Mastery Learning in STEM

Marissa Alonzo
Posted by on July 27, 2017  at 
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By: Amanda James

One of the biggest challenges teachers face in the classroom is ensuring learning for all. What do I do if some of the students get it and others do not? How do I challenge the students that grasp the content at a faster rate than other students? How can I support my struggling students who get lost early in the material but do not ask for help? How can I challenge my students to think critically and problem solve? What activities can I use to provide my students with creative opportunities while still interacting with content?

When I began teaching and was writing lesson plans for my chemistry classroom, I would pay extra attention to ensuring my activities aligned to the learning objectives. Then, the day would come for me to take my perfectly planned lesson and implement it in my classroom. The lesson contained a way to catch the students’ attention and explore a particular topic. At some point an explanation would provide students additional information or give context to the new topic. Later, an activity would allow students to extend what they had learned. A test or quiz would be given at the end of the lesson to measure how much the student learned. Thus I would not find out until the end of a unit of material that students had not met the learning objectives.

It wasn’t long before I realized this method was not the best for my students and did not provide me with a clear picture of what they really knew. We did guided practice and they worked plenty of sample problems, but often they were still unsuccessful on tests. Eventually I decided it was necessary to check for understanding throughout the process rather than waiting until the end of the lesson to determine if they had learned the material.

Teaching STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—lends itself to allowing students to engage in problem solving and critical thinking activities. Unfortunately, due to constraints like state and national standards, standardized testing, and more stringent school accountability measures, teachers tend to use more traditional approaches to learning like lectures, worksheets, and boring presentations. One alternative approach to teaching STEM courses that allows students to engage in critical thinking and problem solving activities is mastery learning.

Mastery learning is a teacher-paced learning strategy in which clear objectives based on the content standards are determined and defined prior to the beginning of the course. Once the objectives are clearly defined, the teacher creates an assessment of each of the defined objectives that specifies the level that each student should make on the exam in order to exhibit mastery of the content material (Block & Burns, 1976). Once the teacher determines what is considered mastery, the students can begin engaging with the content.

Just as with lesson planning, there are several things the teacher must do in order to create a successful learning unit that will yield student mastery of content and skills (Guskey, 2010).

  1. The teacher breaks down the content material into small learning units.
  2. Once the learning units are created the teacher prepares the instructional material. This material can be made up of several small activities and assignments that together produce a larger result, or they can be inquiry activities that allow the students to begin with a question and require them to use their knowledge to develop a product or solve a problem.
  3. Throughout the instructional material, the teacher creates opportunities to provide feedback to the students. The feedback should inform the teacher and student of gaps in the learning or mastery of that particular learning objective.
  4. If gaps are identified, the teacher will provide correction opportunities for the students where they can exhibit mastery, or follow through with additional intervention.
  5. Correction activities that provide students opportunities to demonstrate mastery must be created, as well as enrichment activities for students who master the content before the other students.
  6. Upon completion of the enrichment activity, the student will be assessed again to determine if mastery has been achieved.

In Learning to Teach, Arends (2014) identified several key components teachers should exhibit when teaching to mastery. The first thing to remember is that teachers must believe that EVERY student is capable of reaching mastery! Additionally, teachers should utilize differentiated instructional techniques to provide learning opportunities to multiple types of learners. Teachers must provide timely feedback that gives the learner direction to mastery ad use that input to support their students as they strive for mastery. Mastery teaching enables their students to grow their repertoire and use multimodal techniques in the classroom.