Mastery Learning in Public Schools
Denese Davis and Jackie Sorrell

Source: Davis, D., & Sorrell, J. (1995, December). Mastery learning in public schools. Paper prepared for PSY 702: Conditions of Learning. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Available online: []

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This paper presents a definition, the history, a literature review, and implementation experiences of mastery learning. Mastery learning is an alternative method of teaching and learning that involves the student reaching a level of predetermined mastery on units of instruction before being allowed to progress to the next unit. Mastery learning is not a new concept; it was introduced into American education over 70 years ago. It is a process whereby students achieve the same level of content mastery but at different time intervals. The literature indicates positive effects of mastery learning on students, especially in the areas of achievement, attitudes toward learning, and the retention of content. School systems that have implemented mastery learning have found it to be a very effective teaching and learning method.

Mastery Learning In Public Schools

As a nation we have moved from the agricultural age to the information age in less than 100 years. Changes are taking place rapidly in the economic arena due to advances in technology. However, similar changes have yet to be made in education. Gallagher and Pearson (1989) reviewed several studies on classroom practices and reported that from 1893 to 1979, instructional practice remained about the same. Robinson (1992) states that student characteristics as well as societal expectations have changed, while traditional methods and modes of instruction are still employed by a large number of educators. This is leading to a growing concern that the nation's schools are unable to educate the youth of America and therefore, nontraditional methods and modes of instruction must be evaluated. This paper addresses one such method of nontraditional instruction: mastery learning.

The mastery learning method divides subject matter into units that have predetermined objectives or unit expectations. Students, alone or in groups, work through each unit in an organized fashion. Students must demonstrate mastery on unit exams, typically 80%, before moving on to new material. Students who do not achieve mastery receive remediation through tutoring, peer monitoring, small group discussions, or additional homework. Additional time for learning is prescribed for those requiring remediation. Students continue the cycle of studying and testing until mastery is met. Block (1971) states that students with minimal prior knowledge of material have higher achievement through mastery learning than with traditional methods of instruction.

The developers of mastery learning assert that it is most useful with basic skills and slow learners at both elementary and secondary levels. Group instruction is often given to the entire class by the instructor with individual time for learning provided until mastery is met. The goal of mastery learning is success for the student. It is asserted that success in achievement, attitude, and motivation in the education or learning environment makes learning more effective.

The mastery learning concept was introduced in the American schools in the 1920's with the work of Washburne (1922, as cited in Block, 1971) and others in the format of the Winnetka Plan. The program flourished during that decade; however, without the technology to sustain a successful program, interest among developers and implementers steadily diminished (Block). Mastery learning was revived in the form of programmed instruction in the late 1950's in an attempt to provide students with instructional materials that would allow them to move at their own pace and receive constant feedback on their level of mastery. During the 1960's Bloom's (1968) Learning for Mastery focused new attention on the philosophy of mastery learning. Bloom (1968) is now generally recognized as the classic theoretical formulation on the mastery model. He is widely viewed as the major theoretician and promulgator of mastery learning. Bloom made a number of specific predictions about the gains from mastery learning procedures. One is that in classes taught for mastery, 95% of the students will achieve at the level previously reached by the top 5%. That means that typical scores in a mastery classroom should be around the ninety-eighth percentile, or approximately two standard deviations above the mean. Bloom has also argued that students do not have to put in much more time on school tasks to achieve this level of proficiency. Although students taught for mastery may need more time to reach proficiency in the initial stages of a course, they should need less time to master more advanced material because of the firm grasp of fundamentals that they should gain from their initial efforts. Bloom maintains that besides mastery of the material to be learned, mastery learning increases the attitude and interest of students (Fehlen, 1976). He and his students have conducted many empirical studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of mastery programs in a wide variety of circumstances (Levine, 1987). Bloom suggests that mastery learning procedures are likely to enhance learning outcomes in most all subject areas. However, he suggests that effects will be largest in mathematics and science since learning in these subject areas is generally more highly ordered and sequential (Guskey & Gates, 1986).

From John Carroll (1963), Bloom derived a critical and quantitative ingredient of instruction--time. In Carroll's formulation, learning is a function of time spent divided by time needed. One important variable related to time needed is student aptitude, which Carroll defines as the amount of learning time necessary for a student to master an objective under optimal conditions. Carroll indicates that if a student is allowed the time he/she needs to achieve a particular level and if he/she spends the amount of time needed, he/she should achieve at that level. Bloom has attempted, through mastery learning techniques, to ensure that almost all students demonstrate high levels of competence on school material and to reduce the amount of time the student needs to learn school-related content.

