Mastery Learning in HE

Note: I am actively looking for a term less gendered than ’Mastery’, but have yet to find one. If you know of an alternative, please get in touch.

I saw a sketched graph once; it plotted the attainment vs time-on-task of two different students. I have no idea where it came from or whether it was evidenced. One student was quicker to improve their attainment, one was slower.

different students.jpg

It made quite an impact on me. In general, my teaching is time-limited: I am allotted a certain number of lectures to teach a topic, for example. Students’ time is limited, too: they have important things going on in their lives, as well as several challenging lecture/lab strands.

Even beyond immediate through-degree learning, the deep construction of any advanced knowledge also takes time. Every teacher will know the feeling of not really ‘getting’ an idea until they revisit it with their students, years after learning it themselves.

But time is finite. Pragmatically, we cannot cleverly manoeuvre our way around exam dates or graduation ceremonies. How, then, do we make the most effective use of time? How do we help students maximise their attainment in their stay with us?


Bloom developed a model called Mastery Learning in the late 60s. In this model, learners must ‘master’ a topic before advancing to the next unit of instruction. This is often realised as a very high score (e.g. 90%) in a small test. Students who do not master the topic on the first attempt are given further time and teaching before being tested again. This helps the student to engage successfully with learning later in the sequence, improving their overall learning relative to continuing without having mastered the topic.


Whole pedagogies have been constructed around this model. I remember structured maths worksheets in my primary maths education designed for this - a high mark let me progress to the next sheet, but a low one moved me onto a sheet which tested me on the same ideas again. The evidence for the effectiveness of Mastery Learning in school education is good, but does vary between subjects.

In Higher Education, the scope for Mastery Learning is arguably more restricted. Resources such as Pearson’s ‘Mastering’ range are widely used, and pedagogic motifs such as Voekel’s two-stage formative-summative assessment serve to funnel students’ limited time-on-task into high-value activities. This places a large burden on the instructor’s teaching resources, but also seems to improve student learning.

It is less clear whether there is an evidenced strategy to encourage something so broad (or as valuable) as ‘Mastery of first year material’. The sector-standard pass threshold of 40% is about half the mark which Bloom identified with Mastery, and assessment strategies must reflect not only the students’ grasp of higher-order thinking (which is hard to mark automatically) but also fair staff and student workloads. Summative, end-of-semester assessment is attractive for these features, but leaves a huge time gap between teaching and assessment.

Bloom’s later work suggested (though not everyone was convinced) that it was students’ prior learning which determined their rate of attainment in a topic. In a discipline as linear as Chemistry, Mastery of ‘gateway’ first year material is clearly a prerequisite to engaging with subsequent topics; is a Mastery approach in the first year of Chemistry degrees the way to close gender, racial, socioeconomic, and BTEC attainment gaps?

Michael O'NeillTeaching