Mastery Learning – Education part 1

Mastery learning is a form of teaching that is centred around students reaching a certain level of mastery of a subject before advancing to the next class. More akin to the teaching methods employed when teaching Karate or the guitar, this method has been proven to provide superior results as compared to traditional classroom learning.

Why is it then, that if mastery based learning is so much better, that we still teach the same way we have been for the last 200 years?

This is the first part of a series, where the Hamilton Gazette breaks down issues related to education and the systems around it, as well as propose alternatives to the methods that have become so ingrained in our society over the last decades.

One of the most fundamentally important things in any society is the education of their young. Children and young adults need to be educated for the tasks they will be facing in their adult lives.

Before we lived in cities with million of inhabitants, we lived in small tribes, and it was up to each tribe to educate their young, and make sure they were up to the – sometimes frightening – tasks of adulthood.

Different tribes had different ways of going about this task, but something that was common in most tribes was some sort of test, to ensure that the young member of the tribe was able to make it as an adult. Most known examples include some sort of separation, seclusion and suffering, subsequent to reincorporation into the group or tribe. The point is, they needed to prove they were able to take care of themselves and survive on their own.   

While today’s transition is more gradual, and less painful, it definitely still can involve some suffering – as any student to sit through an advanced statistics class will attest to.

More to the point however, is the fact that the state has taken over the role of the tribe in many aspects of society and education is one of them (in the overwhelming majority of cases). This can be problematic if it is not done correctly, and I in this article series I will address some of the fundamental issues of education as well as some possible solutions.

Specialization means need for (improved) education

We are living in an economy that is more specialized than ever, and as such we need more specialized – i.e. better educated – people than ever before. This means that we can’t afford to drop people whose potential has gone unfulfilled along the wayside. Furthermore, we need to be aware of the fact that as a society, investing in human capital pays off significantly more than investment in physical capital. Or translated to non-economic speak – the best investment we can make is in education. This goes for individuals as well as for societies.

One of the most basic issues education faces is how the curriculum is taught. The fact of the matter is, that because there are so many people of different ability in the class, more often than not the teacher has to teach to the lowest denominator to make sure to include everyone. This ensures that the worst students are just able to cross the finish-mark and reach the desired level, whereas the mediocre and superior students are forced to learn at a slower pace than what they would actually prefer.

Furthermore there is the issue that once class is over it’s over, so if there are any gaps in your knowledge at that point, you’re not going to go back and revisit them, and make sure they’re corrected. Instead you just move on the next subject, and hope for the best. This means that eventually our knowledge will be chock full of gaps and holes in our knowledge, meaning that with the way we teach today, only the rarest of students will have a 100% mastery over any given subject, unless they engage in self-study to correct their gaps. And not many do, because they believe that what they know is good enough, because that is what the school system teaches them. They teach them this by allowing them to pass a subject if they have just 50% mastery of a subject. If I have 50% knowledge of how to wire my house, chances are I’ll get electrocuted, because I have no idea what I’m doing. The same goes for advanced calculus or macroeconomics – maybe I won’t die, but I’ll not be able to do anything productive with my limited knowledge on this subject.

Let’s step back a bit and look at this like we are building a house. If I start by laying the foundation, and do it to an 80% skill level and move on to the next part and do that at 70% and so on, then once I finish the house, it is going to be absolutely terrible, and almost uninhabitable. The same is true of our education. The fact is, we use so many resources to measure our students and try to achieve marginal gains – which is applaudable by the way – but if we truly want to become better, we need to completely change the way the education system works and the way we teach.

Today, grades are based on the normal distribution. This means that instead of judging how well a given student has mastered the material presented to him or her, we instead grade on how the students place themselves relative to each other. What this boils down to is a grading system which groups students in to five quartiles, based on the normal distribution. The thing about the normal distribution is that it is designed to describe chance and random activity. Hopefully this is not how we perceive our educational system – as chance-laden and random. Hopefully we perceive the education of our young as purposeful and specific, designed to achieve a certain outcome.

The way we test students’ learning abilities has led many to believe that there is a direct correlation between aptitude and achievement. This means that some people are smart enough to learn the intricacies of a given subject, while others are simply – and sadly – not. This is simply just not the case. Instead, what we are testing for is how long it takes someone to master a given subject, and just because a student has not been able to grasp what has been put in front of them in the assigned time, does not mean that they are not able to get it. When students are allowed to learn at their own pace we see that “Although most students eventually reach mastery on each learning task, some students achieve mastery much sooner than do other students”.

