What Is Mastery-Based Learning?

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
Published in
5 min readMar 8, 2023

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Mastery-based learning, while there is no single, universally agreed upon definition, is an instructional model where students progress through curriculum only when they master skills and content. Students move at their own pace and their learning path is determined by their growth rather than by the time they spend on a topic. Grades are different in a mastery-based learning framework, too. Students may have many opportunities to take an exam, or teachers may not use traditional rubrics at all.

Exact understandings of mastery-based learning vary among educators, and it’s executed in different ways in different classrooms. Mastery-based learning is at once a revolutionary and very old idea — as a concept, it’s been around for decades. In some cases, it’s been practiced for a long time, too. But as most U.S. public schools have progressed students based on time spent in the classroom (sometimes referred to as “sit and get”) for a long, long time, a move to a true mastery-based framework would fundamentally change a great deal about instruction and assessment as most educators and students experience it today.

What’s the difference between mastery-based learning and competency-based education?

Mastery-based learning, mastery learning, and competency-based education (CBE) are often all used interchangeably. Some educators differentiate between competency and mastery through an understanding of skills versus content knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from TeachThought.com:

“[Competency-based learning] is concerned chiefly with a student’s progression through curriculum at their own pace, depth, etc. As competencies are proven, students continue to progress. It is similar to mastery-based learning, with the primary difference being that competency-based learning often focuses on observable skills or ‘competencies,’ while mastery learning may be academic–as likely to focus on concepts as skills.” (What is Competency-Based Learning: TeachThought.com)

However, not all schools make this distinction, and may still require students to master specific observable skills within what they refer to as a “mastery-based learning” model.

What does mastery-based learning look like in the classroom?

Mastery-based learning varies in implementation. Let’s take a look at once specific example:

Jon Bergmann, a high school educator and a pioneer of the flipped classroom movement, recently wrote a blog on Inspired Ideas called “Mastery Learning Can Help You Stop Taking Papers Home to Grade.” In his blog, Jon makes a case for adopting mastery learning by describing how it works in his science class:

“In my science class, we practice Mastery Learning: Students must master objectives before moving on to the next topic, and they know that they must demonstrate mastery via what we call a “mastery check.” To that end, they know that for them to get a learning objective checked off, they must come to me with evidence of mastery. So when they are ready to get checked off, this is when I “grade” their work.

For example, a student will come to me with their notes, a worksheet, and a lab that all demonstrate they have mastered a particular objective. I look over their worksheet and ask them to explain how they did problem number three. If they give an adequate answer, then I’m confident that they have mastered that portion of the objective. I will do the same with the experiment they show me. If they have not mastered the objective, I give them very specific feedback on what needs to be done for them to master the objective. Later, they will come to me for a second mastery check.”

Jon goes above and beyond to help his students own their learning journeys by ensuring they understand what mastery-based learning is, how it can help them learn, and what to expect in the classroom. Here’s his explainer video made for students (but is a great resource for adults, too!)

What are the benefits of mastery-based learning?

The key benefit of a mastery-based learning model is in the name — it prioritizes giving students the time and tools to master important concepts and skills. In many ways, it’s a student-centered approach, focusing on students’ individual progress and relationship to content rather than the amount of time spent on a topic during whole-class instruction. It assumes that while every student may need a different amount of time to master a subject, all students are capable of mastery. Finally, mastery-based learning isn’t possible without a commitment to personalized learning.

Mastery-based learning also encourages student agency. As every student follows their personal learning trajectory and works toward their individual learning goals, they come to own their learning journeys.

Student-teacher relationships also have the opportunity to flourish within a mastery-based learning framework. The structure allows for immediate feedback on student work (which also contributes to agency) and plenty of 1:1 time with students. Consider the excerpt from Jon Bergmann’s blog above — his approach to helping students reach mastery is largely dependent on conversations with individual students.

Finally, some experts believe that mastery-based learning and competency-based learning could help close achievement gaps and help districts reach educational equity, when paired with culturally responsive teaching methods. However, it’s important to note that research on mastery-based learning and competency-based education is still emerging, and we still have more to learn about its effectiveness.

Why is mastery-based learning so relevant now?

Mastery-based learning isn’t new — but ever since the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive disruptions to PreK-12 education, it’s been attracting a great deal of attention from school leaders. Many experts are calling for fundamental, systemic changes to combat overwhelming academic and emotional loses. Mastery-based learning, in its prioritization of individual student needs and natural support for student-teacher relationships, feels to many like a natural progression for the evolution of education.

What obstacles do districts face to implement mastery-based learning?

Mastery-based learning and competency-based education models are vastly different from traditional models in many fundamental ways. A shift to mastery-based learning requires training and mindset shifts among educators, an instructional overhaul, and infrastructure changes to support new approaches to grading.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is in data collection. Measuring students’ mastery of discreet competencies or skills — that are likely practiced and explored in different contexts and through different lessons — requires an entirely new approach to data collection that demands a lot from already over-worked educators. Technology can fill the gap.

By collecting student learning data from multiple sources and aligning it to state standards and corresponding skills, McGraw Hill Plus for PreK-12 provides educators with a holistic view of a student’s (or a whole class’s) proficiency in a specific competency. It then uses that data to recommend personalized assignments for individual students or instructional resources for small groups. Because the tool measures proficiency by collecting data from across learning programs and drills down to specific domains and skills, McGraw Hill Plus could serve as a powerful tool for districts looking to implement mastery-based learning, enabling them to measure student’s progress in specific skills rather than in lesson that includes practice in multiple skills.

For more on how McGraw Hill Plus can support mastery and competency-based models, see:

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McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas

Helping educators and students find their path to what’s possible. No matter where the starting point may be.