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Mastery Learning: An basic introduction

John B Carroll inaugurated a fundamental change in thinking about the
characteristics of instruction in 1963 when he argued for the idea that student aptitudes
are reflective of an individuals learning rate. In this new paradigm, Carroll suggested
that instruction should focus more on the time required for different students to learn
the same material. This was in contrast with the classic model in which all students are
given the same amount of time to learn and the focus is on differences in ability.
He called this learning rate, LR, the degree of learning, which is demonstrated in the
LR = f ( time spent learning / time needed to learn)
This describes that the learning rate is a function of the time a learner has to learn
to the time he actually needs to learn a given situation of instruction. Carroll's new
theory was based on the idea that all learners can have the potential to learn any
instruction given, but take different amounts of time to do so. So when a learner's
aptitude is seem the context as an index or the learning rate then students are not seen
a good or bad learners, but as fast or slow learners (Guskey, 1997).
Carroll identified two factors that affected the learning rate of a student,
perseverance of the student, and the opportunity to learn. The first is controlled by the
student, that is, how much time they spend on learning, the former is the time allotted
to learn by the classroom, or access to materials, etc.
However, it was Bloom in 1968 who fully developed the concepts now known as
Mastery Learning. In the 1960s, Benjamin Bloom was involved in research on individual
differences as applied to learning. Impressed with Carrolls ideas, he took them further
by concluding that if, (1) aptitude could predict a learner's learning rate, then he
believed that it should be able to set the degree of learning expected of a student to
some level of mastery performance. Then, (2) see to the instructional variables under
an instructors control, such as the opportunity to learn and the quality of the
instruction. Thus, (3) the instructor should be able to ensure that each learner can
attain the specified objective. Bloom concluded that given sufficient time and quality
instruction, nearly all students could learn.
The theories of Mastery Learning resulted in a radical shift in responsibility for
teachers; the blame for a student's failure rests with the instruction not a lack of ability
on the part of the student. In this type of learning environment, the challenge becomes
providing enough time and employing instructional strategies so that all students can
achieve the same level of learning (Levine, 1985; Bloom, 1981). (1 of 4)2/22/2004 4:03:35 PM
Mastery Learning: A basic Introduction
How to instruct for mastery:
1. Clearly state the objectives representing the purposes of the course.
2. The curriculum is divided into relatively small learning units, each with their own
objectives and assessment.
3. Learning materials and instructional strategies are identified; teaching,
modeling, practice, formative evaluation, reteaching, reinforcement, and summative
evaluation are included.
4. Each unit is preceded by brief diagnostic tests, or formative assessments.
5. The results of formative tests are used to provide supplementary instruction, or
activities to help the learner overcome problems.
*** Time to learn must be adjusted to fit aptitude. NO STUDENT IS TO PROCEED TO NEW
As a matter of curriculum development, mastery learning does not focus on content,
but on the process of mastering it. Curriculum materials can be designed by inhouse
Instructional designers, or via a team approach various professionals in a given setting
either in a school, industry, or military. Or instructional materials can be obtained via
prepared materials from an outside commercial source. A combination of this is also
apparent. However, the instructional materials are developed or obtained, the teachers
must evaluate the materials they plan to use to ensure that they match the
instructional objectives set up for a given course of instruction.
The mastery learning model is closely aligned with the use of instructional objectives
and the systematic design of instructional (ISD) programs (see Gagne, et al). The
Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI) model of Mager of evaluating terminal behaviors
is an attempt to implement the mastery learning model. Here the instructor can assess
students progress based on the objectives of the instruction rather the traditional normreferenced
test. In addition, the theoretical framework of Skinner with its emphasis on
individualized learning and the importance of feedback (reinforcement) is also relevant
to mastery learning. Mastery learning ensures numerous feedback loops, based on small
units of well-defined, appropriately sequenced outcomes.
A quick summary: (2 of 4)2/22/2004 4:03:35 PM
Mastery Learning: A basic Introduction
Mastery Learning, ML, is an instructional strategy based on the principle that all
students can learn a set of reasonable objectives with appropriate instruction and
sufficient time to learn. ML puts the techniques of tutoring and individualized
instruction into a group learning situation and brings the learning strategies of
successful students to nearly all the students of a given group. In its full form it includes
a philosophy, curriculum structure, instructional model, the alignment of student
assessment, and a teaching approach.
1.Students have prerequisite skills to move to next unit
2.Requires teachers to do task analysis, thereby becoming better prepared to teach
the unit
3.Requires teachers to state objectives before designating activities
4.Can break cycle of failure (especially important for minority and disadvantaged
Disadvantages (easily dealt with in most cases):
1.Not all students will progress at same pace; this requires students who have
mastery to wait for those who have not or to individualize instruction
2.Must have a variety of materials for remediation:
3.Must have several tests for each unit
4.If only objective tests are used, can lead to memorizing and learning specifics
rather than
higher levels of learning
Block, J. H. (1971). Mastery Learning: Theory and Practice. New York: Holt, Rinehart &
Block, J. H., Efthim, H. E., & Burns, R.B. (1989). Building Effective Mastery Learning
Schools. New York: Longman.
Bloom, B.S. (1981). All Our Children Learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Carroll, J. B. (1963). A model of school learning. Teachers College Record, 64, 723-733.
Gagne, R. (1977). The conditions of learning (3rd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & (3 of 4)2/22/2004 4:03:35 PM
Mastery Learning: A basic Introduction
Gagne, R., & Briggs, L. Principles of instructional design (2nd ed.). New York: Holt,
Rinehart, & Winston.
Guskey, Thomas R. (1997). Implementing Mastery Learning (2nd ed.). Wadeswoth
Levine, D. (1985). Improving Student Achievement Through Mastery Learning Programs.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mager, R. (1975). Preparing Instructional Objectives (2nd Edition). Belmont, CA: Lake
Publishing Co.
Mager, R. & Pipe, P. (1984). Analyzing Performance Problems, or You Really Oughta
Wanna (2nd
Edition). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.
Mager, R. (1988). Making Instruction Work. Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.
Skinner, B. F.
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