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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Using Mastery Learning for Success with Difficult Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I tried every trick in the book: framing the lesson, detailed instructions, hands-on learning, proximity, hand signals, rewards, punishment, and ultimatums -- all to no avail. My middle school Spanish students continued to want to chat, throw paper airplanes, get out of their seats, and disrupt instruction. Only two things that seemed to work in getting my students to pay attention were total physical response (TPR) and worksheets.

I was in a quandary because I couldn't do TPR all the time and I only do worksheets as a last resort- though I was reaching that point very quickly.

In taking inventory of the situation (called reflection), I realized that several of the students already had Spanish language skills, and that these were some of the ring leaders of classroom disruption. Rather than let their energies be used to disrupt the class, I decided to enlist their aid in helping the students learn in Spanish. This takes some trust and certainly is a risk.

Defining Mastery Learning

I couldn't have them doing my job of teaching, but I could have them help the student to gain mastery over Spanish basics that I had already taught through a system called mastery learning.

So what is mastery learning? The concept is simple: Students master concepts and skills before going onto other learning. How do you know they mastered it? You give them tests. If they do not reach mastery, then they go back and study and take the test again until they pass it. Benjamin Bloom, of Bloom's Taxonomy fame, came up with mastery learning in 1971. This was a time when leveled readers became popular, as well as many other "go at your own pace" programs.

I had noticed that because of the unruly nature of my Spanish classes, a large portion of students had not mastered some of the real basics of Spanish using traditional methods. I also discovered that some of the basic concepts of Spanish that they should have learned the year before had not been learned. I realize that part of the difficulty is that I am teaching a high school level course in middle school, and the other part is that learning languages is not easy, no matter what age.

In the Classroom

The first thing I did was to find basic explanations of Spanish concepts and put them in study sheets that my Spanish speaking helpers could help the students understand as they individually reviewed the information. Using the mastery-learning concept, I engaged these Spanish speakers to help small groups of students in my class (no more than five) to master concrete concepts such as plural of nouns, verb agreement, and subject pronouns. They read through the sheets and they looked at the examples together.

The Spanish speaking helper would ask "checking for understanding" questions and once they felt their small group was ready, they would administer a small quiz on that subject. The students would retake the quiz until they got one hundred percent correct.

Students keep track of their progress on a chart they have in their binders. For extra motivation, I made charts with their student numbers and placed them on the wall and would fill in a square for each concept mastered.

After five concepts mastered, the students get certificates of mastery. Twice a week the class time is dedicated to mastery learning while the other three days I focus on conversation, vocabulary development, and pronunciation.

Refocusing the effort of my Spanish-speaking students using mastery learning has made all the difference. I am happy to report that the misbehavior was curbed to a great extent and the students were able to focus on learning Spanish once again. What are your successes with mastery learning?

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