Mastery Learning 101: Give Your Students the Chance to Try Again, and Again

Lead Features September 19 / September 23, 2019

 – Dan Jones –

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have more content to teach than can ever be taught in a single year, let alone by the time standardized testing happens in April, so hold onto your seats, this may be a bit of a bumpy ride.” A student raises her hand. “I am sorry, but we really do not have time for questions. If I don’t start now, we will never get through everything.” The student lowers her hand. “Great, let’s begin!”

The frustrating part about the above scenario is that I have sat in that class and what is worse, I have taught that class. I was content-focused and not learner-focused. I was so concerned about getting through everything that I could not be derailed by student questions, and after all, the only reason they had questions was that they weren’t paying attention the first time I taught it, right? 

Time for teaching, no time for learning

“Here are your graded quizzes. I must say, I am not happy with how they turned out. Many of you are going to have some difficulty with our next topic since you didn’t do well with the last one, so please spend some time studying as we move on.” A student raises her hand, “Mr. Jones, can we go back over the Columbian Exchange since the majority of us didn’t understand it?” “I am sorry, but we just don’t have time. We have too much to get through, so we must move on. You can explore that on your own since it is material you are expected to know at this point,” I responded. 

It was clear that I was not learner-centered in the above scenario. My focus was clearly on pushing through content, and if I had to drag my students kicking and screaming, we were going to get through as much as possible, whether they liked it or not. There is a saying, “Jack of all trades, Master of None.” The idea is that people know a little bit about a lot of things, but they don’t know much about any of them. Is that really how we want our classrooms to function? Would you want your surgeon to know a little bit about the surgery he is about to perform or for your building contractor to be kind of knowledgeable about building your house?

Is ‘some’ learning good enough?

We, as educators, are charged with teaching our students’ particular content. The interesting thing is, we are charged with teaching our students all of the content, not some of the content. Not all of our students will learn everything we teach as soon as we teach it, but that is because they are individuals. They learn at different paces, but the point is they learn the content. Each doctor is expected to master their skills, but no one asks how long it took them to master those skills, and thank goodness they didn’t settle with a basic understanding. 

Sometimes it may feel as though we are being hard on students when we hold them accountable for mastering the content we teach. And it may even seem as though we are being extremely hard on them when we ask them to go back and relearn something before they move on. This style of teaching though is the most compassionate and merciful way to teach. “No” tends to be a negative word, but in your classroom, it can be the most patient, kind, and tolerant word you could say. When students have not demonstrated mastery, saying, “No, you may not move on yet,” shows them that you are willing to be patient with their mastery of content. Saying, “No, I am not going on without you,” shows kindness because you care whether they understand the content. Saying, “No, you can do better,” shows students that you are tolerant of mistakes, but you expect better the next time around (growth). And the ‘yet’ of “no, you may not move on yet” is critical because it shows that you know that they can get there if they just put in a bit more effort.

The chance to try again

As educators, it should not be our position to fail a student for not knowing something, but instead our obligation to provide them with opportunities to learn, relearn and try again. Should we penalize a student for not knowing, or should we hold them accountable for not knowing? Think about that; there is a big difference between being penalizing and being held accountable. A student is penalized if they receive a grade on an assessment and a recorded grade for their lack of knowledge. Held accountable means that they are told areas where they are lacking in their understanding of content, but they are still going to be expected to know it. If our objective is to get students to master the content we teach, then the student must come first and content second. I have heard it said, “I don’t teach social studies, I teach students.” For far too long, I taught social studies. Now, I can proudly say that I teach students because of Mastery Learning. When we focus on teaching students, the content that we teach is a byproduct of the skills and accountability we provide for our students. As our students become learners, and they discover how to study, how to process information and develop a metacognitive perspective, they are positioned to move through content and demonstrate their mastery of it. Becoming learner-centered means that we care more about why the student missed a question than frustrated by the fact that they missed it. After all, if we can identify why they missed it, it may pave the way for deeper understanding of future lessons — and that is learning. 






Dan Jones
Dan Jones
Dan Jones earned a BS in Middle Grades Education from Ashland University and a Master's Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from American College of Education. Dan is a FLGI Master Teacher whose professional interests include e-learning and technology, as well as Project-Based Learning. Dan is Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.




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1 Comment

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on September 27, 2019

Wonderful article that shows what still happens in many classrooms!! Thanks to FL I have made my mind change and that is what I am trying to let my colleagues know and experience!



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