By: Scott Ellis

Over the last few years, we have worked with educators and networks to develop learning objectives and mastery thresholds in a wide range of subjects. In this process, we have found that different types of mastery thresholds make sense for different types of objectives. Some of these examples may be helpful in continuing to define thresholds for other subjects and objectives.

For any objective or topic area, it is important to begin by determining what type of demonstration would be appropriate for a student to show that she has mastered a learning objective—should the student solve problems, complete a project, do a presentation. This will help us determine what the associated specific demonstration of mastery should be (remembering that the mastery threshold will be the same).

Below are some examples of how we have collaborated with particular schools and networks to create mastery thresholds associated with specific learning objectives in multiple content areas:

  • Spanish interpersonal oral
  • Elementary math
  • Mandarin Chinese reading
  • Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Spanish Interpersonal Oral

Over the course of several months, we worked with a leading language educator to develop mastery-based learning objectives for Spanish Interpersonal Oral. Because of the nature of the subject matter and the complexity of the objectives, they have been designed so that the mastery threshold is incorporated into the wording of the objective. Simple objectives like “answer three highly familiar, open questions about daily life with single, complete sentences” and more complex objectives like “answer two open, original questions that call for the description of familiar people with enough detail to visualize familiar people with organized and connected sentences (i.e., using and, but, however)” enable an educator to determine if the student is able to meet the specific learning objectives.

Some advanced objectives also have a frequency or repetition component—for example:  “When speaking, greater than 90 percent of the time, choose the correct forms of articles and adjectives according to gender, singular, and plural.” This approach has worked very well in Spanish and been replicated in French and Arabic, and we are considering other subjects with complex topics where the mastery threshold may be implicitly included in the learning objective itself.

Elementary Math Example

For most elementary math learning objectives, solving problems accurately and relatively fluently is a reasonable way for students to demonstrate that they have mastered the objectives. For objectives like “multiply a one-digit number by a two-digit number” or “round three-digit numbers to the nearest hundred” or “identify the equivalent equation,” we would know that a student has mastered the objective if they can accurately solve the appropriate type of problem. There might be another learning objective that has students apply this learning in context by solving word problems of a particular level of complexity.

The mastery thresholds in MasteryTrack for objectives like these are 9 questions out of 10 within a generous time limit. The threshold is not 10 out of 10 because making a mistake does not mean a student has not mastered an objective. However, if the student makes too many mistakes they probably should keep working on the objective. Similarly, the purpose of the time limit is not to force the student to work quickly; the time allowed is ample and students who have a good understanding of the concept should be able to complete the problems. But if the student takes a very long time to complete the questions they should probably keep working on the objective even if they get the answers right.

As a reminder, these are only thresholds for demonstrating mastery—not daily assignments, activities for practice, formative assessments, etc. A teacher using the mastery thresholds above may still facilitate students’ learning of math through a wide variety of approaches, curricula, project-based learning, or other methods.

Mandarin Chinese Reading

A common option for students to demonstrate mastery of reading in Mandarin Chinese is for a student to read a passage of a certain level of complexity and correctly answer questions about the passage. The questions are multiple choice and based on learning objectives for that level of text. The incorrect answers in the assessment are intentionally designed to force the student to make specific distinctions that demonstrate their understanding of the passage and the relevant concepts. There are objectives for language and vocabulary and also for reading comprehension, with a separate passage for each. A passage has eight to 20 questions depending on the number of learning objectives for that reading level, and a student must master 90 percent of the objectives in order to master the level.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

In our work to define mastery thresholds for SEL, we have found that there are two broad types of objectives that require different approaches to mastery thresholds. Many objectives require a student to show that they know something or can identify something. For example, for objectives like “Recognize and accurately name feelings” or “Explain situations in which one needs to seek help from an adult” a student could demonstrate mastery by writing something or telling an answer to the teacher. So mastery thresholds for these kinds of objectives would be a student doing this correctly a number of times (for example, recognize and accurately name 4 feelings, describe 3 situations in which one needs to seek help from an adult and why).

However, some SEL objectives require students to exhibit a behavior. One example is “treat others’ belongings with respect.” The mastery threshold for this kind of behavioral objective has three parts:

  1. The student needs to be able to describe what it means to treat others’ belongings with respect, to show that they know what it means and what they are supposed to do (this is similar to demonstration of mastery for the other SEL objectives);
  2. The student needs to be able to treat others’ belongings with respect once, to show they are capable of doing it;
  3. The student needs to treat others’ belongings with respect consistently and repeatedly.

This approach is similar to other work we have done to develop mastery-based dashboards for teacher professional learning, since many of those learning objectives also have a behavioral component. The learner needs to show that they know what they are supposed to do, but also that they are capable of doing it and can do it consistently.

As is evident from these examples, the structures and types of thresholds emerging from each of our collaborations vary widely. In all cases the process is focused on student mastery of defined objectives, but the approach to learning does not need to be the same. Learning objectives and mastery thresholds are the starting point for mastery learning and the skeleton that organizes the content for learning and assessment.


For more, see:

This blog is part five of a series on mastery learning, sponsored by MasteryTrack. If you’d like to learn more about our policies and practices regarding sponsored content, please email Jessica Slusser. For other posts in the series see:


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Scott Ellis is the Founder and CEO of MasteryTrack. You can find him on Twitter @MasteryTrack.

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