Why mastery learning works
Understanding the science behind learning and memory can help teachers understand why mastery learning is an effective teaching technique that improves student learning by responding to the ways the brain acquires, stores, and retrieves information.
Building on existing knowledge
The human brain can store a large amount of information in long-term memory, which can be thought of as a vast network of interconnected ideas. Having more connections to a specific piece of information makes it easier to recall. Teaching is effective when new knowledge is successfully established in students’ long-term memory.
Another type of memory is working memory, which holds the information being used at any one time. The information held in working memory is not always stored as an individual fact, but rather a ‘chunk’ which can be anything from a single fact to a complex idea. Research has suggested that people can only hold four to seven chunks of information in working memory.
The science of learning tells us that when new tasks are connected to prior knowledge, and when students are explicitly reminded of these connections, the learning is more effective. Information that has already been learnt, recalled from long-term memory, is able to be more easily used by the brain than new information. This means more resources are available to handle whichever aspects are new, avoiding cognitive overload.
With a mastery learning approach, tasks are sequenced to build upon each other, and concepts are learned and committed to long-term memory before moving to the next one. Linking new information to what is already in long-term memory lets students take advantage of existing knowledge where possible and provides structure to the new learning. It is much easier to integrate new information into existing knowledge than it is to create completely new understandings.
The importance of practice for consolidation
Moving information from working memory to long-term memory is known as consolidation. Sequencing tasks and monitoring learning progress before moving on to the next concept ensures information has been transferred to long-term memory, where it is easier to use and connect to new learning. As such, mastery learning creates an environment that is highly suited to efficient consolidation of new learning.
The spacing created by practice required for mastery learning can also help to avoid the overload of students’ mental resources (see cognitive overload). Learning new information can be mentally demanding, particularly when the information is similar. By creating gaps between related tasks, students have a chance to rest and replenish the required mental resources (for more on this, see spacing and retrieval). By sequencing tasks and connecting learning objectives to information that has already been consolidated, mastery learning can prevent the cognitive overload that results from trying to both learn new information and organise it amongst existing knowledge at the same time.
Effective across a variety of contexts
Mastery learning has a strong evidence base that meets AERO’s highest standards of evidence. To understand whether mastery learning is effective across a variety of contexts, AERO conducted a review of 81 studies. The review found that mastery learning is an effective teaching practice across a variety of contexts and for different subgroups of students. Studies conducted across various locations suggest that mastery learning:
- has a positive impact on achievement in mathematics, sciences, social studies and English and foreign languages
- works for primary and secondary students
- is effective particularly for lower achieving students, with higher achieving students also benefitting.
Because of this, mastery learning is likely to work in most contexts.
Using the practice
Knowing when students have mastered the content
To work towards mastery learning, students need to know what is expected of them and what success will look like – in other words, they need to have a clear learning outcome and success criteria. These will often come from your curriculum guidance.
Once you know what the learning outcomes and success criteria are, identify realistic goals for your students in your day-to-day lessons (that is, what is appropriate given what your students already know and can do). Consulting school and classroom data is the best way to help identify where your students are at in their learning. You may also want to use a diagnostic task at the beginning of an instructional unit to gain specific insights for the learning about to happen.
Using formative assessment will help you to gather evidence about how your students are progressing towards their learning goals. You can then use these insights to reflect on and amend your learning sequence to best cater to your class (see explicit instruction implementation checklist for more insight).
When some students start to master content ahead of other students, it is important to provide opportunities for extension and revision. You may wish to:
- allow for group work and small group instruction where students can collaborate with peers at their level for different activities; those who have moved on may do an enrichment project where they apply the skills to a different context, while students who need some correction may work through another set of guided instruction
- allow those who are ready for enrichment the opportunity to apply the skills within a context of something they enjoy, or applying them to real world problems
- If you are focusing on a measurement skill, perhaps they could be tasked with redesigning an area of their house.
- Writing tasks can be adapted for students to write about something they are passionate about.
- encourage peer support within the classroom so that students who have mastered the content can challenge themselves by helping others
- use various levels of scaffolding support to aid those who need more practice. Students who require more support may be working on the same task at the same time as other students, however with more structured guided examples.
All students need ongoing practice to maintain mastery, so ongoing review of learning will help all students continue to demonstrate their skills and understanding as they move onto new units of work.
References & further reading
McClelland J L, McNaughton B L and Lampinen, A K (2020). ‘Integration of new information in memory: new insights from a complementary learning systems perspective’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 375(1799), 20190637.
Schacter D L and Buckner R L (1998). ‘Priming and the brain’, Neuron, 20(2):185-195.
Sweller J (2011). ‘Cognitive load theory’, Psychology of learning and motivation, Vol. 55:37-76).
Tse D, Langston R F, Kakeyama M, Bethus I, Spooner P A, Wood E R, and Morris R G (2007). ‘Schemas and memory consolidation’, Science, 316(5821):76-82.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Achieving explicit learning goals
This resource provides an example of structuring lessons around learning intention and success criteria.
The teacher structures his lessons around learning intention and success criteria, and utilises engaging and clearly defined tasks. The students investigate the various ways fractions can be described and expressed. At the end of the lesson, the teacher asks students to consider how their learnings can be applied to their everyday lives.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Explicit learning goals
This resource provides an example a teacher outlining his plan to consolidate a previously learned technical skill in soccer, and also to introduce two new skills.
At the beginning of the lesson the teacher outlines his plan to consolidate a previously learned technical skill in soccer, and also to introduce two new skills. The teacher aims to scaffold skill development in order to support all students: beginning with simple drills and then adding new physical challenges over time. He intends to embed in the lesson a focus on leadership and self assessment.
Keywords: evidence-based teaching