Education Moving Forward

Why schools should start using mastery based learning even after students are back in person full-time.


Elly Keyes, Reporter

This year has seen many changes. With a global pandemic, national protests, and raging wildfires; every aspect of our society is being changed, and education is no exception. In order to take the necessary safety steps, schools across the United States have transitioned to an online learning format as opposed to in-person. It has become nearly impossible to use more traditional learning methods which rely on a classroom setting. However, moving away from the traditional learning style can only benefit students and should progress even after students have returned to fully in-person.

Outdated Concepts in Traditional Learning

Traditional education is based on the idea of “seat time” or advancement in grades based on the amount of time a student has spent in a classroom in a classroom. This presents a number of challenges such as meaning that a student moves on whether they have fully understood the material or not as long as they receive a passing grade. Often in traditional learning students are given large amounts of information to memorize without it being clear how this will be relevant to their everyday lives, and the idea of teaching by lecturing in class means that students who are absent often miss critical pieces of a lesson. Concepts that fall under the idea of traditional learning have become increasingly outdated. One alternative form of learning, mastery based learning, has become more relevant than ever in today’s climate, though the popularity of this idea has been increasing for the past decade.

What is Mastery Based Learning?

Mastery based learning is a way of presenting a curriculum that allows students to move at their own pace. Rather than a student’s success being based on time, it is based on whether they have reached proficiency in a subject. This structure promotes the idea of a flexibility that allows both teachers and students to thrive. Mastery based learning encourages students to take on more responsibility in their own learning as they work through various video lessons, class discussions, and assignments. There is also more transparency in the curriculum for students as it is made clear from the beginning of a unit how the information they learn will be valuable later. 

Learning at Shawnee Heights

At Shawnee Heights specifically, mastery based learning started in classrooms at the beginning of this school year as its flexibility would solve the problems faced with a lack of in-person contact.

“In August we had quite a few days of professional development on the calendar, and our teachers worked really hard over those two and a half weeks to learn the essence of mastery based learning, learning the elements that we really wanted to spend our time focusing on,” Shannon O’Connor said. “Then, they spent a lot of time collaborating with one another, both within their departments and across the building, in order to create a system where mastery based learning was possible.”  O’Connor is the high school instructional coach, and guided the teachers over the summer when preparing for hybrid learning. O’Connor herself learned about mastery based learning through a program called the Modern Classroom Project, which focuses on helping teachers to implement more mastery based learning techniques in schools. However, Shawnee Heights has not begun using mastery based learning across the board, but rather taken different elements such as a blended learning instruction and adapted them to the school and district’s needs. 

“For those teachers that are doing more mastery based learning, I think the importance is that it emphasizes real learning, we aren’t just asking students to do an assignment and forget it and move on. The goal is for students to demonstrate to teachers ‘I understand this concept. I know this skill. And so I’m ready to build on it by going to the next step.’ And that’s really powerful. I really find it very invigorating, that we are truly focused on learning material, rather than just completing assignments,” O’Connor said.

Use Before the Pandemic

Although some teachers have only just begun mastery based learning this year, others began using long before the pandemic.

“The research shows overwhelmingly that student-paced mastery learning gets far closer to that one on one tutoring effect than traditional classrooms do. And so that’s why I did it, I realized that students were leaving my class getting credit for my class, but they could copy their homework, they could copy their labs from their lab partners, they could fail their tests and still get credit. Even if it was a D, they’re still getting credit for my class. And I wasn’t okay with that,” Dr. Kelly Morgan said. “I wasn’t okay with the fact that I wasn’t showing respect for every student and where they were.”

Morgan is currently a teacher of Physics and Integrated Sciences A and B at Shawnee Heights. She has used mastery based learning since 2007, when she began looking into it while earning her PHD and found that the research overwhelmingly supported the idea of self-paced mastery learning. She enjoys benefits such as better getting to know her students and seeing their self-confidence increase as the year progresses. 

One area which has been criticized not only in mastery based learning, but in online and blended learning in general is the fact that teachers are “no longer teaching” their students as they release instructional videos rather than in-person lecturing, Morgan, however, argues that the opposite is true.

“The teachers, people are saying, you know, teachers aren’t teaching. It’s actually more work to do, because I have kids spread out. I have to within one class period switch my thinking and help them with that lab or that section or that checkout, and I have to prepare all of that ahead of time so kids can go at their own pace. I have to prepare multiple versions of mastery checks so that kids can retake stuff,” Morgan said. “So it actually is a lot more work, and I knew that going into it in 2007. And I was like, ‘Am I sure that I want to do this because it is a lot of work.’ But I just kept looking at the research. And I kept saying, I want those benefits. And then, you know, years later, I see those benefits in my room. They’re actually true, they actually happen.” 

What’s the Takeaway? 

In the case of mastery based learning, it has been found that smaller rather than drastic changes are necessary to ensure a smooth transition. However, this method of learning is more beneficial for both teachers and students in terms of making sure concepts are fully understood. Although this has been the solution for many schools to online learning because it means students who are absent or can’t see a teacher everyday are able to get all the necessary material, mastery based learning has the potential to become a permanent fixture in schools even after students are back full-time.