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

Duration: 7:22

Mastery learning is a teaching practice that evidence says makes a difference. In this video, Darcie Clarke explains how she uses mastery learning in her science lessons.

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


Hi, my name is Darcie. I'm a science teacher, early in my career, at Brighton Grammar School. And I've recently enjoyed filming some lessons for Ochre Education and AERO.

I've been recently working on mastery learning in the science classroom. What it looks like and how it's associated with explicit instruction. I'm excited to share some of my reflections today.

As you also 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 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 a journey. And they know exactly what they need to do to get there.

As a science teacher, a mastery learning approach is particularly useful because there are several foundational concepts that are built on within units, but also across years of learning. Science builds the complexity of understanding of topics gradually, so mastering one idea is critical in them being able to extend this or explore it in more depth.

In a recent lesson on diffusion, I used a mastery learning approach to step out a series of short tasks on understanding the process of diffusion and the factors affecting it and finally placing it within context in the human body. To start with I mapped out the first task, which was to make sure that students could identify the direction of diffusion occurring across a membrane with different concentration gradients. I know students can have difficulty with the concept of particle movement occurring in both directions when a concentration gradient exists. Asking students to indicate the direction and amount of particle movement, by drawing arrows on diagrams. Makes it easy and quick to collect this crucial piece of information on their understanding. Once students can understand the movement of particles in diffusion, then they're ready to learn how various factors can influence the rate at which this happens. And they also see that learning sequentially builds a concrete understanding of a concept. Through this mastery learning approach, they realise, ‘Oh, I can't understand the influence of factors, before I know what diffusion is’. In this way students start to engage with the building blocks of what they're learning. They start to understand the logic and order of the tasks they're doing, and it all just starts to 'click'.

Sometimes when I check for understanding during a lesson, I find that some of the students haven't mastered the objective of the lesson. In this case, I'll take the time to re-teach that element, either as a whole class, when there's a large number of students who hold that 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 they require enrichment opportunities to apply their skills and knowledge.

Working with a mastery learning approach, you need to think carefully about which tasks you'll get students to undertake, and in which order, of course. The sequence of learning is really important in science. 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 in learning.

In a recent lesson on diffusion, I designed a series of short tasks, guiding students through each one. The order of the tasks was determined by the complexity of the concept and the requirement for some concepts to be understood before others. For example, in worksheet task three, students were required to analyse an example of diffusion, in a body system, to describe how it occurs and explain the role of certain structural features by applying knowledge of the factors affecting diffusion. The importance of diffusion in body systems, however, can't be understood without a foundational understanding of what diffusion is. This is assessed through the checks for understanding, which assess an understanding of diffusion as passive and then worksheet task one in which students need to identify the direction and amount of particle movement in various scenarios. I made sure students could demonstrate their knowledge through these checks for understanding and tasks. Before moving on to more complex concepts and getting students to demonstrate their understanding of these.

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. I assess mastery of these concepts by performing quick checks for understanding. These can be done as a multiple-choice fingers up, through mini-whiteboards or an online poll or quiz platform. Each of these options takes seconds and provides really clear data on the understanding of students of a discrete concept. More in-depth assessment can include completion of learning tasks, such as analysing a situation, constructing a diagram or producing a written response. More is more. It's worth spending a couple of extra minutes completing checks or short tasks between concepts to ensure mastery of each idea. This ultimately saves the effort of undoing misconceptions or reteaching poorly understood concepts at the end of a unit leading up to summative in assessment.

Keywords: practice implementation