“Mastery learning” is an educational philosophy that relies on not expecting students to learn new things before they master less advanced concepts. In one sense, the mastery principle has always been an inherent part of education: students are required to demonstrate a certain level of knowledge or skill before being admitted to advanced classes, promoted to higher grades, or accepted into programs for bachelor’s degrees and higher.

But in day-to-day learning, teachers have traditionally paid little attention to individual levels of mastery. Everyone gets the same lessons, the same homework assignments, and the same tests; and no matter how many below-C-level scores turn up on those tests, everyone is kept on the same overall schedule for the whole of the term. Only exceptional (or exceptionally bad) performance earns the student the right to a class more in keeping with his or her abilities—often long after the transfer should have happened.

Of course, few schools or teachers are capable of designing a completely individualized program for every student. But you can design lessons to ensure everyone has the best chance to master all needed requirements.

Allow Plenty of Margin in Each Term’s Schedule

 Often, overenthusiastic teachers cram the schedule with so many lessons that only the brightest students have time to master one concept before being rushed on to another. This is a special risk with teachers who are so familiar with the subject personally, they forget everyone has a first time coming to it. You’re less likely to fall into that trap if you develop the habit of carefully observing your students, especially the typical student’s and the slowest students’ learning speeds, every day.

Match the Speed at Which New Concepts Are Introduced, to the Slower “Mastery Speeds”

Then, help the brighter students avoid boredom by planning lots of “additional options” or offering them added responsibilities—without making a big deal about “extra credit.” This approach is much more effective than structuring everything to the faster learners’ speed and demanding the others keep up. If you have one student who is so slow a learner as to be left completely in the dust, arrange to talk with them and their parents privately; there may be other issues that need addressing.

Include Lots of Group Projects in the Curricula

And make sure to include a healthy balance of mastery levels in each group while encouraging everyone to find and make his or her best personal contribution. You may find that students learn more effectively from their peers than from you!

Encourage Students to Help Each Other in Other Ways

Your classroom probably includes some natural tutors. Rather than emphasize “don’t look at anyone else’s work; that’s cheating,” encourage students to share their ideas and conclusions. Only assignments that really test individual mastery need be strictly individual projects.

Give “Mastery Tests” on a Regular Basis

But not tests with the traditional emphasis on “getting the right answers.” Leave room for unique ideas and individual approaches to problem-solving. It’s not true mastery until the student can personally generate some original elements!

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