Mastery learning

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  • Mastery learning refers to the idea that teaching should organize learning through ordered steps. In order to move to the next step, students have to master the prerequisite step. Mastery learning engages the learner in multiple instructional methods, learning levels and multiple cognitive thinking types.

According to Davis & Sorrel (1995): “The mastery learning method divides subject matter into units that have predetermined objectives or unit expectations. Students, alone or in groups, work through each unit in an organized fashion. Students must demonstrate mastery on unit exams, typically 80%, before moving on to new material. Students who do not achieve mastery receive remediation through tutoring, peer monitoring, small group discussions, or additional homework. Additional time for learning is prescribed for those requiring remediation. Students continue the cycle of studying and testing until mastery is met. Block (1971) states that students with minimal prior knowledge of material have higher achievement through mastery learning than with traditional methods of instruction.”

Cited from Davis & Sorrel (1995): “In summary, mastery learning is not a new method of instruction. It is based on the concept that all students can learn when provided with conditions appropriate to their situation. The student must reach a predetermined level of mastery on one unit before they are allowed to progress to the next. In a mastery learning setting, students are given specific feedback about their learning progress at regular intervals throughout the instructional period. This feedback, helps students identify what they have learned well and what they have not learned well. Areas that were not learned well are allotted more time to achieve mastery. Only grades of "A" and "B" are permitted because these are the accepted standards of mastery. Traditional instruction holds time constant and allows mastery to vary while mastery learning or systematic instruction holds mastery constant and allows time to vary (Robinson, 1992).”

Typical design of a large learning unit

(e.g. a course)

  1. Definition of clear objectives of what has to be taught/learnt
  2. "Subject is divided into relatively small learning units. Each unit will have:
    • objectives (i.e. a clear definition of what has to be mastered");
    • a brief diagnostic test to be administered before the unit (they may lead to supplementary instruction);
    • learning materials and instructional strategies;
    • formative evaluation (that in turn should lead to remediation) and summative evaluation.
  3. Time to learn is adjusted for each student in order to master at least 80% of the material
  4. Assessment whether global objectives have been met.

See also similar instructional design models like Gagne's Nine events of instruction.

Mastery learning in practice

True mastery learning in the spirit of Bloom may not be very popular, mostly because it is very costly and difficult. This applies to both classroom teaching and electronic courseware.

However, a few key ideas can be found in many designs, e.g:

  • course modularity
  • definition of objectives for each module
  • entry tests
  • individual learning pace
  • feedback after learning task with some remediation
  • assessment

The following picture shows a typical design of a distance teaching module architecture (minus the assessment component).



  • Toolkits like Authorware have built-in facitilities to implement mastery learning.


  • According to Davis & Sorrel (1995), "The mastery learning concept was introduced in the American schools in the 1920's with the work of Washburne (1922, as cited in Block, 1971) and others in the format of the Winnetka Plan."
  • Bloom in the 1960' defined the modern model and also was activly engaged in promulgation and evaluation.



  • Block, J. (1971). Mastery learning: Theory and practice. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
  • Bloom, B. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment,1(2), 1-5.
  • Bloom, B. (1971). Mastery learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
  • Bloom B.S. (1979). Caractéristiques individuelles et apprentissages scolaires. Bruxelles: Labor.
  • Carroll, J. B. (1963). A model of school learning. Teachers College Record, 64, 723-733.
  • Carroll, J.B. (1989). The Carroll model: A 25 year retrospective and prospective view. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 26-31.
  • Kulik, C., Kulik, J., & Bangert-Drowns, R. (1990). Effectiveness of mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 60(2), 265-306.
  • Levine, D. (1985). Improving student achievement through mastery learning programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Robinson, M. (1992). Mastery learning in public schools: Some areas of restructuring. Education, 113(1), 121-126.
  • Slavin, R.E. (1987). Mastery learning reconsidered. Review of Educational Research, 57(2), 175-214.