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November 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 3

Mastery Learning, Flipped

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A combination of mastery and flipped learning may be a key tool in addressing learning gaps.

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Instructional StrategiesCurriculumTechnology
November 2022 Bergmann Header Image
Credit: GOODSTUDIO / SHUTTERSTOCK
Closed schools. Remote learning. Physical and emotional trauma. Exhausted teachers. The pandemic has had a huge impact on schools. Perhaps the biggest issue we face going forward is the impact of learning gaps that widened during the pandemic. A recent analysis by Libby Pier and colleagues (2021), reached two key conclusions about the effects of the pandemic on education achievement: (1) There has been significant learning loss in both English language arts and math, with students in earlier grades most affected, and (2) The equity impact is severe. Low-income students and English language learners, especially, are falling even further behind.
So how should we teach in light of these gaps? How can we catch students up? How can we reach students with a wide variety of ability levels and a wide range of comprehension and mastery—in the same classroom? Is there a teaching method that would give students the reins so they can learn at their own pace?
The answer to this last question is yes, and the method is mastery learning. Mastery learning is a cyclical model that empowers students to learn at a flexible pace, systematically offers corrective support when students get off track, and verifies achieved mastery of a specific skill or concept before moving on to the next mastery cycle.
In my science classes, I use a method that blends mastery learning with flipped learning and allows students to master content at a variable pace.
I found my way into this approach around 2008 when my teaching colleague Aaron Sams and I began "flipping" instruction for students at Woodland Park High School in Colorado. Flipped instruction means that direct instruction and basic content are delivered to students through an instructional video or text assignments outside class time, and class time is devoted to application, analysis, and practice, with the teacher present to clear up misconceptions and questions. In our book Flip Your Classroom (ISTE, 2012), Aaron and I describe how we merged flipped learning with mastery learning, dubbing it flipped-mastery learning. Though this model has many iterations, the basics are:
  • Students move through curriculum at a flexible pace and are assessed individually whenever they reach the end of each unit of study.
  • Once they've mastered the material, then they can move on to the next topic.
  • If they don't demonstrate mastery, they don't move on. They get extra support and then retake the summative assessment, repeating until they demonstrate mastery of the unit's content and skills.
I believe any teacher can use this approach to help all students not only make up for missed learning at differing paces, but also become self-directed learners.

Some Background on Mastery Learning

Mastery learning itself isn't a new concept. Doctors must pass the board exam, lawyers the bar exam, and people pass a driver's test before getting their license. These are all examples of mastery learning. It's trickier to use this approach when one is trying to get people of varying ability levels to master the same concepts, facts, and skills according to the usual school timing, but it's quite possible.
Benjamin Bloom of Bloom's Taxonomy fame spent a large portion of his career showing that mastery learning worked to raise achievement, at least as compared to conventional teaching methods, and advocating for its adoption. In 1984, he wrote an article that cited studies comparing student achievement under "conventional teaching," mastery learning, and one-to-one tutoring. The research indicated that one-to-one tutoring produced a two-standard deviation improvement in student achievement when compared with conventional teaching, while mastery learning methods provided some improvement in student achievement compared with conventional methods, but not as much as tutoring did. In layman's terms, this means that mastery learning improves student achievement by one letter grade and one-on-one tutoring increases it by two letter grades.
Bloom challenged educators to find a teaching method as effective as one-to-one tutoring. He stated:
If the research on the 2-sigma problem yields … methods that the average teacher or school faculty can learn in a brief period of time and use with little more cost or time than conventional instruction, it would be an educational contribution of the greatest magnitude. It would change popular notions about human potential and would have significant effects on what the schools can and should do with the educational years each society requires of its young people.
If I may be so bold, I believe flipped-mastery learning might be the method Bloom was looking for. It essentially marries mastery learning with one-on-one instruction, allowing teachers to get high-quality one-on-one (or one-on-small group) time with students.