In summary, mastery learning is not a new method of instruction. It is based on the concept that all students can learn when provided with conditions appropriate to their situation. The student must reach a predetermined level of mastery on one unit before they are allowed to progress to the next. In a mastery learning setting, students are given specific feedback about their learning progress at regular intervals throughout the instructional period. This feedback, helps students identify what they have learned well and what they have not learned well. Areas that were not learned well are allotted more time to achieve mastery. Only grades of "A" and "B" are permitted because these are the accepted standards of mastery. Traditional instruction holds time constant and allows mastery to vary while mastery learning or systematic instruction holds mastery constant and allows time to vary (Robinson, 1992).

Review of Related Literature

Extensive research has been done since Bloom's (1968) seminal article on mastery learning. This literature review will first discuss several meta-analyses covering major aspects of mastery learning and then report on research studies which have isolated specific aspects of mastery learning.


Guskey and Gates (1986) conducted a meta-analysis which contained 27 studies addressing five areas: student achievement, student retention, time variables, student affect, and teacher variables. They found that achievement results were overwhelmingly positive, but varied greatly from study to study. Students in mastery learning programs at all levels showed increased gains in achievement over those in traditional instruction progam; effects were somewhat larger in elementary and junior high school classes than at the high school level. Effects in language arts and social studies classes were slightly larger than those attained in science and mathematics classes. Students retained what they had learned longer under mastery learning, both in short-term and long-term studies. Students were engaged in learning for a larger portion of the time they spent in mastery classes and required decreasing amount of corrective time over a series of instructional units. Students developed more positive attitudes about learning and about their ability to learn. Finally, teachers who used mastery learning developed more positive attitudes toward teaching, higher expectations for students, and greater personal responsibility for learning outcomes.

Guskey and Pigott (1988) conducted a meta-analysis in an attempt to answer several questions about group-based mastery learning. Those questions were: How effective is the typical group-based mastery learning program? What types of educational outcomes are affected by the use of mastery learning? Do programs vary in their effectiveness depending upon the subject matter to which they are applied? Are programs more or less effective depending upon the grade level or age of the students involved? And does the duration of the study affect the magnitude of the results attained? The authors began with 1000 research articles and narrowed the number to 46 using the following criteria: applications of mastery learning that were clearly group-based and teacher-paced; studies had to report data on measured outcomes for students in mastery learning and in control classes; and the studies had to be free from serious methodological flaws.

The 46 studies included in the synthesis contained findings on program effects in the same five areas addressed by Guskey and Gates (1986): student achievement, student learning retention, time variables (including measures of time on task and time spent), student affect, and teacher variables. They found that student achievement was the primary variable of interest in the vast majority of these studies. In regards to student achievement, a positive effect was obtained as a result of the application of group-based mastery learning strategies. However, statistically significant differences were found among subject areas, indicating that the effect size differs depending upon the subject area to which mastery learning was applied. Bloom (1968) suggested that mastery learning would enhance learning in all subject areas with larger effects in mathematics and science. This analysis found more positive effects in language arts.

Again, positive effects of mastery learning were seen across all levels of education; they appeared to be larger for younger students in elementary classrooms than for older high school or college students. Only 7 of the 46 studies investigated student retention of learned material over a 4-week to 4-month time period. The results showed that group-based mastery learning strategies do appear to have a positive effect upon students' retention of the material. The authors suggested that more studies are needed involving short-term retention as well as long-term retention.

Three variables related to time were investigated: time on task, student attendance and attrition rates, and instructional time. All three of these variables showed positive effects. Remediation time spent by students and instructors significantly decreases as the student reaches higher instructional units. The authors state that learning rate appears to be an alterable characteristic and mastery learning procedures may be one way slow learners can be helped to increase the rate at which they learn. When investigating student affect the authors found students who learned under mastery conditions generally liked the subject they were studying more, were more confident of their abilities in that subject, felt the subject was more important, and accepted greater personal responsibility for their learning than students who learned under non-mastery conditions. In the area of mastery and its effects upon teachers it was found in one study that the expectations formed by teachers about students' abilities was increased because many students had far greater achievement than the teacher originally anticipated. Another study found that teachers who use mastery learning and see improvement in student learning outcomes began to feel better about teaching and their roles as teachers. The authors found the effects of mastery learning were positive but not as large as mastery learning advocates had suggested. They suggested further studies in all areas.

Kulik, Kulik and Bangert-Downs (1990) conducted a meta-analysis involving 108 evaluations of mastery learning programs. The outcome measures used were performance on examinations at the end of instruction, attitude towards instruction, attitude toward content, and course completion. Performance on examinations at the end of instruction showed positive effects on student achievement although these effects were higher on locally prepared examinations than on nationally standardized test. The majority of studies showed a positive correlation in student attitudes towards instruction and content of mastery learning programs. When analyzing 32 studies related to course completion comparing mastery and traditional classes, only nine studies found a higher completion rate in the mastery class. This reduced effect was found to be related to self-paced mastery learning.