To get a sense of the significant difference between the different styles of teaching, check out this illustration

This means that we need to stop testing for test scores, and start teaching for mastery.

Teaching for Mastery

Mastery learning is not a new concept, and is employed across a great variety of disciplines, such as martial arts (think belt-grading) and music. The basic idea is that you need to be able to grasp the concepts and apply them in a meaningful way, before you move on to the next stage. To translate this into a concept that could be applied in a standard high-school classroom would mean that a student would need to score at least 90% on a test before being allowed to move on. If they are not able to pass the class, then they receive more instruction and are tested again, until they are able to move on to the next level.

Teaching for mastery involves individualized teaching, and Bloom found that students who receive one-to-one tutoring do a lot better (by two standard deviations to be exact) than people receiving standard classroom schooling. When using this method, it is important to emphasize that there are a few things that need to be in place to succeed. First of all the teacher needs to approach the material sensitively and systematically, help the student when they encounter difficulties, give the student sufficient time to master the material and have a clear goal in terms of what constitutes mastery.

To show you just how powerful this method is, and to illustrate the difference in potential between mastery-learning and traditional learning let me give you the following point:
In traditional classrooms, the relationship between aptitude – what we’ve agreed is the speed at which people learn – and their final score in algebra on an algebra test is extremely high. The relation however, between the two for students receiving one-to-one tutoring is almost zero. It’s important to keep in mind however, that as with anything, this kind of teaching is also subject to the student being willing to learn.

Adhering to the method of mastery-based learning has obvious and tangible benefits. In one study the amount of students receiving an A from 20% to 80% in a given class, and the following year – as methods and practices were improved upon – was raised to 90%.

The fact of the matter is that mastery based learning has been one of the most highly researched areas of teaching in the last 50 years, and the findings are undeniable. When implemented correctly mastery based learning has achieved resounding success.

Free benefits

MBL also has less tangible benefits than the ones outlined above, such as grouping people together by ability instead of age. This could mean minimizing bullying and other negative manifestations of low self-esteem, simply due to the fact that people realize that they are able to learn, and don’t feel marginalized in school.

This would likely also give people a sense of pride in learning, and inspire a higher motivation for learning a subject as well as develop a lifelong interest in learning.

Another derived benefit of a better education system is more innovation, more advances in technology and more growth. All things considered better educated societies are better off. This means reduced crime rates, people better equipped to deal with problems, overall better social skills and all in all more well-being, individually as well as a society.

Can we implement mastery based learning?

The advent of the internet and online classrooms has made MBL more feasible than ever. It means that students can learn at their own pace, and use teachers as tutors, helping them with individual problems, instead of (mis)-spending their resources in an inefficient and over-crowded physical classroom.

Why do we still teach the old-fashioned way?

Education is one of the areas that we as a society focus most on improving. The good news is that we realize its importance. The bad news is that we’re going about improving it the wrong way.

Instead of continuing to do, what we’ve done for the past 60 years or so, which is trying to make incremental improvements, and achieving marginal gains on a fundamentally flawed method, we should look at the method itself, and see if that could be improved. Which it can.

The thing about the education system is that is more often than not run by a government. Meaning that it’s based on a system that is highly bureaucratic, and not very prone to change. Add to that the fact that there is no incentive to change, because there are no governments who have instituted this on a country-wide basis, or at least on a wide enough basis for someone else to take notice.

The other notable thing is that innovation is not something that happens intrinsically, especially not in these types of systems. innovation needs to be pushed forward, and if there is no outside stimulus, then there is never going to be innovation. The thing is – what is going to affect this type of system from the outside to cause change? I’m having a hard time seeing it. If anything it needs to be a visionary from outside the school system revolutionizing the sector in a single country, which other countries are then forced to emulate.


No matter how you look at it, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the method with which we’re currently teaching is hopelessly outdated, and what more is, we can do better. The only reason we’re not is because of flawed incentives, and a lack of outside pressure on one of the most important institutions of society. I believe we have an obligation to do better, and I believe the solution is simple, straightforward, inexpensive and attainable.

This is a fairly low-hanging fruit, and all it needs is a ballsy first-mover who has the courage to do things differently from how they have been done in the past, i.e. the very essence of innovation.

Lastly, but most importantly, having a better educated society makes everyone better off, and that alone is reason enough to make a change for the better.

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