Myth #3 of Mastery Learning – Kids that are behind will never catch up


It’s been a while since my first two “Myths of Mastery Learning” posts.  The first was on the myth that mastery learning is a self-taught learning environmentThe second is that the reason we don’t use mastery learning all over the place now is because it didn’t work.

This third one is something that I hear expressed often when I talk about student-paced mastery learning.  Teachers are afraid that students will be all over the curriculum and they won’t be able to juggle it all.  That’s a very valid concern and in the beginning of the year it is a struggle…but something happens over the course of the year that I’ll discuss in just a second.

The second concern is that if you take the time to require the students to mastery the skills and concepts that they will fall behind and stay behind – they’ll never catch up.  And actually, that’s not true.

See, that’s what happens over the course of the year – at first students are very diverse in their preparation for your course but then they catch up!  (Solves both the “they’ll never catch up” and the “they’ll be too spread out and I’ll have to juggle it all” problems!)

Some students did well in prerequisite concepts in previous courses and others did not.  They come to you with a wide variety in their applicable prior knowledge.  Student-paced mastery learning means that each individual student does not move on until they have mastered (with whatever level of mastery you’ve defined for your classroom) the current topic.  Others may move on ahead of them.

If you take the time to fill in those holes for the students that are struggling, concepts later in the course that build on those now sturdy-foundations will come much easier to those students.  Students that take 3x as long to cover the intro concepts will not take 3x as long to cover the entire course’s content.  Prior knowledge is a HUGE factor in how well a student does in a course and plugging those prior knowledge holes that are relevant to what they’re learning in your course will allow them to pick up speed over time.

But it goes deeper than that.  It’s not just about filling in the foundation – it’s about showing them the respect that accompanies a student-paced mastery learning classroom (I talked about the transformative power of that in my last post).  Once they truly believe that you’re going to help them do what it takes to succeed and that they CAN succeed, their confidence, self-efficacy, stress-level and attitudes change.  They begin to do better and better.  I’ve seen some students that start off very slow – they have a lot of foundation gaps to fill and a lot of self-efficacy issues with chemistry – end up passing some of the kids that seemed like it would not be possible for them to pass.

How or when have you seen kids catch up when it wasn’t thought possible?  What helped them make that leap?

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