The meta-analysis by Kulik et al. (1990) found data that led to the analysis of additional outcomes that the authors did not originally intend to analyze. The benefits obtained from mastery learning were found to be enduring, not short term. After 8 weeks of instruction mastery scores remained consistently higher than those of students in traditional classes. The data showed that the effects of mastery programs were not uniform on all students in a class; low aptitude students were found to have higher gains than high aptitude students. No significant increase in time-on-task was found which was a contradiction to widely held beliefs by many authors concerning mastery learning. More positive effects were found in relation to social science than to math and natural sciences. One prediction from the mastery model was that mastery teaching would raise the performance of 95% of the students to a level ordinarily achieved by only the top 5%.

To achieve such an improvement in student performance, an increase in average score of more than two standard deviations would be necessary. The authors found an increase of only 0.5 standard deviations. However, the authors stated that in evaluation after evaluation mastery programs have produced more impressive gains than other educational programs.

Other Effectiveness Studies

Research has been conducted comparing the effects of mastery learning alone, mastery learning with teams, teams alone, and traditional instruction on student achievement (e.g., Mevarech, 1985; Slavin & Karweit, 1984). These studies were similar in their design, yet the end result of each study was very different. Slavin and Karweitt reported that student achievement was affected by the team treatment and not the mastery learning treatment. Mavarech reported that mastery learning was the indicator that significantly increased achievement. He stated that the team component of the study had little to do with achievement. Mavarech theorizes the difference in the results of the two studies is related to socioeconomics. The subjects in Slavin and Karweitt's study were all from low-income families, whereas Mavarech's subjects were middle-class families. Dunkelberger and Heikkinen (1984) performed a very specific research study investigating only one aspect of mastery learning: repeatable testing. Achievement was examined using subjects who were allowed to repeat tests and subjects who were allowed only one attempt at the test. The findings of the study showed no significant correlation between achievement and repeatable testing. The authors state that cognitive gains obtained from mastery learning are related to a combination of remediation and retesting, not retesting alone.

Mastery learning's effect on achievement and motivation was examined by Clark, Guskey, and Benninga (1983). The study examined a mastery learning group and a traditional group that used the lecture format. The main variable for this study was motivation and its effect on student achievement. These authors found that the mastery learning group demonstrated higher levels of achievement, fewer absences, and more motivation toward learning course material. In a similar study, Ritchie and Thorkildsen (1994) examined achievement and accountability. This study compared two mastery learning groups. The treatment variance was that one group was aware they were in a mastery learning program while the other group was unaware. These authors found a statistically significant difference between the two groups with the informed group showing higher levels of achievement. They theorized this difference may have related to the awareness and the subjects may have been more motivated to meet the specific goals. That is the informed group may have altered their attention to the learning environment.  Both of these studies challenge claims of mastery learning critics that conclude mastery learning programs increase achievement solely by increasing instructional time because of remediation.

Wentling (1973) compared mastery learning and non-mastery learning as to how feedback relates to achievement. This study examined four specific areas: immediate cognitive achievement, attitude toward instruction, time spent on instruction, and delayed cognitive achievement. Each group received feedback in one of the three forms: no feedback, partial feedback (knowledge of correctness of response) and total feedback (knowledge of correct response). The findings from this study showed superior achievement for both immediate achievement and long-term retention in groups with partial feedback.   However, time spent on instruction and attitude toward instruction showed no significant difference. The author states low-ability students spent more time on instruction than the high ability students for the no feedback treatment and the partial feedback treatment, but within the total feedback treatment the high ability students spent more time than the low ability students.

One aspect of mastery learning that receives much consideraton is time. Mastery learning theorists, especially Bloom (1971), contend that mastery learning techniques reduce the amount of time needed to achieve mastery. Arlin and Webster (1983) conducted an experiment to test these time claims. Mastery learning students were compared to non-mastery students. The variables assessed were achievement, time, and learning rate. The authors found significant increases in learning rate and achievement in the mastery group. In relation to learning rate, mastery students learned 15.75 items per hour as compared to 12.08 items in the non-mastery students. The mastery students spent significantly more time on instruction areas than non-mastery students. Mastery students averaged 40.9 minutes per chapter, in contrast to 20.8 minutes per chapter in non-mastery students. In summary, these authors state it is possible to significantly raise achievement levels using mastery learning, but the time needed for this increase is considerable.

Another important component of mastery learning is mastery teaching. Okey (1974, 1977) examined the materials necessary in order to teach mastery learning, teachers and students attitudes toward mastery learning, and student achievement. Significant positive effects were discovered in all areas. Instructors were found to incorporate new teaching strategies into the classroom that positively influenced both themselves and their students toward the learning process.

