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The 6 principles of mastery-based learning

Innovation in education is a must if we want to keep up with technology and global advancements. The traditional teaching methods no longer serve today's learners. There has to be a paradigm shift in our approach to education.

Teaching needs to be student-centered, but most of all, it should be based on the graduate profile.

Mastery-based learning is a competency-oriented teaching method. It aims to educate students for their future careers and civic lives. Since the labor market dynamic is in continuous transformation and evolution, students need to be prepared for jobs and roles that don't exist today.

How can schools do that? The short answer is that by focusing on developing the skills needed for these ever-changing times. Students should master learning content but also abilities such as adaptability, resilience, and agency.

Read more: How to enhance students’ work-ready skills

Also referred to as competency-based, student-centered, proficiency-based, or performance-based learning, mastery-based learning (MBL) has similar features and principles with all these approaches. Indeed, the common denominator is putting the learner at the center of instruction in terms of the learning experience, the foundation and the outcome.

The 6 principles of mastery-based learning

Without further ado, let’s explore six principles that are the foundation of mastery-based learning:

  1. Learners advance upon mastery of content and 21st-century skills

    Mastery-based learning contains two distinct but complementary elements: the learning content and the skills and behaviors students demonstrate along the way. As a result, it focuses on progress. Teaching ensures performance,  personalized learning, alternative learning pathways, self-paced learning, adjustment of content, and continuous support.

    The final outcome is a well-rounded education that prepares learners for the next steps in their lives.

    Read more: The PROs and CONs of competency-based learning

  2. Schools communicate their standards and expectations clearly to students and their families

    There is a lot of confusion or misunderstandings from learners and their families regarding the requirements. Mastery-based learning aims to clarify and inform everyone involved on evaluation standards and expectations.

    This facilitates learning as students have a much better idea of their learning outcomes, goals, and the entire educational process. Students know exactly where they are and what they need to do to succeed.

  3. Various forms of assessment are reported separately

    Teachers assess each learner individually based on competencies. There is no comparison between students. This means that students are evaluated based on progress and not a standard that they should achieve at a certain point to keep up with their peers.

    Formative assessments help teachers understand when and where to adjust their teaching strategies. They can also offer much-needed academic support.

    Summative assessments evaluate learning achievement. They record students' mastery at a specific time. Teachers can separately monitor and report academic progress and other achievements, such as work habits, character traits, attendance, or class participation.

  4. Schools personalize learning to meet learners where they are emotionally and performance-wise

    With clear expectations and reliable reports comes a better understanding of the learning trajectory of every student.

    Teachers assess students' performance, and based on the results, they tailor instruction to suit individual learning needs.

    Students demonstrate learning progress through differentiated assessments, personalized learning options, and alternative learning pathways. Consequently, they have multiple opportunities to improve the learning process.

    Read more: Using the school LMS to provide emotional support in remote learning

  5. Students have a voice and choice in their learning experience

    Students have the freedom to decide on various aspects of their learning process. They contribute to the design of learning experiences or pathways.

    Teachers create opportunities for students to choose how they want to demonstrate mastery of content. They can give them options or even allow them to establish the what, when, and how to show their progress.

    This facilitates students' agency and contributes to developing 21st-century skills such as taking ownership, adapting, planning, altering, and finally showing their progress.

    Read more: Giving students a V.O.I.C.E. in your classroom

  6. Grading is a communicative tool

    Grading is no longer a coercive tool. It communicates progress and achievement to students and their families. In this way, students will also feel less pressure to always get it right as they have the opportunity to go back and redo assignments or submit extra credit work.

    Grades are not seen as a tool for control or punishment. They are used to facilitate and improve learning.

    Read more: Is an LMS the best grading companion for teachers?

Prerequisites of mastery-based learning implementation

Mastery-based learning cannot be successfully used without the following prerequisites:

  • Purpose
  • Equity
  • Inclusivity
  • Growth mindset
  • Ownership
  • Consistency
  • Transparency
  • Reliability
  • Investment
  • Flexibility
  • Rigour
  • Ongoing improvement

Schools need a clear vision and purpose when designing the learning experience and giving personalized support. Additionally, they need to ensure equity and inclusivity in their programs so all learners can achieve their learning goals.

For the transition from traditional to mastery-based learning to happen, schools need to promote a growth mindset and offer student-centered learning experiences where learners take ownership of their academic development.

Read more: What’s edtech got to do with growth mindset?

Therefore, mastery-based learning requires consistency, transparency, and reliability in vision, scope, and purpose, mirrored in the learning experiences they provide.

Moreover, there's a need for investment in professional development for teachers if they are to use mastery-based learning successfully.

Read more: How to succeed with online PD for teachers

In other words, with mastery-based learning comes a great deal of flexibility, personalized learning and support for each student. However, this does not mean there isn't a high academic rigor involved in the learning process.

In effect, the transition to mastery-based learning takes time and ongoing improvement to fit the needs and requirements of each particular school and its students.

All in all

Mastery-based learning is an innovative approach to teaching focused on the learner and designed with the graduate profile in mind. Students' education aligns with the expectations and requirements for higher education and future life and career.

This approach uses students' interests to engage them in learning. Moreover, the instruction demonstrates relevance to their lives. In the end, what matters is individual progress and a personalized learning experience for students to truly reach their potential.