Why ‘mastery learning’ may prove to be a bad idea


“It is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.” Disraeli

What could be wrong with wanting students to master difficult content? Nothing. For the most part, the aims of mastery curricula are admirable. Ensuring all students have fully grasped conceptually difficult content is a hard but worthy aspiration. My problem is that, in practice, mastery values the here and now over the future, and in so doing may be in danger of short circuiting the outcomes it seeks to embed.

The research conducted so far shows some promise. The EEF Toolkit report concludes that mastery learning offers, “Moderate impact for very low cost, based on moderate evidence.” But there seems to be little agreement on what mastery actually means. Amidst all the competing definitions, this one from the Assessment Without Levels commission has gained some traction:

…in mastery learning, ‘learning is broken down into discrete units and presented in logical order. Pupils are required to demonstrate mastery of the learning from each unit before being allowed to move on to the next, with the assumption that all pupils will achieve this level of mastery if they are appropriately supported.

Here’s why I think it’s potentially flawed.

Learning is the retention and transfer of knowledge and skills. If students can’t remember what they’ve been taught elsewhere and later, then they can hardly be said to have learned, let alone mastered it. So how can we know whether students have learned something? We can’t. All we can ever do is infer from their current performance what they are likely to be able to do elsewhere and later; we cannot see into the future. Of course, some performances provide more valuable evidence than others. A test six months after instruction allows us to make a much better inference than answers to questions in the lesson where material is first taught.

The biggest problem with some incarnations of mastery curricula is that once students are judged to have ‘mastered’ a body of knowledge, teachers then move on to more challenging content. But as we learn so too do we forget. Although the rate at which we forget is highly variable, the fact that, over time, we will be unable to retrieve the majority of what we once knew is one of the most robust findings from decades of research. Fortunately, we can take steps to reduce and possibly even arrest this decay but only if we assume that what students appear to have mastered will likely be forgotten.

The troubling and counter-intuitive finding is that measure that increase current performance often seems to undermine future learning. If we seek to improve students’ performance in the here and now we run the risk of producing in them the illusion of knowledge. When material is familiar we believe we know it when actually all we really know is that we once knew it. The memory of mastery endures while the substance of what we think we know falls away without us noticing. I remember going to see a lecture by the poster boy of British physics, professor Brian Cox. He gave a fascinating talk on the quantum universe and I left buzzing. A few days later I was telling a friend about how much I learned. “So, tell me,” my friend asked, “what have you learned?” I thought for a few puzzled moments before admitted that all I could remember was that the talk had been really good and that I’d enjoyed it.

This matters because when we think we know something we stop thinking about it. When we know we don’t know something we carry on thinking. This is often unbidden; we sleep on it, we put it on the back burner, we chew it over, and sometimes, in what can seem like a sudden epiphany, but is actually the result of slow, painful attempts to integrate new information, we ‘get’ it. The trick, if there is a trick, is to expose students to the extent of their ignorance so they continue thinking about what they don’t know.

At any one time, students think and believe more than one thing. These ideas compete with the older, more established idea usually winning out over the new idea. When we teach, students’ performance improves; the new idea comes to the fore. They seem like they’ve mastered it, but this is, as often as not, mere mimicry. Conceptual change, the pressure to transform or revise misconceptions as new understandings are learned is tricky. The old idea re-emerges and the new fades into the background. When we refuse to take students’ current performance as evidence of mastery, we acknowledge the difficulty of battling misconceptions. Change is gradual. It takes time and continual reintroductions of new ways of thinking for the change to stick and become permanent. My fear is that many mastery programmes miss this important truth and run the risk of making false and potentially damaging assumptions.

