Finding the Time for Mastery Learning in Higher Education

Editors Features September 19 / September 23, 2019

 – Thomas Mennella –

There is a barrier to innovation in higher education, and it lurks right in front of us, stymieing our ability to grow and adapt. This barrier is so entwined into our day-to-day processes and procedures that we forget it’s there, and it’s so taken for granted that we often don’t appreciate the problems that it causes. I am referring to the Federal Credit Hour.  

The Federal Credit Hour is defined by the Higher Learning Commission as:

A credit hour is an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally-established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than:

(1) one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or (2) at least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other activities as established by an institution, including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading toward to the award of credit hours. 34CFR 600.2 (11/1/2010) (source)

Sounds reasonable but…

The policy above sounds innocuous enough, right? How could such an unassuming paragraph thwart progress and innovation in higher ed? Let’s dissect this definition, and see. The first sentence references learning; something we all, as educators, understand: “an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement” — that’s learning. The second section equates that learning to seat time: “one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks.” In other words, this federal definition of college-level instruction states that all students must learn course content and must do it in three hours of classroom instruction per week for 15 weeks (for a three-credit course). In other words, this policy assumes that all students learn at the same pace, identically.

Mastery involves students self-pacing through material; accelerating when content is easy for them and slowing down, repeating and remediating when it becomes challenging.

A barrier to Mastery Learning

This month’s issue of FLR is dedicated to mastery (i.e., for us higher ed folks, this is a type of competency-based instruction). Mastery is something I’ve wanted to adopt and explore for years. I’ve dabbled on the edges of mastery, giving students challenge problems at different levels which they can use to gauge their own understanding and test themselves at a level of rigor that’s comfortable for them. While students respond well to these activities and appreciate the differentiation, this is not true mastery. Mastery involves students self-pacing through material; accelerating when content is easy for them and slowing down, repeating and remediating when it becomes challenging. It requires genuine differentiated instruction and personalized learning, assessing students for where they are in their current understanding, meeting them there, and then lifting them up to higher learning. Mastery treats every student as an individual, while the Federal Credit Hour treats students like identical widgets. Hence, the barrier to innovation. Essentially, if students self-pace through my course and master its content in 10 weeks instead of 15, I need to keep them busy for the last five because the Federal Credit Hour mandates that their butts need to be in their seats of my classroom for three hours each week over 15 full weeks. Conversely, if a student is mastering the course content, but needs a bit of extra time to do so, they must finish the course with an incomplete understanding. Once those 15 weeks are up, students must move on to the next semester, whether they’re ready to or not. In my opinion, neither option fair. Learning is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. 

So what?

 For an institution of higher education to remain in compliance with federal standards, and be eligible to receive federal financial aid for enrolled students, this policy must be strictly followed. According to BigFuture, as of 2014-15, approximately 66 percent of full-time college students paid for their education with the help of financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships. Roughly 57 percent of those financial aid dollars came in the form of grants. With higher education being so expensive, it is this money that keeps colleges and universities in business. And the only way to remain eligible to receive it is to adhere to the Federal Credit Hour definition (among other policies and accreditations).  

Brights spots on the horizon

But, there is room for hope. Regional higher education accrediting bodies are beginning to recognize the negative effects of the Federal Credit Hour on higher learning. Pilot programs are now being rolled out allowing institutions to innovate within and around the confines of this policy. The intention of these pilots is to see if student learning can be achieved, or improved, in ways independent of audited seat time. If we, college educators, handle these pilots properly, we can prove that students learn differently and seat time is the least important measure of student learning or commitment. If we go astray, we’ll leave federal policymakers with no choice but to fall back on the Federal Credit Hour. We can’t let that happen.

Fuel for thought

As this semester and academic year launches in earnest, ask yourself: “Does it matter how much time your student spends sitting in your classroom? Does that indicate, in any way, learning?” Or would you prefer a system where students progress through your course material at a pace that matches their mastery of course content? Would you prefer that, once mastered, students move on to their next challenge, their next unit, their next course once they’re ready?  

This kind of learning is possible; it’s already been vetted in K-12 education. It’s primed and ready for adoption in higher ed, and it’s amazing. But Step 1 is to allow students to move on when they achieve mastery. And that means letting their butts out of their seats. 






Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.




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