Teachers prefer using mastery learning to close learning gaps

Every student learns differently. Ensuring each one has "mastered" a skill before moving to the next is key to their success.

As schools prepare to reopen their doors for the upcoming school leaders need to be proactive in addressing learning loss that resulted not only from the pandemic but also from summer break.

A 2020 study from the American Educational Research Journal revealed that students lost 17-34% of the previous year’s learning gains during the summer. The pandemic only made these matters worse, and leaders across the country are developing strategies to combat the resulting learning loss.

In July, the Department of Education unveiled a plan to recruit 250,000 new tutors to support K-12 students. “Now more than ever, students need to feel supported, seen, heard and understood by adults in their schools and communities,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

However, a recent study by Khan Academy provides another potential solution for closing pandemic-related learning gaps: mastery learning. From a survey of 639 teachers across K-12 schools in the U.S., 84% support the idea for tackling pandemic-related learning loss.

Mastery learning is an instructional strategy where we give students the opportunity and the incentive to reach a high level of proficiency—that we call mastery—in a skill before they proceed to the next skill,” says Khan Academy Chief Learning Officer Kristen DiCerbo. “If you think about the gaps that students come with because of the pandemic, if you try to build new knowledge on top of a shaky foundation, it becomes really difficult to keep building on that.”

According to the data, more than half of teachers (53%) already use mastery learning in their classrooms, and an additional 35% would like to begin using it.

Furthermore, the majority of teachers believe the traditional letter grade system causes more harm than good for their students for the following reasons:

  • 61% of teachers believe D’s and F’s lead to less motivation among students.
  • 58% of teachers believe letter grades lead to students feeling labeled.
  • 46% of teachers believe letter grading is an unfair way to accurately assess student achievement.

DiCerbo suggests two ways schools can begin implementing mastery learning in their classrooms:

  1. Allow for more flexibility when scheduling pacing guides.

Every student learns different topics at different rates, she says. Many districts have what they call pacing guides, where they lay out for every topic to be covered in a domain and how many weeks they should be covering them and when they move on to the next phase,” says DiCerbo. “One of the things that teachers told us in the survey was having a little more flexibility in those pacing guides would be helpful.”

2. Reevaluate the meaning of grades.

Is a grade a score on a test, or are we trying to encourage both students and everyone who’s involved in learning to think about mastering skills?” DiCerbo says. “If we think about that, we can do things like offer students multiple opportunities to show what they know. And then offer them instruction and different ways to practice in between those opportunities so that students who are struggling have a chance to rebound and try again with some instruction and intervention.”

In addition to understanding the effects of mastery learning, the data suggest a need for better emotional and behavioral support for students.

Teachers were asked, “What do you think are the most important change(s) that would help make up ‘unfinished learning or the learning gaps that developed during the pandemic?'”

The most common response was related to student mental health, with 60% of respondents supporting increased emotional/behavioral support. There are also a lot of things around social and emotional issues that students need to deal with and work through before they’re able to really be effective learners and fill in some of those gaps,” DiCerbo notes.

The pandemic has had a profound impact on students’ emotional and behavioral states, according to DiCerbo. She says as students were out of school for months on end, they lost the necessary social skills necessary for effective learning. They also had to reestablish the norms and routines of daily in-person instruction after being away from the classroom for so long.

“All of that is important for them being ready to learn,” says DiCerbo. “Those kinds of things that we probably all lost a little bit of in those days of talking over video all the time are really important in being able to think about being successful in school.”


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Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttp://districtadministration.com
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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