Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 8: Instructional Strategies/Mastery Learning

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Mastery Learning

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This term refers to an instructional approach in which all students learn material to an identical, high level, even if some students require more time than others to do so (Gentile, 2004).[1] In mastery learning the teacher directs learning, though sometimes only in the indirect sense of finding, writing, and orchestrating specific modules or units for students to learn. In one typical mastery learning program, the teacher introduces a few new concepts or topics through a brief lecture or teacher-led demonstration. Then she might give an ungraded assignment or test immediately in order to assess how well students have learned the material, and which children still need help with it. The students who have already learned the unit are given enrichment activities. Those needing more help are provided with individual tutoring or with additional self-guiding materials that clarify the initial content; they work until they have in fact mastered the content (hence the name mastery learning). At that point students take another test or do another assignment to show that they have in fact learned the material to the expected, high standard. When the system is working well, therefore, all students can in principle end up with the highest scores or grades, although some usually take longer to do so than others.

As you might suspect, mastery learning poses two challenges. The first is ethical: is it really fair to give enrichment only to faster students and remediation only to slower students? This practice could deteriorate into continually rewarding the fast with interesting enrichment material, while continually punishing the slow with repetitious material. In using the approach, therefore, it is important to make all materials interesting, whether enrichment or remedial. It is also important to make sure that the basic learning goals of each unit are truly important—even crucial—for everyone to learn, so that even slower individuals spend their time well.

The other challenge of mastery learning is more practical: the approach makes strong demands for detailed, highly organized curriculum. If the approach is to work, the teacher must either find such a curriculum, write one herself, or assemble a suitable mixture of published and self-authored materials. However it is created, the end result has be a program filled with small units of study as well as ample enrichment and remedial materials. Sometimes these practical requirements can be challenging to provide. But not always; some subjects (like mathematics) lend themselves to detailed, sequential organization especially well. In many cases, too, commercial publishers have produced curricula already organized for use as a mastery learning program (Fox, 2004).[2]

Direct Instruction

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Sometimes this term serves as a synonym for teacher-directed instruction, but more often direct instruction refers to a relatively scripted version of mastery learning, meaning that it not only organizes the curriculum into small modules or units, but it also dictates how teachers should teach, including even the words they should speak while teaching (Adams & Engelmann, 1996; Magliaro, Lockee, & Burton, 2005).[3][4] The organization and teaching scripts are based on a mix of ideas from behaviorism and cognitive theories of learning. In keeping with behaviorism, for example, the teacher is supposed to praise students immediately and explicitly when they give a correct answer. In keeping with cognitive theory, on the other hand, she is supposed to state learning objectives in advance of teaching them (providing a sort of mini-advance organizer), and provide frequent reviews of materials and checks on how well students are learning. The teacher is also supposed to introduce material in small, logical steps, giving individuals plenty of time to practice.

Direct instruction programs share one of the challenges of other mastery learning programs: because they hold all students to the same high standard of achievement, they must deal with differences in how long students require to reach the standard. But direct instruction has another challenge of its own. Such programs often rely on small-group interaction more heavily than do other mastery learning programs, and use self-guiding materials comparatively less. The good news about this difference is that direct instruction works especially well with younger students (especially kindergarten through third-grade), who may have limited literacy skills. The challenge is that heavy use of face-to-face group interaction makes it impractical to use direct instruction with an entire class, or for the entire school day. Nevertheless, within these limits, research has found direct instruction to be very effective in teaching basic skills such as early reading and arithmetic (Adams & Engelmann, 1996).[5]

Madeline Hunter’s Effective Teaching Model

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Many teacher-directed strategies have been combined by Madeline Hunter into a single, relatively comprehensive approach that she calls mastery teaching (not to be confused with the related term mastery learning) or the effective teaching model (M. Hunter, 1982; R. Hunter, 2004).[6][7] Important features of the model are summarized in Table 8-X. As you can see, its features span all phases of contact with students—before, during, and after lessons or activities.

What happens before a lesson actually begins? Like many other forms of teacher-directed instruction, the effective teaching model requires curricula and learning goals that are tightly organized and inter-related, yet divisible into small parts, ideas, or skills. In teaching about photosynthesis, for example, the teacher (or at least her curriculum) needs to identify the basic elements that contribute to this process, and how they relate to each other. With photosynthesis, the elements include the sun, plants, animals, chlorophyll, oxygen produced by plants and consumed by animals, and carbon dioxide that produced by animals and consumed by plants. The roles of these elements also need to be identified and expressed at a level appropriate for the students. With advanced science students, oxygen, chlorophyll, and carbon dioxide may be expressed as part of a complex chemical reaction; with first-grade students, though, they may be expressed simply as parts of a process akin to breathing, called respiration.

Once this analysis of the curriculum has been done, teachers using the effective teaching model make the most of the lesson time by creating an anticipatory set, which is an activity that focuses or orients the attention of students to the upcoming content. Creating an anticipatory set may consist, for example, of posing one or more questions drawing on students’ everyday knowledge or on knowledge of prior lessons. In teaching about differences between fruits and vegetables, the teacher could start by asking, “If you are making a salad strictly of fruit, which of these would be OK to use: apple, tomato, cucumber, or orange?” (Answer: all of them!) As the lesson proceeds, information needs to be offered in short, logical pieces, using language as familiar as possible to the students. Examples should be plentiful and varied: if the purpose is to define and distinguish fruits and vegetables, for example, then defining features should be presented singly or at most just a few at a time, with several clear-cut examples presented of each feature. Sometimes models or analogies also help in explaining examples, and can be used. A teacher can say, “Think of a fruit as a sort of ‘decoration’ on the plant, because if you pick it, the plant will go on living.” Models can also mislead students, however, if they are not used thoughtfully, since they may contain features that differ from the original concepts. In likening a fruit to a decoration, for example, students may overlook the essential role of fruit in plant reproduction, or think that lettuce qualifies as a fruit, since picking a few lettuce leaves does not usually kill a lettuce plant.