Here, Jo Facer sets out her vision of what mastery learning should look like. There’s lots to like and plenty I agree with. She acknowledges the need for quizzing, overlearning and distributed practice to build long-term memory and rightly observes that memory is complex. But there are a few aspects I’d question. The first is that I’m fairly sure that Jo’s definition of a mastery curriculum will not be shared by many schools who feel they offering something with the same name but substantially different in terms of delivery. But that’s an aside. I have some concern over statements like these:

We need to not ignore the possibility that students have not understood what they have read: teachers need to make use of comprehension questions to ensure students are showing they understand

There’s nothing wrong with using comprehension questions to find out students’ current levels of understanding, but it would be a mistake to think this “ensures” anything. Many people argue that it’s better to know that not know what students are thinking and, if it were possible to really know what students thought, I’d agree. Correct answers to comprehension questions fool us into assuming mimicry is evidence of learning.

But much more problematic to my mind is the idea of a 5 part mastery lesson. Jo writes that a mastery lesson should

…begin by recapping on students’ prior knowledge, before reading or instructing pupils (ideally both) in the new knowledge. Questions should be used to check for understanding as well as to stretch and challenge. Students then need a period of time for deliberate practice. Finally, homework should support the core purpose of the mastery curriculum: committing the most important knowledge to long-term memory.

Every lesson? I’ve written before about the problems with planning lessons and think this structure, while appropriate sometimes, should be resisted as a template for every lesson.

In summary, ‘mastery’ runs the risk of becoming a weasel word, meaning something different to everyone who uses it. The idea that teachers move on when children master content is certainly preferable to teachers moving on without children mastering content, but it may not get the durable, flexible results we really want.

20 Responses to Why ‘mastery learning’ may prove to be a bad idea

  1. jameswilding says:

    Perhaps like other ‘fads’ mastery learning will fall on proof of efficacy evidence. We have so much evidence that suggests deep learning only happens when work is forgotten and recalled, which a spiral curriculum includes in its core premise. In the very narrow sense I can see a mastery approach will aid willing students learn integration or parsing poetry. But for a broadscale audience of children, learning happens most effectively when it is active, collaborative and learner led.

  2. hywelpugh says:

    I appreciate the merits of mastery learning, however, it is tricky in practice. As a maths teacher, I find that pupils struggle to link the different areas of mathematics so looking at them discretely doesn’t help. We try to give examples with other areas but they have forgotten the necessary skills or lack the awareness of when to use them. I am hoping to write a scheme of work that is semi-mastery, with more fluid links between topics and interleaving, particularly where homework is concerned.

  3. mrbenney says:

    “in mastery learning, ‘learning is broken down into discrete units and presented in logical order. Pupils are required to demonstrate mastery of the learning from each unit before being allowed to move on to the next, with the assumption that all pupils will achieve this level of mastery if they are appropriately supported.”

    I’d say that any scheme of work worth its salt breaks learning down into discrete units and presents them in logical order.
    I concur wirh the notion of not moving pupils on before they understand the content because there is nothing worse than a snow plough scheme of work where you carry on regardless. But as you’ve said there is no guarantee that students will retain this or any new information.
    What Jo describes is nothing more than a well thought out, rigouous scheme of work. Regular revisiting and retesting is the only way to check on “mastery” whether you’re studying a mastery curriculum or not.
    I enjoyed Jo’s blog and your response.
    Great thinking material.

  4. Geoffrey says:

    I’d be grateful if you’d look at my current ‘Solutions for behaviour – ITT and searching for
    Bigfoot’ and comment on the idea that if threshold concepts are not learned then stuffing the curriculum with know-what knowledge, data, does not lead to mastery (taking mastery to be automatic deployment of threshold concepts to read the world) Reproduction of facts is not the same as mastery of a field is it?

  5. I think a lot of people seem to be getting their knickers in a twist over mastery, particularly in mathematics (and even more so if the teacher has low levels of mathematics qualifications). For me, it’s a ‘Dont rush’ message that ensures I don’t rush the teaching bit, don’t rush the practice bit and don’t rush the moving on bit. At the end of the day, we’re all mere human beings and, like you, I’m not sure the perfect 5-part lesson plan can be achieved for all 5 lessons of my class’s day.

