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Join the 21st Century with Mastery Learning

  • In the 20th century education was more of a rank-ordering process than a mastery process. Exams were offered a few times a semester (or quarter). If a student got 70 percent on an exam, the class moved on to new material and the 30 percent of missing knowledge was conveniently ignored. It just wasn't practical to go back and re-test every student until they achieved 100 percent knowledge of the material. With new learning technologies it is now possible to test and re-test the knowledge that individual student's have concerning a particular topic using large databases from which randomly selected questions are drawn. The computer selects the questions and grades the questions. The student is allowed to keep retaking the exams over and over again until he or she has demonstrated full mastery of all of the material. There are two separate questions here. The first is how quickly a student can learn. The second is what does the student know. In my 40 years of teaching I have learned that some students learn quickly. They tend to get the top grades. Others may not fully understand the material at first. The mid-term and final exams may be catalysts in helping such students learn. Of course, it is better for a student's grade if he or she learns the material before the exam instead of right after the exam (often because of the exam). The surprising thing is that some of my former student's who struggled the most with the material actually ultimately achieved greater mastery of the material and built successful careers based on the material for which they had received relatively poor grades. Some of the student's with the highest grades quickly forgot the material and moved on to other things. The 21st century offers us the opportunity to allow students to demonstrate full mastery of any given body of material. Why deprive them of the opportunity to show what they know once they have achieved mastery? Their records could retain both how long they took to learn a given body of material and the level of mastery they achieved. The mastery method could be used to achieve both objectives of determining both what a student knows and how long it took for them to learn it. Technically it is no longer necessary to leave students behind in the rush to learn new material when they have not yet mastered the earlier material. Professors should now consider joining the 21st century by embracing the new technology and allowing students to achieve and demonstrate complete mastery of a given body of material. 

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1 comment
  • Helen Schleckser
    Helen Schleckser Larry - All good points. I'd be interested in hearing how individuals utilize technology to facilitate mastery and document performance.
    March 16, 2016

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