Throughout a lesson, the teacher repeatedly checks for understanding by asking questions that call for active thinking on the part of students. One way is to require all students to respond somehow, either with an actual choral response (speaking in unison together) or with a non-verbal signal like raising hands to indicate answers to questions. In teaching about fruits and vegetables, for example, a teacher can ask, “Here’s a list of fruits and vegetables. As I point to each one, raise your hand if it’s a fruit, but not if it’s a vegetable.” Or she can ask, “Here’s a list of fruits and vegetables. Say together what each one is as I point to it; you say ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’, whichever applies.” Even though some students may hide their ignorance by letting more knowledgeable classmates do the responding, the general level or quality of response can still give a rough idea of how well students as a group are understanding. General checks can be supplemented, of course, with questions addressed to individuals, or with questions to which individuals must respond briefly in writing. A teacher can ask everyone, “Give me an example of one fruit and one vegetable,” and then call on individuals to answer. Or she can say, “I want everyone to make a list with two columns, one listing all the fruits you can think of and the other listing all the vegetables you can think of.”

As a lesson draws to a close, the teacher arranges students to engage in further independent practice. The point of this practice is not primarily to explore new material or ideas, but to consolidate or strengthen the recent learning. At the end of a lesson about long division, for example, the teacher can make a transition to independent practice by introducing a set of additional problems similar to the ones she explained during the lesson. After working one or two with the students, she can turn the rest of the task over to the students to practice on their own. But note a proviso. For students to be fully focused and motivated, such practice has to be organized into small, meaningful amounts and students’ understanding has be checked by the teacher frequently. Even when students need a lot of practice, therefore, a long set of practice problems needs to be broken up initially into small subsets of problems, and either written or oral feedback offered in between subsets.

What Are the Limits of Teacher-Directed Instruction?

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Whatever the grade level, most of the subjects usually taught in schools have at least some features or parts that benefit from direct instruction. Even activities or skills intended to foster creativity can benefit from a direct approach at certain times: learning to draw, paint, or write a poem, for example, requires learning techniques that may be easier to learn if presented sequentially in relatively small units. Research supports the usefulness of teacher-directed instruction, when it is designed well and implemented as intended, for a variety of educational contexts (Rosenshine & Mesister,1995; Good & Brophy, 2004),[8][9] and teachers themselves tend to support the approach in principle (Demant & Yates, 2003).[10]

But there are limits to its usefulness. Some are the practical ones that we have pointed out already. Teacher-directed instruction, whatever the form, requires a well-organized curriculum, or at least requires well-organized units of instruction, in advance of when students are to learn. Such curricula or units may not always be available, and it may not always be realistic to expect busy teachers to devise their own. Other limits of teacher direction, however, have more to do with the very nature of learning. Some critics argue, for example, that organizing material on behalf of students encourages students to be passive—an ironic, but clearly undesirable side effect (Kohn, 2000, 2006).[11] According to this criticism, the mere fact that a curriculum or unit of study is constructed by a teacher (or by a curriculum writer) implies to some students that they should not seek information actively on their own, but wait for it to arrive from elsewhere. In support of this argument, critics point to the fact that teacher-directed instructional approaches sometimes contradict their own premises by including tasks requiring students to do a bit of conceptual organization of their own. This happens, for example, when a Mastery Learning program provides enrichment material to faster students to work on independently; in that case the teacher may be involved in the enrichment activities only minimally.

Considerations like these have led to additional instructional approaches that are rely more explicitly on students themselves to seek and organize their own learning. In the next section of Chapter 8, we discuss some of these options. As you will see, student-centered models of learning do tend to solve certain problems of teacher-directed instruction, but they also can have problems of their own.

(back to Chapter 8...)


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  1. Gentile, R. (2004). Assessing fundamentals in every course through mastery. In M. Achacoso & Marilla Sviniki (Eds.), New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Volume 100, pp. 15-20.
  2. Fox, E. J. (2004). The personalized system of instruction: A flexible and effective approach to mastery learning. San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press.
  3. Adams, G. & Engelmann, S. (1996). Research on direct instruction: 25 years beyond DISTAR. Seattle, WA: Educational Achievement Systems.
  4. Magliaro, S., Lockee, B., & Burton, J. (2005). Direct instruction revisited: A key model for instructional technology. Educational technology research and development, 53(4), 41-55.
  5. Adams, G. & Engelmann, S. (1996). Research on direct instruction: 25 years beyond DISTAR. Seattle, WA: Educational Achievement Systems.
  6. Hunter, M. (1982). Mastery teaching: Increasing instructional effectiveness in elementary and secondary schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  7. Hunter, R. (2004). Madeline Hunter’s mastery teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  8. Rosenshine, B., & Mesister, C. (1995). Direct instruction. In L. W. Anderson (Ed.), International encyclopedia of teaching and teacher education (pp. 143-149). Oxford: Pergamon.
  9. Good, T. & Brophy, J. (2004). Looking in classrooms, 9th edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  10. Demant, M. & Yates, G. (2003). Primary teachers’ attitudes about direct instruction. Educational psychology, 23(5), 483-489.
  11. Kohn, A. (2000). The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and “tougher standards.” Boston: Mariner Books. Kohn, A. (2006). The homework myth. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books.