Pulling It All Together: Examples of Integrating the 5 Elements of Mastery Learning

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash.

By: Scott Ellis

This series has described the goals of mastery learning, its key elements, and important related topics like generating the right data and steps for designing mastery dashboards. As educators start taking their first steps in bringing mastery learning to life in their classrooms, it might be helpful to see a few examples of all the key elements coming together.

Over the last few years, we have implemented MasteryTrack in a wide range of subjects. By describing exactly what we used for learning objectives, mastery thresholds, and demonstrating and assessing mastery, these mini case studies may provide some helpful guidance for effective implementation. They also show the remaining work still to be done—different subjects are at different levels of maturity, and the journey of innovation in this work is still in its early stages.

Elementary Math

Learning objectives. We used the Common Core standards for K-5 math as the starting point but quickly determined that many of them were not specific, clear, or demonstrable. We restructured the standards to enable mastery learning. Then we worked with the math content lead at Open Ed (which was subsequently acquired by ACT). We went through every objective to fill any gaps, eliminate duplicates, and ensure that they were all appropriate. There are three types of learning objectives: computation (e.g., multiply two one-digit numbers), number sense (e.g., replace the unknown number or identify the equivalent equation), and word problems (broken into medium and high complexity).

Since there are several years of content in K-5 math and it would be overwhelming to have them all in a single dashboard, we broke the objectives into three courses: Early Elementary (counting and comparison, money, time, addition and subtraction), Late Elementary I (topics like multiplication, division, area, perimeter, rounding, estimation and factoring) and Late Elementary II (topics like decimals, percentages, exponents, order of operations and unit conversions). This grouping makes it easy for students and teachers to see related content while avoiding grade levels (e.g., there is no “third-grade math” since grade levels do not exist in a full mastery-based system).

Mastery thresholds. For most objectives the mastery threshold is nine questions correct out of ten within a generous time limit (it can range from two minutes to 20 depending on the objective). These questions all test the exact same skill, so they have the same level of complexity. For objectives that require more significant effort (e.g., multiplying two three-digit numbers) the threshold is four out of five. The time limit is quite long and is not designed to reward rapid work, but is simply a rough measure of fluency.

How students demonstrate mastery. The learning objectives for this subject lend themselves well to automatic grading, so this is an option. MasteryTrack has automated grading for the K-5 math content, so students can demonstrate mastery directly in the system. Like any other course, however, the teacher can also manually mark students as “mastered.” We have seen situations where teachers have students demonstrate mastery in another system and then change the mastery status manually in MasteryTrack.

How teachers assess mastery. Teachers can use the automatic grading built into the system, or else they can either grade assessments manually or have students use another system and then manually enter the data into MasteryTrack.

Organizing and displaying the data. For elementary math as well as the other examples the teachers used MasteryTrack to organize, display and monitor the data about mastery-based student learning progress.

Spanish Interpersonal Oral

Learning objectives. We worked with an experienced Spanish educator and curriculum designer to review the existing approach for characterizing student knowledge in Spanish Interpersonal Oral. We started with existing categories like creativity, text type, frequency, and comprehensibility that each had a range of approximate descriptions of capability. We converted these into a series of specific, clear, demonstrable learning objectives in a progress structure that aligns with established descriptions of student capabilities at various levels of novice, intermediate and advanced. Novice and lower intermediate levels have up to five objectives each while more advanced levels have approximately 15.

Mastery thresholds. The mastery thresholds for most objectives are inherent in the learning objective—for example, “Answer 3 highly familiar, closed questions about daily life with single, complete sentences.” In most cases, the student needs to be able to achieve the objective once (e.g., they don’t need to do what the objective says multiple times, as is sometimes the case in other courses), though some objectives may require a student to ask or answer multiple questions.

How students demonstrate mastery. Students are interviewed by a teacher and answer questions of various levels or conduct a role play.

How teachers assess mastery. The teacher conducts an interview with the student and tracks whether the student masters specific objectives. If the teacher is just beginning to use MasteryTrack with the student, the first interview may be a longer one with the goal of establishing a baseline of the student’s current learning level. Future interviews are shorter and focused on assessing the student’s mastery of specific learning objectives. The student’s mastery status is entered manually into the system.

Since the learning objectives are specific and clear, the assessment of mastery does not need to be done by the teacher. Aides or even parent volunteers can be used to assess mastery with relatively limited guidance and training, as long as teachers or administrators are confident that this will provide reasonable inter-rater reliability. We saw this work well in a school that started with teachers conducting the interviews and then transitioned to have volunteers do many of them. Over time teachers come to trust the assessments of mastery provided by others, similar to how a doctor trusts the results of a blood test performed by a laboratory and does not feel compelled to replicate the test herself.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Learning objectives. We worked with researchers at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and determined that their well-established framework provided the appropriate high-level structure for learning objectives in SEL. We then looked at the work done by many of CASEL’s state and district partners across the country and determined that Austin ISD in Texas has done an outstanding job of converting the CASEL framework into specific, clear, and demonstrable learning objectives. Austin’s structure organizes the objectives by grade band (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-10, and 11-12) and this aligns well with what we have seen in other content areas. We connected with the SEL team in Austin and then created mastery-based dashboards for SEL in MasteryTrack using the CASEL framework and the Austin objectives.

We think the grade band approach does a nice job of bridging between the current grade-level system of U.S. education and a pure mastery-based approach in which the age and grade level of the student is irrelevant. In many courses, it also works well because the resulting number of learning objectives to be displayed on the mastery dashboard is feasible for users to read. When schools have multiple courses that use the same grade bands they can easily generate a consistent view of student learning across subject areas.

Mastery thresholds. We did not find strong existing mastery thresholds for the learning objectives in SEL. Educators were often quickly able to describe what success looks like for a few objectives, but not many. We created “version 1.0” of mastery thresholds for part of K-2 SEL and shared it with several educators. The responses contained some nervousness about assessment, but also excitement that the clarity of mastery learning and everything it entails (growth mindset, low-stakes assessment, no such thing as failure, etc.) could provide a path towards more effective teaching and learning in SEL.

How students demonstrate mastery. For many objectives that ask a student to show they know a fact, students either write an answer or tell it to a teacher. In cases where students need to demonstrate a behavior consistently over time, they show mastery simply by doing so–for example, “Demonstrate the ability to respect personal space.”

How teachers assess mastery. Teachers assess mastery in SEL in various ways depending on the nature of the learning objective and the associated student demonstration. In situations where students are writing or saying answers to show they know a fact, the teacher can manually grade student-written or oral responses. For learning objectives that require behaviors, teachers can assess these themselves or use other approaches that may include group work or peer feedback.

Other Subjects and the Path Forward

Over the past few years, we have worked with educators in social studies, English language arts, science and other subjects. These are similar to the structure of SEL described above: there are often existing standards or other sources of learning objectives, but mastery thresholds and approaches for demonstrating and assessing mastery need to be defined. This is a key part of the work ahead for mastery learning, but it is very feasible.

To support integration of the five elements of mastery learning, we’ve created this infographic:

As this work evolves, MasteryTrack is excited to work with additional innovators and share the learning objectives, mastery thresholds, and everything else we create together, helping all schools nationwide move forward with mastery learning.

For more, see:

This blog is part eight 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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