Mastery learning is a teaching practice that evidence says makes a difference. In this video, Melissa Garstang-Leary explains how she uses mastery learning in her English lessons.
Watch Mastery learning in English | Australian Education Research Organisation on YouTube.

Duration: 5:57

Mastery learning is a teaching practice that evidence says makes a difference. In this video, Melissa Garstang-Leary explains how she uses mastery learning in her English lessons.

This video can also be used to facilitate a group session where teachers can reflect on their own practice


Hi, my name is Melissa Garstang-Leary. I have taught in both the Catholic and state systems in New South Wales and Queensland. I have been teaching for 15 years and love teaching English.

I've recently enjoyed filming some lessons for Ochre Education and AERO. I've been working on mastery learning in the English classroom. I'm excited to share some of my reflections today as you too develop your thinking and practice in mastery learning.

Mastery learning is a way of designing units of work so that each task focuses on a particular learning objective that students must master before they move on to the next step. Taking a mastery learning approach means that I break down the curriculum and design tasks that have very clear learning objectives to be mastered. By being really clear about what students need to know or do, I can monitor student understanding, and students themselves can gain greater clarity about what's expected before they move on to the next task.

A mastery learning approach is powerful because it leaves nothing to chance. The careful sequence of the teaching and task design means that students know exactly what's expected of them at different points along the journey, and they know exactly what they need to do to get there. In a recent lesson on how to edit a biography, I used a mastery learning approach to step out a series of short tasks on how to revise and edit, ultimately preparing students to revise and edit their own biographical writing before publishing.

Sometimes when I check for understanding during a lesson, I find that some of the students have not mastered the objective of the lesson. In this case, I take the time to reteach that element, either as a whole class, when there is a large number of students who hold the misconception, or in small groups while other students are working independently. In addition, there are sometimes students who demonstrate early mastery of those concepts and require enrichment opportunities to apply their skills and knowledge. For example, for students who showed mastery of revising and editing in this lesson, I suggested an additional task to extend their thinking about complex sentences and the use of varying connectives to refine their writing. Students were challenged to see if they could elaborate on clauses and phrases to demonstrate a range of quantity of different types of sentences, enhance quality of sentences, and a variety of sentences. By using these language devices, students can demonstrate an added sophistication to their writing.

In the classroom, the use of flexible grouping and differentiated instruction allows you to cater to all learning needs, including the opportunity for extension and challenges. Those students demonstrating early mastery could be grouped together whilst the teacher provides additional explicit instruction and enrichment writing activities. Working with a mastery learning approach, you need to think carefully about which tasks you'll get the students to undertake and in which order.

The sequence of learning is really important in English. In some areas, the mastery of one concept is highly dependent on the mastery of a previous concept. Therefore, I need to think about what skills and knowledge underpin the next stage of learning. In a recent unit on biographical writing, I designed a series of short tasks across a number of lessons focusing on the features of biographical writing, including text structure, subject matter, and language features; guiding students through each one. Without this underpinning knowledge, it would be extremely difficult for students to compose a biography of their own.

Checking for mastery is an important step, but it doesn't need to be a really formal process. It also might not involve any marking as such. In a unit on biographical writing, I would probably have a few key points of stopping to check for mastery. These might include; after the explicit explanation of key terms or concepts and skills, following the practise opportunities when students are sharing their learning, at the end of a task and/or lesson and before moving on to a new learning objective, and during the review and reflection of success criteria. I might assess these by; asking questions, taking a poll, a quick quiz using thumbs up/thumbs down, a digital quiz, an exit ticket, a self-assessment using traffic-light-colored cups or sticky notes, a reflection which is verbal, or a one-minute write, or an emoji or a number which is descriptive of their level of achievement, a tick and flick, or an observation form.

Keywords: practice implementation