Time to Comprehend: The Benefits of Mastery Learning
The pursuit of knowledge is somewhat of a necessity, and a privilege of life. We spend years, even decades, in education in search of wisdom and intelligence. But learning and discerning is not the same for everybody. Different brains absorb and comprehend things at vastly varying levels of proficiency. Someone might be a whiz with words and struggle with numbers, while another be a math-magician yet think Tagalog is a telecommunications provider (it’s not – it’s a language!).
The standard style of teaching the world over is mostly a one-size-fits-all approach, where the educator teaches a set course with little regard for the individual’s needs or unique experience, but rather, tending to the speed of information retention by the majority of the class, bound by a requirement to cover all course material within a board-approved timescale. And that works, for the most part. But it’s not the only way to approach learning.
What is Mastery Learning?
The philosophy of mastery learning has been around for more than half a century, though it has likely been brought further into the light more recently due to the learning opportunities afforded us by a global pandemic. Perhaps it has even created a whole new demographic of learners: up-skillers in a changing working environment; part-time wage-earners on reduced rosters; newly-unemployed hard-grafters looking to diversify qualifications during job-hunting responsibilities.
In its simplest form, mastery learning aims for students to reach a desired predetermined level of competency – acquiring knowledge, skills or attitudes, and completing formative assessments – before advancing to the next part of a course. In essence, it allows you to learn at your own pace in more consumable pieces.
First proposed by American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom in the ‘Sixties – molded from countryman John B Carroll’s A Model of School Learning – “learning for mastery”, as it was initially labeled, postulated that most students can attain a high level of learning capability if four situational conditions are met. Namely, a) instruction is approached sensitively and systematically, b) students are helped when and where they have learning difficulties, c) students are given sufficient time to achieve mastery, and d) there is some clear criterion of what constitutes mastery.
Does mastery learning actually work?
Extensive research suggests that it is indeed an effective way to learn. By breaking a course or subject into smaller units – a chapter in a textbook, for instance – with a certain level of continuous assessment that ensures students fully understand each section before they can move on – and that they can demonstrate that newly-learned knowledge – the likelihood of “final exam anxiety” is reduced (given the absence of a big end-of-course test).
For those with attention-span deficits, or difficulty prioritizing tasks, mastery learning can offer a reprieve from regimented, fast-paced education. Over 50 years of research attests to mastery learning studies delivering higher achievement rates – 90 percent of over 22,000 studied – and positive student attitudes. The fact that students cannot progress until they truly comprehend the coursework, and can display as much, feeds a self-confidence in their capabilities.
Teaching old dogs new tricks
We’re under no illusions about the obstacles of education in adulthood. It is widely understood that learning becomes more difficult as we age; it’s the unwelcome result of an aging brain’s cognitive deterioration. In Greek philosopher Aristotle’s day, more than 2,000 years ago, the educated believed that human memory was akin to a tabula rasa, or wax tablet: hot, soft and pliable at birth, but over time, as it cools, it becomes too tough and brittle to form distinct impressions. And modern day’s neuroplasticity science kind of backs that up to an extent. But there’s an incredible trove of research analysis that shows older adults can still learn new skills, form new memories, and improve vocabulary and language skills.
Bloom’s mastery learning theory encourages lifelong learning, and education for all. So, by definition, it can absolutely be applied to adults and teach old dogs new tricks. Studies have shown that adults don’t store incoming information or organize it as efficiently as a younger mind – but that’s precisely why learning at our own speed becomes so important to our educational enlightenment.
Mastery learning is about taking your time. Time to discern; time to apply; time to master. And it stems an influx of information before it has the chance to advance beyond comprehension. Being given the mental space to learn and succeed will build confidence in a person’s own skills, and help them better understand their learning requirements moving forward.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Blooms Mastery Learning Theory: Implications On Adult Education; Effectiveness of Mastery Learning Programs: A Meta-Analysis; A Practical Review of Mastery Learning; Mastery Learning Approach (MLA): Its Effects On The Students Mathematics Academic Achievement; What is Mastery Learning Model? Definition, Principles, and Examples.
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