What is Mastery Based Learning?

Brandon Stover
Founder of Plato University
September 14, 2023
min read

Ladies & gents, my name is Brandon Stover, and I’m the founder of Plato University. Welcome to Theory into Action.

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What is Mastery-Based Learning

Mastery-based learning, also known as competency-based learning or proficiency-based learning, is an educational approach that prioritizes a student's complete understanding and proficiency in a subject or skill before they move on to more advanced material.

In mastery-based learning, the focus shifts from traditional time-based models (where students progress through a curriculum at the same pace) to one where students advance at their own pace based on their individual mastery of the content or skills being taught.

Traditional Learning vs Mastery-Based Learning

To understand Mastery-Based Learning, let me illustrate learning the skill of installing a seat for an American car manufacturer vs Toyota. In America, you would be taught all the steps to install the seat from the beginning. You would then be told to execute on all those steps after learning them in totality. What is the likelihood you would be able to actually remember and do each step effectively enough to pass safety standards? Slim.

In contrast, Toyota would tell you, “these are the seven steps required to install this seat successfully. You don’t have the privilege of learning step 2 until you have demonstrated mastery of step 1. If you master step 1 in a minute, you may begin learning step 2 in a minute. If it takes you an hour, then you can learn step 2 in an hour. And if it takes you a day, then you can learn step 2 tomorrow. It makes no sense for us to teach you subsequent steps if you don’t do the prior ones correctly.” Using this approach you would be able to execute each step with high efficiency, installing the seat correctly every time.

This same approach is how we view skill acquisition, generally. What sense does it make for students to learn more advanced skills if they do not yet grasp the foundational concepts? If we just assess students at the end of their skill acquisition, how can we be sure they can execute them effectively every time and in different contexts?

In fields where concepts build on top of each other cumulatively, the complexity and ambiguity compound exponentially if they don't understand each concept fully as they progress. In traditional education, if you didn't understand the material in week 1, it's most likely that you're already in trouble because the compounding complexity will out-pace your ability to catch up. After a while, the deficit becomes insurmountable causing those affected to stop learning altogether.

Principles of Mastery-Based Learning

The core principles of mastery based learning include:

  • Variable Pace: Removing all time-based measurements from your learning journey. This means it doesn't matter if it takes you one day, one week, one month, or one year to learn a certain portion of a skill. What we're aiming for here is full understanding, regardless of time needed to reach that understanding.
  • Mastering Each Step: You don't move on to another topic until you've mastered the current topic. Again, aiming for complete understanding or as close as we can get.
  • Assessment: Skills must be assessed through demonstration of mastery. Doing this is going to tell us if we've actually mastered a step and are able to move on to the next one. Because we have to demonstrate mastery, there must be a clear objective of what we're able to do with this skill. How will it actually be applied?

You'll see with these that our learning paths are going to be flexible and personalized.  How you learn it, where you learn it and how long it takes you does not matter. What matters is that you actually learned it and then you're able to apply that skill. You're able to demonstrate mastery.

Why Implement Mastery-Based Learning?

Mastery-based learning aims to shift the focus from "covering" a set amount of content within a fixed time frame to ensuring that each student genuinely understands and can apply what they've learned.

The benefits of this are:

  • This approach encourages deeper engagement, retention, and a higher level of readiness for future learning and real-world application.
  • Students may spend more time upfront learning the foundations, but as they progress they will do so at a more rapid pace because they are not missing gaps in their knowledge
  • Mastery-based learning allows for individualized instruction. Students can progress at their own pace, which means that slower learners have the time they need to fully understand concepts, while faster learners can move on to more advanced material without being held back.
  • Learning objectives and mastery criteria are clearly defined, making it easy to measure and track progress. Both students and teachers have a clear understanding of what needs to be achieved.
  • Students with special needs or different learning paces can receive tailored support and accommodations in mastery-based learning, ensuring equitable access to education.

How to Apply Mastery-Based Learning to Online Courses

First, set a clear objective.

  • After taking this course what will my students be able to do?
  • How will they apply this skill?
  • How will they demonstrate mastery?

Next, create a mastery path.

  • What steps do my students need to take in order to achieve that outcome? These steps become your learning modules. Break them down into their most fundamental components.

Create ways to assess mastery along the way in 3 key locations:

  • Pre-Assessment: Taken at the beginning of the course to assess how much mastery the student already possesses. If they possess 75% of a skill, then maybe they only need to take 25% of the course.
  • Progress-Assessments: Could be a formal assessment, however it would be more effective to have them work on projects where they apply the information they just learned, demonstrating they have enough mastery to use that portion of the skill. At Plato University, we have students do a small activity with each lesson. Daily activates are used along the way that culminate in a final portfolio project at the end of the course. 
  • Final Assessment or Capstone project: This is a final demonstration of mastery of the entire skill. Again, recommend this being a project where students demonstrate use of the skill in the real world. As previously mentioned, our activities add up into a final capstone.
  • Note: What's important is these assessment points are not graded. They are more of a question of can these skills be applied or not? They are opportunities for feedback, adjustment, and revision.

Provide support and resources along the way.

  • Find that specific students roadblock to understanding and provide a resource to help them get over that roadblock.

Want Help with Implementing Mastery-Based Learning?

If you would like help implementing mastery based learning in an online course that you're creating, I would love to chat with you. I offer free strategy calls.

There's no hard sells on those calls. They are for really trying to understand what is it that you're teaching, how we can best set up a course, and if you would like further help with that, then we can talk about working together.

If not, then I just want to help you be able to get your course out there and teaching others, turning your wisdom into actionable education.

So let's build something great together.  

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