What Flipped Mastery Looks Like

By now, I hope you're at least curious about the essential elements of a flipped-mastery learning class and what such a class looks like. You might have some doubts about its practicality, as I have found many teachers do when first encountering this approach. What often seems overwhelming isn't the concept of mastery or "flipping," but the logistics of implementing it on a day-by-day basis when teaching, say, 30 students per class and six classes a day. Teachers tend to wonder, Will I still do any direct instruction in my class? If so, how can I deliver it to students at varying points in understanding the content? How can I reassess students on the same content several times? And, a big question, How do I keep track of everything?
But using the model isn't as daunting as it sounds. The best way to understand it would be for you to visit a flipped-mastery classroom. Short of that, let me try to describe what you'd see if you did so, and how I make it work logistically.
No whole-class direct instruction. Direct instruction still occurs, but in a flipped manner, with students watching videos or reading texts as pre-work. This is critical in that it shifts when students take in basic information about what's being learned to what, in the flipped learning world, we call the independent space. New material is introduced (not mastered) when students are alone. One key element is that this pre-work is presented at an accessible level so the vast majority of students can comprehend it on their own. Cognitive tasks that involve application, analysis, and creation are reserved for the face-to-face class time: For example, in a science class, students would do an experiment; in a world language class, they might practice speaking the target language together.
You might wonder how students with limited access to technology fare in this model. Although there are barriers to overcome in low-income communities where not all students have a computer or high-speed internet, teachers have found creative workarounds. Some ask students to do much of the pre-work on mobile devices; others provide some time in their classroom that can be used for pre-work. I've seen entire schools carve out time during resource periods for students to access the pre-learning materials via the school's infrastructure and devices.
In my high school chemistry classes, I have twelve units in a year and each unit on average has six specific objectives. That means that I need to either create or curate 72 separate pre-learning readings and/or videos. After several years of this, I now give students the option of accessing the pre-learning content by either a video or a reading.
A flexible pace. Not every student will be on the same "page" of the curriculum at the same time, but they will move through it at the level appropriate for them. Note that we don't talk about students having their "own" pace. My experience as a classroom teacher is that if you tell students to move at their own pace, some will not choose to have a pace. I generally present the material and concepts at the same pace I did when I taught traditionally and try to help most students master the material of each unit around the same time. I offer differentiated assessments that cover less material for those students who fall a bit behind. I do this by identifying the critical versus the "nice to know" objectives of a unit and making sure all assessments include the critical ones. Students who process more slowly than their peers don't miss any critical learning objectives.

I literally talk with every student in every class every day; in doing so, I can customize the learning path of each student.

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Extreme differentiation and many teacher-student interactions. I literally talk with every student in every class every day; in doing so, I can customize the learning path of each student. This may be the most important feature of a mastery classroom. You might wonder if this can logistically work with six classes a day. All I can say is that it does, in my classroom and in many others across the world.
I make this possible in several ways, including grouping together students with similar difficulties in terms of understanding the content for an instant tutorial session or doing quick, informal "master checks" with, say, four students at a time. I spend class time roaming around the classroom and interacting with students. I'm always in a formative assessment mode—asking questions of students and having students question me. If I realize a student has a misconception, I can immediately correct their misconception and get them on the right track. If I see a student has a deep understanding of the concept, I will try to challenge them to go deeper into the content. This looks different in different subjects. For example, in my physics classes, where mastery is often determined by the "right" answer, I usually can check on whether a student has achieved mastery on an assignment by looking over that student's written work and how they got the answer. But in, say, a writing class, the interaction might involve a mini-writing conference where the teacher comments on, for instance, the coherence of the argument.
So how do I decide who to help in a given classroom? Since I spend my days roaming and interacting with students, I make it a point to touch base with every student in every class (even classes of 30 students). But I prioritize my time by determining which students need more of my help each day and by keeping track of all students' progress on a paper-and-pencil spreadsheet. When I see students falling behind, I make it a point to make extra time for those learners.
Immediate feedback and frequent assessment. Many studies have shown that immediate feedback reveals significantly larger improvement in comprehension. My frequent check-ins mean all students get frequent feedback on what they are learning solidly and what they need help on—and get that feedback close to the time they demonstrated their learning.
Besides the feedback students get on their work as I check in during class time, feedback is also embedded in my assessment system. When students complete a summative assessment, they come to me, and we grade it together. After that, one of two things happens. If they are successful, I ring a gong and we celebrate. If they don't meet the basic level of mastery, I use the session as support time to help them prepare to re-take the assessment later. If I don't have enough time to work with them right then, I put that learner at the top of the list for the next class or schedule a time outside of class for them to get more help.
I create three different levels of summative assessments: students can demonstrate basicclear, or deep understanding, depending on their progress through the content. Students must at least demonstrate basic understanding in this system to move on to the next unit. I usually allow students to choose which level of mastery they want to demonstrate, but in some cases, I'll recommend students either challenge themselves or, if they're struggling, suggest the clear or the basic assessment. This creates an environment where students can all be successful: I can challenge the high-achieving students and provide sufficient supports for those who need it. Each time students retake a summative assessment on the same set of objectives, they get a different test. (I use D2L Brightspace quizzing feature, which allows me to literally have thousands of versions of the same test on the same objectives.)

