Student Success Through Mastery Learning

By Lori Strauss, Head of School

The idea of mastery learning is that students meet all the stated objectives of a particular course over time. The key concept here is “over time.” Mastery learning connotes that learning itself is what we should be striving toward, not an arbitrary date.  

Dates and deadlines are important, and students need to learn how to meet them as a part of school and in preparation for life. However, not all learning happens on the same predetermined linear schedule for every student. At its heart, mastery learning is the firm belief that every one of us can learn a particular skill or concept with enough time. At Field, we believe every student's capability extends beyond what they initially think.  

Mastery learning honors the process of learning and understands that we all learn at different rates. Though mastery learning has gained steam over the last decade, it is not a new concept in education, as it was first introduced by Benjamin Bloom in the 1960s. 

However it is different from many of our experiences as students. Do you remember sitting in 11th grade English class where you wrote a five-paragraph argumentative essay? Do you remember how you were assessed? Did your teacher share the key skills and narrative descriptions of meeting their expectations of persuasive writing? For many of us, the answer is “no.” While the course may have introduced you through lecture and reading to ethos, pathos, and logos, you ultimately had one assessment to show that you successfully retained the information and could execute on that understanding.  

This type of assessment focuses on deadlines and moving through the material instead of learning essential skills and content. You weren’t provided multiple attempts to grow your skills. Instead, your grade was earned on the date the essay was due. What if you were able to take the feedback from the five-paragraph argumentative essay in which you failed to demonstrate mastery of evidence-supported thesis statements and were provided another opportunity to master that skill? Then we would be placing a higher value on your learning than a deadline. This idea exemplifies another core value of a Field education is that personalized and nuanced feedback results in improved learning outcomes. That feedback can then be utilized to revise your assessment and grow your skills for the next assignment. That belief in every student’s ability to grow demands that we stay focused on where students finish the year or the course.  

Returning to your 11th grade English class: Your grade in the course was heavily influenced by your one grade on an essay at a particular moment in time. It didn’t matter if you demonstrated significant growth on an assignment later in the year. All of your grades were averaged without an interest in your learning over time or mastery of the skill. In this model, the focus is on the teaching and not the learning. The course is teacher-centered instead of student-centered. Teaching is easier if the classroom and assessment is organized around single, independent and fixed opportunities to show your learning. It is much harder to teach in an environment that prioritizes students by allowing them to continuously demonstrate their growth.  

Field faculty embrace the tenets of mastery learning because they echo the values of a Field education—student centered classrooms, the belief in the ability of every child, and a commitment to lifelong learning.  
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