    As an aside, myself and other teachers have expressed a fear that ‘problem solving’ (which is supposed to be the shangri-la of maths mastery) is going to become the new ‘moving on’ that Ofsted look for. Essentially, many teachers who still do not like deliberate practice, choose to move their children on to application of skills and knowledge via problem solving (which is just another version of ‘moving on’ really). I guess this would be the equivalent of teaching a grammar lesson and then expecting the children to move quickly to creative writing whilst using the new grammar knowledge without spending much time at all just getting to grips with the new grammar knowledge.

  6. julietgreen says:

    Yes, the old serpent of ritualisation rears its head again.

  7. Tim Brook says:

    In my own experience being able to hold a ‘model’ in my minds eye and repeatedly return to it with modifications until I have ‘mastered’ it requires time and above all intrinsic motivation. Generating this type of motivation must be key, surely, to effect mastery? The rolling juggernaut of coverage in the classroom will only allow mastery to occur in very skilful teachers’ hands or for those pupils who can take an holistic view or who are operating well within their potential.

  8. Can I ask what research base you are using for the ‘measures that increase performance often harm learning, claim? I know you have given the link elsewhere, but I can’t find it and would like to read the supporting literature rather than just accepting an argument from authority.

  9. Tom Burkard says:

    This is the most staggering faux-intellectual nonsense I’ve heard in ages. First off, you set up a straw man: the idea that once an area of content has been mastered, you just move on and forget it. Second, you perpetuate the old fraud, Bloom. Mastery learning is somehow thought to exclude understanding. Why anyone would design a programme that stopped short of imparting understanding is a mystery–I sure haven’t seen one. Third, the most important element of any mastery programme is distributed practice. This argument pretends that it isn’t. Lastly, you fail to explain how incomplete understanding of material can actually promote this mythical ‘deep understanding’.

    I’ve been working on a ‘literacy across the curriculum’ programme for KS3 science, and I can well understand that a ‘mastery’ programme would never work with such disjointed, top-down material. My colleagues who teach it assure me that it has to be taught all over again at KS4 because most pupils have forgot almost all the material. Gove blundered when he ruled out the use of the IGSCE in maintained schools–in Science, it actually had a structure that lent itself well to mastery learning. The new Science GCSEs are much harder, even not allowing for the usual opaque exam-board prose. But they assume that pupils have mastery of basic maths concepts–such as simple algebra–which most do not. The notion that ‘mastery learning’ is any kind of a threat to our schools is a joke.

    • David Didau says:

      Tom, I swear you only read what I write in order to deliberately misunderstand it.

      1. Do you really believe it’s a straw man that teachers move on as soon as they think content has been mastered? It really isn’t. I see it all the time.

      2. I too think Bloom is nonsense. I have not said and do not think mastery precludes understanding.

      3. I’m hugely in favour of distributed practice. If a mastery programme is design with optimum spacing at its heart it will probably work well. Many, if not most, aren’t.

      4. I have no idea what ‘deep understanding’ is and of deeply suspicious of it as a concept. For God’s sake why should I have to explain something I don’t believe in?

      It would appear that your comment is in fact a straw man of your own making.

  10. HS2016 says:

    I’ve combined many of the ideas which I stole from mastery learning ‘how to’ guides with interleaving & spacing and it is working well – but slowly. As hywelpugh said a ‘semi’ approach seems to work well.

    What is interesting is that my Year 12’s are not panicking about not finishing until April and are the happiest with my AS.

  11. […] David Didau’s blogYea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, […]

  12. […] Why Mastery Learning may prove to be a bad idea – David Didau (for balance!) […]

  13. chestnut says:

    I imagine like many other pedagogical theories it works better for some subjects than others and some subjects like Maths benefit from a more pure approach. Mastery is a good approach for learning a language, so I quite like it. I like the fact that it emphasises the idea that coverage is not learning. The best thing about mastery is that it has a ring of common sense about it as opposed to over intellectualised SOLO, Blooms, PLTS or even VAK. I can see how English teachers or drama or art teachers might find it doesn’t necessarily assist their teaching.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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