Over the course of the school year, I find students become comfortable with taking more responsibility for their learning.

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More autonomy. Over the course of the school year, I find each student becomes comfortable with taking more responsibility for their learning. I typically give them a weekly list of objectives they must master. They have choice about when and how they will learn that material. Students have told me in end-of-year surveys that they have taken on more responsibility for their learning as a result of this system. Below, two students share:
I love mastery learning. It gives me enough time to be able to learn the whole chapter on my own time and actually understand it. It really helps when I am at home and I don't have to do the hard concepts by myself. When I get to school, Mr. Bergmann helps and then I am able to retake tests until I understand it completely, just like driver's ed.
This student has taken ownership of her learning. She realized that the "hard concepts" need to be done in class with the teacher there to help her out. I was at first concerned about another student's response (below), because my goal is for students to do the hard stuff in my presence:
Chemistry is my favorite class because of mastery learning! It gives me time to work at the important things at home because I often get distracted in the classroom. It also gives me time to ask Mr. Bergmann questions about the lessons. I love that there are three different difficulties of tests in case one of the students is having trouble with parts of the lessons.
On reflection, I realized that this student's self-awareness has helped her become a more successful student.
Student collaboration. Although each student is on their own individual learning path, they often work collaboratively to learn. I don't usually force collaborative groups. I find students will generally join together on their own in frequently shifting configurations, while working in class to achieve the tasks of mastery. In certain circumstances, however, I have required students to work in a group because I see that they're all struggling with the same topic; I then meet to give that group some targeted help.

Yes, You Can

This brief introduction to the flipped-mastery model might feel a bit overwhelming. It's easy for me to say that all the above things happen in my class, but you're probably wondering how you could make the elements of this approach successful in your classroom.
Of course, teachers in various situations will need to adapt these processes to help their students in their school context. But to illustrate how the basic elements can work on the ground, I've created a short video of my chemistry class. You'll see students working in groups, working alone, completing assessments, and so on. I also invite any teacher who wants to learn more to reach out to me (my email address is in the bio below).
I believe there is also an equity component to this method. Mastery learning has its greatest effect on students at risk of academic failure (Ironsmith & Eppler, 2007). In my experience, my struggling students finally feel like they have an advocate. I am invested in their success and I won't "allow" them to not learn. One student said, "I liked how Mr. Bergmann would make sure we understood the concepts, no matter how long it took."
If mastery learning helps the students who need the most support, at some point, the choice of whether or not to implement it (perhaps with flipping) becomes an equity issue, because continuing to teach conventionally means students most in need won't get that increase in achievement that Bloom's research showed mastery learning provides—or the stronger increase that one-on-one tutoring was shown to provide. I believe implementing flipped mastery learning can have the same large effect in lifting students' learning that individual tutoring would give at-risk students—and can enable teachers to bring students with many ability levels up to needed mastery. And the beauty of mastery learning is that it doesn't require wholesale change in how we operate schools. You have the same teachers teaching the same classes, simply approaching their class time with a different mindset and different strategies. Colleagues, this is doable in any classroom. It's time!
Editor's note: This article is an expanded version of an article initially published by Intrepid Ed News on March 12, 2021.

The Mastery Learning Handbook

Join teacher Jon Bergmann in this step-by-step guide to the mastery learning cycle and come away with templates, models, and rubrics you can start using in your own classroom today.

The Mastery Learning Handbook
References

Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2-Sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher13(6), 4–16.

Ironsmith, M., & Eppler, M. A. (2007). Faculty forum: Mastery learning benefits low-aptitude students. Teaching of Psychology34(1), 28–31.

Pier, L. (2021). COVID-19 and the educational equity crisis. Policy Analysis for California Education, Stanford University.

Jonathan (Jon) Bergmann is one of the pioneers of the flipped classroom movement. He has helped schools, universities, organizations, and governments all over the world introduce active and flipped learning into their contexts. A frequent keynote speaker who challenges and inspires audiences with stories and real-life examples from his classroom, Bergmann teaches full-time science and assists with staff development at Houston Christian High School in Houston, Texas.

Both research and personal experience have taught him that students learn best when they are active participants and that they don't care what their teacher knows until they know that their teacher cares. He tries every day to connect with his students.

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