Mastery learning: what is it? Well, the concept is quite easy: Students learn to master a variety of skill sets before going onto other areas of learning. Mastery learning tests are administered to each student to ensure they have reached a certain level of mastery. If the test is not passed, a repeat test is given until the respective student passes.
Introduced by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom around 1968 as a theory that would reduce achievement gaps between students, mastery learning has become a very popular school of thought. In a mastery-learning classroom, teachers track a sequence of concepts and skills in certain individuals. After the initial instruction is given and the instructor feels his or her students have reached a point where they are ready for testing, an assessment is handed out which usually gives students an idea of what is to be presented to them in the future. Students are also able to give feedback which helps teachers identify where their students are struggling and can pinpoint ineffective strategies.
Mastery learning is a well-documented tool used widely in education systems around the world, including the realm of special needs learning. However, maintaining complete cooperation while implementing mastery learning into a program working with special needs children can prove difficult without the utilization of proper methods. To understand this, one must first address the reasons for why a student may resist learning, ranging from parental divorce, anger, self-esteem issues, attention deficit, peer pressure or depression. With a recent study by the Huffington Post showing that 45% of college students feel as if they don’t learn much while attending school, it’s clear that some revitalization is in order.
But what about students and their desire to learn? That desire is generally rooted from the first time they step into a classroom. Students held up to high, yet realistic, expectations and who have teachers who respond to their work with constructive and engaging criticism is fundamental in not just mastery learning theory but education systems as a whole. Certainly, motivating students by responding to their work will lower a student’s anxiety and resistance level in a classroom. Teachers can respond to a student’s work with rewards, encouragement and reinforcement.
Educators should cultivate a student’s individual ability to learn. Based on the above understanding of motivation, learning, and resistance combined with increased advancements as a student surpasses each task placed before them, teaching should be goal based and aimed at changing behavior which establishes lasting learning experiences. Teachers should also establish positive ways of breaking walls prevalent in resistant learners by giving problematic students a reason to act, creating enthusiasm in the teaching and learning processes. This also taps into forces determining behavior such as biological, emotional, cognitive, or social forces that activate and direct behavior.
So what can be done to implement mastery learning techniques? Most teachers do have the understanding that learning comes naturally to anyone who is motivated to do so. We’re picking up information about our environment, calculating correlations and contingencies, in a naive but essentially scientific process of experimentation and statistical analysis, formulating, testing, and revising theories about how the world and how we work. This attempt to predict and control, established effort and the search for meaning, is the essence of the learning process.
Learning comes naturally, but teachers can play a role in creating an optimal environment for learning to occur. That includes the student’s values, goals, and motives; and it also includes the interpersonal and institutional framework in which the individual student’s learning activities take place. And, bringing us back to cognition much depends on how these social factors are perceived. The interests, values, goals, and motives that students bring to the learning environment are at least as important as the abilities and strategies that they bring to the task of learning.
Mastery learning theorists and practitioners clearly (and forcefully) assert that a mastery approach is useful for any subject and for higher-order thinking skills. Any project that uses mastery learning only in the service of a few subjects or in simple recall areas is doing it a disservice. Benjamin Bloom’s major criticism stated that many teachers and programs in the US tend to focus only on the first and second levels of cognitive thinking. Thus, in some instances, mastery learning in special needs activities could be open to this same criticism, but requires persistence and perseverance to achieve any sort of substantial positive result.