mastery learning

One of the 4 techniques, associated with learning gain, used by the timely practice system - with the aid of the timely practice app.

In a nutshell:

 The teacher must hold back teaching harder work until the learner has mastered the easier work.

Learners must achieve a level of mastery in prerequisite knowledge/skills/methods

before moving forward to learn subsequent knowledge/skills/methods.

timely practice says

Schemes of work, covering several episodes of learning on the same topic are ubiquitous, learners make apparent progress, as they only need to be able to remember for a day or two what they have learned. However for lower attaining learners there are three problems which inhibit their progress

  • a poor memory effect: when learners return to the same topic the next time, they have forgotten almost everything, so they need to re-learn work, as if for the first time,

  • a poor synthesising effect: after having been quickly "reminded" of the pre-requisites they are expected to build further learning on top of unsound foundations,

  • a shame avoiding effect: since when learners return to a topic they realise that they can't even do the easy episodes, and this is true for nearly all the topics they have studied, they would rather wait for individual help, make excuses, waste time, misbehave, almost anything than be faced with a lesson reinforcing their already poor self image as learners.

The strength of mastery learning with timely practice is, that learners are only considered ready to learn something a little bit harder on a topic, once they have been able to independently recall and use the pre-requisites for some time. Now for lower attaining learners there are three advantages which enable their progress.

  • a better memory effect: when learners return to the same topic the next time, they have the prerequisite work "at their finger tips",

  • a better synthesising effect: learners can build, as their higher attaining peers do, on solid foundations, they can plan, make links and synthesise their own methods as well as be more ready to access efficient methods taught by the teacher,

  • a self-esteem building effect: since when learners return to a topic they soon realise that they can make progress, they are more keen to enjoy the pride in a job well done from learning and making progress.

What educational researchers say

The Educational Endowment Foundation notes the following about mastery learning:

Positive outcome:

"Overall, mastery learning is a learning strategy with good potential, particularly for low attaining learners."

Difficulties with implementation

(a) "Implementing mastery learning effectively is not straightforward, however, requiring a number of complex components and a significant investment in terms of design and preparation."

(b) "It should be noted that teachers also need to plan carefully for how to manage the time of pupils who make progress more quickly".

Using the timely practice app removes these difficulties as follows:

(a) the splitting up of each topic into small steps (layers) has been done, each practise-learn worksheets contain only questions for one layer, the formative assessment required is an integral part of the app and the Progress on Topic shows the teacher which learners have mastered what learning within each topic.

(b) With timely practice the teacher accepts some spread of learning i.e. the need for differentiation within a topic, she can also select some topics for extension work, e.g. new algebra skills and problem solving for faster learning learners.

Meta-analysis (educational research) says:

A meta-analysis of findings from 108 controlled evaluations showed that mastery learning programs have positive effects on the examination performance of learners in colleges, high schools, and the upper grades in elementary schools. The effects appear to be stronger on the weaker learners in a class, and they also vary as a function of mastery procedures used, experimental designs of studies, and course content. Mastery programs have positive effects on learner attitudes toward course content and instruction but may increase learner time on instructional tasks.

Kulik, C. C., Kulik, J. A., & Bangert-Drowns, R. L. Effectiveness of mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis.  (1990)

More readable references

2 blogs

method to apply mastery learning:

There are two current models of mastery learning within education establishments - the difference in these is what happens when some learners haven't yet mastered some learning that their peers have already mastered


    • in LFM - learning for mastery, learners who haven't mastered their work, must work harder and access extra materials or help, often from their peers

    • in PSI - personalised system of instruction, learners who haven't mastered their work, can spend more time or access extra material of help

Here Brett Tallman explains the two types of mastery learning and the effect size of mastery learning

The timely practice system uses a different model. In timely practice learners who are further from mastery on any layer (small bite of learning), practise the layer more frequently and receive help and feedback when necessary. Meanwhile their peers practise more on the the layers that they need to practise.

To embed learning more deeply - to come closer to mastery - it is more efficient to wait between one practice and the next. With timely practice, the teacher will use this time to teach other layers from other topics. After a minimum of 2 months the teacher may return to teach another layer from the same topic. This more tightly spiralled scheme of learning means that each small bite of learning is taught to mastery before the next small bite is taught.

With LFM, PSI and traditional maths lessons the practice is blocked - so learning is less efficiently embedded in long term memory. The learning of the curriculum is planned in advance and often each topic is taught at most once per year. So larger bites of learning must be taught at one time and revision must be included when some learners have forgotten all/some of what was taught in last years large bite of learning on the topic. For these reasons teaching and learning is less efficient for low attaining learners than with timely practice. 

why some students like self paced mastery learning

Salman Khan, creator of Khan Academy, explains what some learners prefer about self paced and mastery learning.