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Mastery Learning

Teaching involves numerous different factors and aspects of learning. Teaching employs different models and approaches in an effort to find the best way to address the needs of students. One such model or appraoch used by teachers is mastery learning.

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The goal of this paper is to achieve a better understanding of mastery learning through a review of past literature. How is mastery learning defined by the literature? What are the benefits of using mastery learning? How is mastery learning applied in higher education? Answers to these questions will be identified through a careful reading of the information presented in previously published articles regarding mastery learning.

Mastery learning, initially, is a theory about teaching and learning. It emphasizes the belief that any educator can aid almost all students to learn excellently. By the term ‘excellently’, what is indicated is the maximum potential of the individual to learn. No matter the inherent differences in characteristics between students, mastery learning asserts that teachers can teach these students to learn in exactly the same way. (Block, 1980)

The term mastery learning is also often used to refer to a set of individualized teaching practices that are consistent in their effectiveness to aid almost all students to learn excellently. These practices are divided into group-based and individual-based or teacher-paced and student-paced practices.

In the group-based or teacher-paced mastery learning, the teacher is the one who determines the direction and flow the learning process. In the individual-based or student-paced practices, it is the student who determines the direction and flow of the learning process. (Block, 1980) Both types of practices have different developmental backgrounds but both have the same goal, which is to be able to teach excellent learning skills.

A more operational definition of mastery learning can be acquired through a look into its mechanisms. According to Ironsmith & Eppler (2007), mastery learning involves a paradigm shift with regard to the definition of failure in education. Failure is not related to the results of an assessment of the student’s ability. Failure, in mastery learning, is related to the feedback a student gets about his or her progress. Mastery learning involves the use of feedback by students in order to supplement any deficiencies in their learning progress. The feedback serves as a director of what material needs to be learned more and also serves to increase the strength of the contingency between the student’s efforts and his or her academic success.

The benefits of mastery learning as an optimistic theory are clear. By teaching students to be able to learn excellently, their chances of success in life become higher. The social and individual rewards are great both for the student and the teacher. (Block, 1980) The student is able to acquire skills and abilities that will aid him or her in future undertakings outside the school setting. Students of mastery learning also become motivated to continue the learning process in their lives because of the rewards – either material or non-material – that they receive from their acquired ability to learn excellently.

On more palpable benefits, the study by Ironsmith & Eppler (2007) have shown that final exam scores were higher for students in mastery learning classes as opposed to those in normal lecture classes. Also, the benefits were greater for those students with the lowest grade point averages (GPA’s). The benefits came about as a result of the increased mastery of the material discussed. Endorsement to achievement goals that were more adaptive for the students also contributed to the attainment of the benefits. (Ironsmith & Eppler, 2007)

Mastery learning also has benefits for the educational system as well as for the educators applying its principles. With the success of the application of mastery learning, teachers are rewarded with the knowledge that their students succeeded. Also, career rewards, praise and acknowledgments from colleagues as well as gratitude from the students themselves are to be expected.

These will also serve as rewarding factors for the individual. The benefit to be derived by the educational system from these is the fact that good and accomplished teachers will be retained. Teachers will be inclined to continue teaching as a result of the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards received from the application of mastery learning. (Block, 1980) The effects and benefits to be derived from mastery learning are long term thus indicating a more profound impact on the lives of those who apply it.

In higher education students, learning approaches such as the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) (Ironsmith & Eppler, 2007) are applied. These are based on the concepts of mastery learning albeit posing a more structured and organized design. A general PSI class would involve learning modules, self-tests, mastery tests, and feedback from educators. The mechanism for mastery learning in higher education, however, remains the same. It still involves the concepts of approaching instruction systematically, of being proactive instead of reactive, of managing the learning and not the learners, of matching the instruction to the outcomes as well as to the learners, and the like. (Block, 1980)

Over all, mastery learning is still in the minority of applied models of teaching. However, its use in classrooms is continuously increasing. (Block, 1980) The benefits to be reaped from application of mastery learning in the educational system are assessed to be great. Also, the principles on which it is founded are sound and, in fact, seem to be a more adaptive way to view the educational system. Investigations into the viability of mastery learning as a learning theory should be continued. Also, more schools should begin to introduce the system into their classrooms.


Block, J. H. (1980). Promoting excellence through mastery learning. Theory Into Practice, 19(1), 66-74

Ironsmith, M., & Eppler, M. A. (2007). Mastery learning benefits low-aptitude students.