In "How to Bring ‘Mastery Learning’ to the Classroom," EdSurge writer and podcaster Stephen Noonoo describes mastery learning as the idea that the pace of classroom instruction should be determined by “what each student is ready to learn, as a way to ensure they’re really grasping material.” But educators interested in implementing mastery based learning may struggle with the logistics, like scheduling and assessment.
The former high school biology and anatomy teacher Cara Johnson—now an instructional specialist—developed a flipped mastery program which she shared with Noonoo’s EdSurge podcast at the 2019 ASCD Empower conference. By creating short videos of her instruction and allowing students to move at their own pace, Johnson flipped the classroom and put the emphasis on self-paced mastery rather than on whole-class tests and deadlines.
For each concept she wanted students to learn, Johnson made a short video of less than 10 minutes covering the topic. Students watched the video at home and then practiced the concept in class through a game, activity, or online exercise, for example, before taking an assessment called a short mastery check to assess whether they were ready to proceed to the next lesson. Johnson suggests limiting each video to only one concept; otherwise, it is difficult to distinguish where the lack of comprehension happened if a student fails the mastery check.
“They would go to a separate place in the classroom—no notes, no cell phones, no talking, just them and their brain—and they would answer a few questions,” Johnson told Noonoo. “If they were successful, they would move onto the concept. If they struggled and they were not successful in that mastery check, then I sent them back to practice some more.”
The flipped approach allows Johnson to devote more one-on-one time to her students. “The whole time all of this is happening, I’m bouncing around student to student, tracking where they are, measuring what they’ve learned and what they haven’t learned and identifying misconceptions,” said Johnson, referring to the in-class practice and mastery checks.
To make her own time manageable, she uses a cup system where a student turns their cup to green to signal when he or she is struggling or needs special attention. She also adds interviews to her mastery checks, asking students a series of questions to double-check for mastery before they move on.
A pacing calendar helps make sure every student is on-track to master each topic by the end of the year. If students fall too far behind, Johnson calls a one-on-one meeting to talk about how to best get back on track. She asks, “What are you going to do to catch up? In this plan, the focus was more on what are you doing every day in class? How are you deciding to use your time?” Filling in a blank calendar together with specific goals for each class period shows a lagging student a clear path forward to mastery.
The transition to a mastery-based approach was not easy, NooNoo writes. For students who were accustomed to scoring a less-than-perfect grade and moving to the next topic, the requirement of mastery before progressing was daunting.
It took a few months for the parents and students to understand the merit of the new system. Students eventually “realized the value of really having the opportunity to retake assessments and continue to practice until they learn it,” Johnson said. “They started to understand how to be learners and use their time wisely in the classroom and become organized.”
Perhaps Johnson’s biggest tip for teachers who want to implement this kind of flipped mastery in their classrooms? Communication. Sending parents the instructional videos as well as a video of her classroom in action set the expectations for their kids. When parents understand the focus on learning over grades, she says, they become supportive of the mastery practices.