The art of mastery

The last 15 Minute Forum of 2016 was led by Kate Blight (Senior Leader – target groups) and focussed on mastery as an approach to teaching.


What is mastery learning?

The overall aim of mastery learning is to ensure that students really understand and know the core elements of a topic/subject before they move on to new content. Mastery learning aims to break down subject content into specific units/areas, which are then taught until students have achieved this knowledge. It is based upon the notion that teachers shouldn’t teach a topic, hope that students have understood it and then move on; but rather that teachers should teach  a topic until they are sure that students have understood that knowledge.

The important aspect of mastery learning is that it is not simply enough for a student to know something, but that they are able to apply that knowledge in a range of different contexts. A good example would be the best mathematicians, who have complete and secure knowledge of the times tables and therefore can apply this knowledge to calculate the most challenging and difficult sums. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) have conducted a research study into mastery learning and a summary of this research can be found here.

Putting mastery into practice

Kate explained how she had used a mastery approach with some of her Maths classes. Initially she had trialled this approach with a low starting point set, but she has also used it effectively with high starting point students.

To begin with, Kate reviewed the Maths curriculum and identified specific topics where students would struggle (fractions for example). The students were then given a baseline test focussed on this topic and this was then marked. Once Kate had identified the areas of weakness for the students, she was then able to group them according to their common problem areas. The next activity focussed on Kate providing clear modelled examples to the students so that they were able to see the ‘correct’ way of calculating the answer. The modelling phase is then repeated, but this time with direct questioning to allow students to show their understanding. Students are then provided with deliberate practice and provided with peer support from the groups that they are working in. The next phase of the approach is to re-assess students’ understanding by asking them to complete the same baseline assessment. If there are still areas of weakness, the teacher would review this areas with a focus on ‘depth rather than breadth’ of knowledge. Finally, students would be tested again on the topic but using a different set of questions – are students able to apply their knowledge in a different context?

Where students had been successful in the baseline assessment and scored full marks, these students would be provided with enrichment activities. These activities would still be focussed on the core knowledge and understanding of the topic, but would allow them to apply their knowledge in a range of different and challenging contexts.


The diagram above exemplifies the mastery approach. Kate has used this approach over a two-week (7 lesson) cycle and it shows the two different pathways for students, depending upon the level of understanding which is demonstrated from the baseline assessment.

The important point to note is that students must achieve 80% or above on either assessment to demonstrate ‘mastery’ of that topic and therefore be able to move on to new content.

How is it effective?

The EEF research (using a number of meta-analyses) has demonstrated that on average mastery learning approaches lead to 5 months extra progress over an academic year. The education_endowment_foundation_1200_630_75_s_c1_c_c_jpg__340x340_q85research also demonstrated that mastery works best when students work in small groups and take responsibility for the learning of others. It also appears that mastery learning is more effective when used as an occasional teaching approach, rather than the norm, as the impact of the approach decreases when used for more than 12 weeks. The final point to note from the research is that a mastery approach seems to be more effective for low starting point students, with an extra 1 or 2 month’s progress being seen over their high starting point counterparts.

What are the potential pitfalls of a mastery approach?

  • Kate has used a mastery approach in Maths, with a very skills based focus. There may be a greater degree of challenge for other subject teachers to implement it into their curricula.
  • To teach a mastery approach to learning effectively requires careful planning. It is not a simple teaching approach which can be delivered without careful consideration of where to use it and how to use it.
  • The EEF research found that there were two groups of outcomes:
    • Studies where students made a great deal of extra progress (5-6 months) or studies where students made very little progress.
  • If used across all subjects and all lessons, the impact of the approach may be diminished.
  • A mastery approach appears to be less effective when students work individually – therefore careful consideration of group size and make-up is required.
  • Management of those students who make rapid progress (and achieve above 80%) needs to be carefully considered so that their progress is not slowed by other students.

This research and Kate’s trials with her classes have found that a mastery approach, as opposed to a curriculum which has a pre-determined pace, is more effective in terms of student progress. However, there are now schools (such as Michaela) who are adopting this approach across the whole-school, in every subject and every lesson. It will be interesting to see the impacts of this approach.

Posted by Martyn Simmonds


This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums, General Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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