastery learning” has been confused with the concept of “mastery goals” used in motivation research (Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1986). Although theoretically related, these concepts are quite distinct. “Mastery learning” relates to a theory about learning and an accompanying set of instructional strategies, as described above. “Mastery goals,” on the other hand, concern a central distinction drawn by achievement goal theorists between striving to acquire skill and develop understanding (mastery goals), and striving to demonstrate superiority relative to others (performance or ability goals) (Butler, 2000). Mastery goals are typically associated with defining competence relative to task demands, attributing outcomes to effort, preferring challenging tasks, perceiving difficulty as an indication of the need for further learning, and responding to difficulty by seeking help and additional information. In contrast, performance or ability goals lead to defining competence relative to others, attributing outcomes to ability, interpreting difficulty as indicative of low ability, and refraining from exposing inadequate ability by seeking help (Butler, 2007). Hence, while the criterion-referenced orientation of mastery learning clearly focuses on mastery goals, the concepts are quite different.
Another misinterpretation stems from some early attempts to apply mastery learning that were based on narrow and inaccurate understandings of Bloom's theory. These efforts focused only on low-level cognitive skills, attempted to break learning down into small segments, and insisted that students “master” each segment before being permitted to move on. Teachers were regarded in these programs as little more than managers of materials and record-keepers of student progress. Unfortunately, similar misinterpretations of mastery learning continue (e.g., Prawat, 1992; Satterly, 1981).
Nowhere in Bloom's writing, however, can this kind of narrowness and rigidity be found. In fact, Bloom emphasized quite the opposite. He considered thoughtful and reflective teachers vital to the successful implementation of mastery learning and continually stressed flexibility in its application. In his earliest description of the process Bloom wrote:
There are many alternative strategies for mastery learning. Each strategy must find some way of dealing with individual differences in learners through some means of relating the instruction to the needs and characteristics of the learners…. The nongraded school (Goodlad & Anderson, 1959) is one attempt to provide an organizational structure that permits and encourages mastery learning. (Bloom, 1968, pp. 7–8)
Bloom further emphasized his belief that instruction in mastery learning classrooms should focus on higher level learning goals, not simply basic skills. He noted:
I find great emphasis on problem solving, applications of principles, analytical skills, and creativity. Such higher mental processes are emphasized because this type of learning enables the individual to relate his or her learning to the many problems he or she encounters in day-to-day living. These abilities are stressed because they are retained and utilized long after the individual has forgotten the detailed specifics of the subject matter taught in the schools. These abilities are regarded as one set of essential characteristics needed to continue learning and to cope with a rapidly changing world. (Bloom, 1978, p. 578)
Modern research studies have shown mastery learning to be particularly effective when applied to instruction focusing on higher level learning goals such as problem solving, drawing inferences, deductive reasoning, and creative expression (Arredondo & Block, 1990; Blakemore, 1992; Clark, Guskey, & Benninga, 1983; Kozlovsky, 1990; Mevarech, 1980, 1981, 1985; Mevar-ech, & Werner, 1985; Soled, 1987). When well implemented, the process helps teachers improve student learning in a broad range of learning goals from basic skills to highly complex cognitive processes.
Despite the modest nature of the changes required to implement mastery learning, extensive research evidence gathered in Asia (Kim et al., 1969, 1970; Wu, 1994), Australia (Chan, 1981), Europe (Dyke, 1988; Langeheine, 1992; Mevarech, 1985, 1986; Postlethwaite & Haggarty, 1998; Reezigt & Weide, 1990, 1992; Yildiran, 2006), South America (Cabezon, 1984), and the United States (Anderson, 1994; Block, Efthim, & Burns, 1989; Guskey & Pigott, 1988; Walberg, 1984, 1988), shows the careful and systematic application of mastery learning principles can lead to significant improvements in student learning. Some researchers even suggest that the superiority of Japanese students in international comparisons of achievement in mathematics operations and problem solving may be due largely to the widespread use in Japan of instructional practices similar to mastery learning (Nakajima, 2006; Waddington, 1995).
Long-term investigations have yielded similarly impressive results. A study by Whiting, Van Burgh, and Render (1995), for example, representing 18 years of data gathered from more than 7,000 high school students showed mastery learning to have remarkably positive influence on students' test scores and grade point averages as well as their attitudes toward school and learning. Another field experiment conducted in elementary and middle school classrooms showed that the implementation of mastery learning led to significantly positive increases in students' academic achievement and their self-confidence (Anderson, Barrett, Huston, Lay, Myr, Sexton, & Watson, 1992). Even more impressive, a comprehensive, meta-analysis review of the research on mastery learning by Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns (1990a) concluded:
We recently reviewed meta-analyses in nearly 40 different areas of educational research (J. Kulik & Kulik, 1989). Few educational treatments of any sort were consistently associated with achievement effects as large as those produced by mastery learning. In evaluation after evaluation, mastery programs have produced impressive gains. (p. 292)
Research evidence also shows that the positive effects of mastery learning are not limited to cognitive or achievement outcomes. The process also yields improvements in students' confidence in learning situations, school attendance rates, engagement in class activities, attitudes toward learning, and a variety of other affective
measures (Block & Burns, 1976; Block, Efthim, & Burns, 1989; Guskey & Pigott, 1988, Whiting & Render, 1987).
It should be noted that one review of the research on mastery learning, contrary to all others, indicated that the process had essentially no effect on student achievement (Slavin, 1987). This finding surprised not only scholars familiar with the vast research literature on mastery learning showing it to yield very positive results, but also large numbers of practitioners who had experienced its positive impact firsthand. A close inspection of this review shows, however, that it was conducted using techniques of questionable validity (Joyce, 1987; Hiebert, 1987), employed capricious selection criteria (Anderson & Burns, 1987; Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990b), reported results in a biased manner (Bloom, 1987; Walberg, 1988), and drew conclusions not substantiated by the evidence presented (Guskey, 1987, 1988a). Most importantly, two much more extensive and methodologically sound reviews published since (Guskey & Pigott, 1988; Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990a) have verified mastery learning's consistently positive impact on a broad range of student learning outcomes and, in one case (i.e., Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990b), showed clearly the distorted nature of this earlier report.
Researchers in the 21st century generally recognize the value of the central elements of mastery learning and their importance in effective teaching at any level of education. Similar elements provide the foundation for more recently developed instructional approaches including differentiated instruction (Tomilson, 2003) and understanding by design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). As a result, fewer studies focus on the mastery learning process, per se. Instead, researchers are looking for ways to enhance results further, adding additional elements to the mastery learning process that positively contribute to student learning in hopes of attaining even more impressive gains (Bloom, 1984a, 1984b, 1988; Walberg, 1990). Recent work on the integration of mastery learning with other innovative strategies appears especially promising (Arredondo & Block, 1990; Guskey, 1988b, 1990a, 1990b; 1997b; Motamedi & Sumrall, 2000).
Mastery learning will not solve all the complex problems facing educators. Nevertheless, careful attention to the elements of mastery learning allows educators at all levels to make great strides in their efforts to reduce the variation in student achievement, close achievement gaps, and help all children to learn excellently.
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