Myth #2 of Mastery Learning – It doesn’t work & that’s why we quit using it

I’m working on a series of blog posts about the myths of Mastery Learning.  Myth #1 – It’s self-taught can be read here!

On to #2…Mastery Learning doesn’t work & that’s why we quit using it.

Mastery learning, like most things in education, is not new.  It has had its fair share of pendulum swings.  There were systems for mastery learning in the 20’s and 30’s and the 60’s saw the well-known Bloom’s Learning For Mastery and Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction.  It has since, however, fallen out of favor and is only now starting to emerge, very slowly, in classrooms again.

So let’s start with the “It doesn’t work” part of this myth.

Does it work?  Although there’s not a lot of new research on mastery learning, because it’s not as widely used these days, there was quite a bit back in the 70’s.  One group completed a meta-analysis of 103 studies on the effectiveness of mastery learning and found that the average student in the mastery learning classroom performed at the same level as the students in the top 30% of the conventional classrooms.  Not only where these differences seen in classroom testing, but in the 11 studies that completed long-term follow-up testing, the differences were even more pronounced after a period of time had passed.  Not only does mastery learning increase performance in the short-term, but also long-term retention!  Amazing!

So clearly, it does work…so why isn’t it being used all over in every classroom then?

I believe there are 3 reasons.  First, it’s a lot of work!  It’s seriously hard work!  The years I taught in a mastery learning environment were unbelievably harder than conventional classroom teaching.  You have to keep up with where every one is, plan to stay ahead of every one, have multiple ways of learning and assessing for each piece of content, students are in different parts at different times, you have to handle labs if you’re a science teacher.  Although there are tons of benefits, it’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.  (My book on mastery learning in the science classroom can help you handle some of those practical issues, though!)

Second, and right along with #1 (it being hard work), there were a lot of “canned curriculum” programs put out that used it and teachers were told to implement it…but like all things, if there isn’t teacher buy-in along with effective and continuous teacher training and support, and/or the packages that are adopted are slapped together by companies looking to sell materials rather than being well-though-out and quality materials, a new technique will “fail” and be thrown out.  We all know of great ideas and methods that were discarded because they were poorly executed…and I’m more than sure that many poorly executed “canned mastery curriculum” packages were produced and left people with a bad taste in their mouths about mastery learning.

And third, it worked too well.  What?  Yep, that’s right…it worked too well!  Think about it.  More students pass a course.  And those students retain the information better.  The next course in the sequence was not designed for that – it was designed for a smaller number of students coming and in and with lower levels of content retention.  The population coming out of mastery learning courses is different than that coming out of conventional courses and the upper level courses weren’t prepared.  One example of this was given by Howard Gallup, PhD, a psychology professor at Lafayette College, in an address to the psychology club:

“Henry Pennypacker managed to get the entire set of general education courses taken during the first two years at the University of Florida into [Keller’s PSI] format.  Florida’s admissions policy was that anyone who had finished high school could enroll at the university.  By the end of the first year, the typical dropout rate was up around 80%.  Under PSI, that dropped to about 15%.  This meant that the university now had many thousands of students wanting to continue with upper level courses,  PSI was discontinued after two years.” (formally at

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