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Mastery Learning - What Is It? How Can You Implement It In Your Classroom?

Mastery Learning - What Is It? How Can You Implement It In Your Classroom?

Primary school teachers may well have heard the term ‘mastery learning’ being discussed and debated in educational circles for some time now.  But what exactly is it, and is it worth paying attention to?


Mastery learning is a particular teaching model that focuses on spending a greater proportion of class time learning subjects in-depth as opposed to covering more material but only skimming the surface of each concept or topic.


teacher helping pupil


By quickly covering more aspects of a subject, children would naturally gain a broader, more widespread knowledge of it. However, fans of mastery learning believe this could lead to children having massive gaps in their knowledge, a lack of true understanding and an inability to apply what they have learnt by themselves.


Having a solid understanding of what has been taught, and having the confidence to apply learning in a variety of contexts, are vital aspects of children’s learning. Mastery learning encourages teachers to structure lessons so less is covered but more is learnt, and to go at a steadier pace, to deepen pupils understanding – thus providing them with richer and more meaningful classroom experiences.


If children don't truly grasp a concept or they simply memorise knowledge without properly understanding it, they will struggle to apply it outside of the context in which it was taught, and this essentially is useless. If however, they gain a thorough knowledge of each topic and concept, they will be better equipped to transfer this and apply it in any given scenario.


The essential principles of the mastery learning method include:

  • Teaching less but learning more
  • Evidence-based learning
  • Real-life applications of knowledge
  • Continual in-class assessment and verbal feedback during class
  • Focusing on a singular idea or concept until it is understood by all pupils
  • More intense, focused learning


Embracing this method means perhaps rejecting some of the standard elements of a typical lesson such as:

  • Covering lots of ideas in a short space of time
  • Separating children into groups of differing abilities
  • Lots of homework assignments that require formal marking
  • Regular formal testing


Mastery learning has, in fact, proven to be an effective way for children to learn. It is thought that if children are given the time and space to get to grips with a subject, they are far less likely to find that the information goes ‘in one ear and out of the other.’ If too much material is covered at any one time pupils struggle to retain the information, and some may confuse concepts or misunderstand them. By ensuring that pupils instead gain a complete and thorough understanding, and by testing their ability to apply their knowledge in different scenarios as they learn, teachers can rest assured that the content of the lesson has been deeply ingrained in their pupils, and is, therefore, more likely to stick.


By providing each student with sufficient time, attention and help, children’s potential for learning can significantly increase. Mastery learning favours the idea that every student can learn and understand the content of a lesson if they are given sufficient time to enable them to do so. Instilling pupils with the belief that they are capable of learning, and learning well, can prove invaluable when it comes to ensuring each member of your class reaches their full potential.


Of course, mastery learning is not without its critics. Naturally, while there is a curriculum to get through and tests to prepare for, it is challenging for primary school teachers to find the necessary time for in-depth learning. There is also the argument that slower-learning pupils may benefit more from this technique at the expense of more able students, who are left to their own devices while teachers concentrate on bringing those who do not so easily understand the content of the lesson, up to speed.


The notion that every child is capable of learning anything if it is presented to them in the right way is a wonderful one and eliminates the potential for students to feel disheartened and demotivated if they are separated into groups according to ability. It can, however, only truly work if teachers are given the time and resources to enable them to do this, as well as make adequate provision for the different paces at which children with different abilities will learn.

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