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Mastery Learning

What is mastery learning?

Traditional teaching keeps the time spent on a topic constant and allows pupils understanding of that topic to vary. For example, spending two weeks of the half term on addition and then moving onto subtraction after the two weeks is up. Mastery learning flips this. It keeps the pupils understanding of the topic constant but allows for the time spent on the unit of work to vary. For example, certain outcomes and objectives for addition would be set and pupils would continue to work towards these outcomes until all pupils have achieved them, only then would the class move onto subtraction. Mastery learning breaks the learning content down into units, which have clear objectives. These objectives are pursued until they are achieved by all pupils. Pupils must demonstrate a high level of understanding for the objectives before they progress to the next unit. Mastery learning also requires the pupils who do not meet the required level for the objectives to have additional teaching, either through; additional tuition, peer support or homework so that the objectives can be reached at the expected level. This ensures that all children met all objectives at the expected level.

Mastery learning uses formative and summative assessments to systematically monitor pupils’ progress. Pupils are then given comprehensive feedback which highlights what they need to do to close the gap between their current performance and the desired outcomes of the unit. Mastery learning approaches provide pupils with specific feedback at regular intervals. This allows pupils to understand where they have been successful and where they need to develop, therefore allowing pupils to take more responsibility for their learning.

The Philosophy and Rationale behind Mastery Learning

A vital component of mastery learning is its educational philosophy. The beliefs which form the basis for mastery learning make bold, optimistic statements, which may appear far-fetched at first. The belief system of mastery learning was first introduced by Benjamin Bloom in the 1960s, and started with two basic assumptions:

1) Virtually all students can learn all important academic content to a level of excellence.

2) The primary function of schools is to define learning objectives and to help all students to achieve them.

Bloom originally believed that the difference between good learners and other learners was the pace in which they learnt new content. He stated that good learners would learn new, complex content quicker than other learners. He believed that all learners could equally learn the new, complex content, just at a slow pace. However, after years of research and evidence-collection, Bloom introduced the third assumption.

3) If students are given favourable learning conditions, even the differences in their rate of learning disappear. In other words, given the correct learning conditions, 95% of all students are capable of learning the same amount of material to the same level of difficulty at the same rate and with the same attitude toward learning.

This third assumption is now the core belief of mastery learning.

What evidence is there to support mastery learning?

Evidence through meta-analyses has shown that mastery learning approaches are effective and can lead to an additional five months of progress. However, evidence has shown that the effects of mastery learning cluster around two points. Two of the meta-analyses show little or no impact, while the rest of the meta-analyses show an impact of six months additional progress. The variation in these results suggests that mastery learning is challenging to implement successfully.

With such a variation in the impact of mastery learning, the challenge educators face is how to implement mastery learning effectively in order for pupils to make additional progress. The evidence from the meta-analyses has found that mastery learning is particularly effective when pupils work in groups and take responsibility for supporting the learning and progress of their class-mates. Evidence also indicates the importance of high expectations for mastery, with the bar set at around 80%-90% on relevant testing in order to state that mastery of the objective has been achieved.

Mastery learning also appears to be most effective when used as an occasional teaching strategy or in addition to usual teaching. Mastery learning programmes that ran for less than 12 weeks tended to report a higher impact than longer programmes, therefore teachers may wish to use mastery learning approaches to teach particularly challenge topics and concepts, rather than in all lessons.

Finally, evidence shows that mastery learning could be a promising strategy for narrowing the attainment gap. Low-attaining pupils could gain one or two more months of additional progress from mastery learning than high-attaining pupils. However, this highlights the potential challenge of ensuring that high-attaining pupils are constantly and consistently challenged during the mastery learning process. Educators need to consider how to manage the time and continually challenge the high-attaining pupils, who make progress more quickly.

How can I implement mastery approaches in my classroom?
  • Utilise group work and peer to peer support within the classroom to allow pupils to take responsibility for supporting their class-mates.
  • Communicate the objectives and your expectations of mastery to pupils. Provide pupils with regular and specific feedback on their progress towards the given objective.
  • Set high expectations of mastery, look for between 80%-90% scores on relevant testing and communicate this expectation to your pupils.
  • Use mastery learning strategies in addition to your usual teaching strategy. Perhaps try mastery learning for new, complex content that you are introducing for the first time.

Education Endowment Foundation 2018. Mastery Learning. [Online]
Available at: file:///E:/1.%202018-2019/Evidence/Mastery/EEF-mastery-learning.pdf
[Accessed 12 12 2018].

John Hopkins Mastery Learning Manual. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 12 12 2018].