The literature has, for the most part, indicated positive effects of mastery learning on students. It should be noted that much of the research is fragmented. During the 1970's and 1980's there were numerous research studies conducted on mastery learning; since the late 1980's the research has declined. There has been areas of overlap especially in the area of academic achievement. One area that needs further examination relates to teachers, specifically the training necessary to implement mastery learning and teaching toward testable content. Another area for examination is the academic gains associated with remediation versus retesting. Lastly, is the long term retention of content with long term retention defined in months to years. Further research will be necessary in these areas of debate if we are to enhance the trend toward implementation of this instructional paradigm known as mastery learning.

School-Based Implementations

Research on implementing mastery learning for the most part endorses the mastery learning method and the claims of the mastery learning developers. Keeping the research in mind, it is necessary to look at school systems that have implemented mastery learning programs. School administrators, classroom teachers, and others involved in educational decision-making must be made aware of the research findings. The information obtained from research and implementation studies can be used to develop restructuring plans in school systems willing to meet the changing world climate.

Patterson (1993) discussed the restructuring efforts at a high school in Colorado based on demands for higher standards and higher student achievement. This school discarded old policies and practices and adapted mastery learning standards. Implemented changes included 75% achievement on each unit and retakes for those who did not meet the 75% requirement. This change in mastery level led to an eight-period schedule with four 90-minute periods per day in order to meet student needs. One of the 90-minute periods was designated as the Encore period in which students could seek assistance in areas of decreased mastery or work on other areas of study. Because of restructuring the students are succeeding due to higher expectations and a schedule that accommodates their needs. Teachers have fewer interruptions and can ensure all students have a firm understanding of the material covered in class. Academically, the students are achieving higher test scores and more students are advancing to college since the transition to the mastery learning program.

An innovative approach to a summer school biology course in North Carolina was discussed by Hill and Hounshell (1991). Summer school is conducted for those who failed the course previously. These students generally have a dislike for both school and the course they are required to retake. The schedule for summer school is designed to cover a full academic year in five to six weeks with three to five class hours per day. The school system implemented six teaching strategies in an attempt to increase student achievement, student attitudes, parent attitudes, and student attendance. All students participated in all six teaching strategies. Mastery learning was one of those six and was used to help create successful student objectives, to aid in individualizing instruction to each student, and to stress the importance of time on task. Students were monitored closely and required to achieve 80% on all graded work. The results for this combination of six strategies showed improved achievement, decreased absenteeism and tardiness, and improved attitudes from students, teachers, and parents.

Arredondo and Block (1990) discuss the integrative efforts necessary to make the connection between educational models and the educational environment. Specifically, they look at the efforts of two school districts that have successfully integrated mastery learning along with thinking skills into their curriculum. Both districts began their integration in the early 1980s and have spent considerable time deciding on the specific content to be taught and evaluated. Each district has shown considerable increase in achievement while at the same time students have been provided with the basic framework necessary to connect one fragment of instruction with another (Smith, 1989). Arredondo and Block emphasize the need for educators to be knowledgeable about research related to educational methods in order to make distinctions between the many research studies that may be applicable in any one specific instructional interaction.

Chicago Mastery Learning Reading Program (CMLR) is an integral part of language arts instruction in many schools. It was developed by the Chicago Board of Education in order to systematize mastery learning as the instructional approach to reading throughout the city's schools. CMLR is a kindergarten through eighth grade program that consists of student workbooks, tests and teacher manuals dealing with word attack, study skills, and comprehension concepts. CMLR is organized on a mastery learning model. It has specific objectives and standards of mastery for each unit along with a model that introduces and reiterates essential prerequisites in logical increments (Levine, 1985). Three schools, one in California, one in Ohio, and one in Missouri each have successfully implemented this mastery learning model. Several points emerge from these successful programs: 1) mastery learning provides a model of instruction that is effective for a wide range of students, 2) mastery learning reduces the academic spread between the slower and faster students without slowing down the faster students, and 3) the skills and concepts have been internalized and put to use in other areas of the curriculum. Along with academic gains, student attitude and self-image have also improved. In regards to the implementation in these schools it should be noted that the transition was voluntary, the teachers played a role in decision making, and staff development was a major factor.

Levine (1985) suggests some major points for school systems to explore when considering implementing a mastery learning program. Foremost, the principal must take on the role of instructional leader. Instructional leadership involves an understanding of mastery learning principles, a commitment to preparing and supporting staff, constant awareness, and a system for setting and monitoring goals, directions, and results of the program. Another important point is planning prior to the implementation of the mastery learning program. Principles must be developed and all involved must have a clear understanding of the program. Selecting material that is well organized and conforms to the principles enables easier transition to the program for both the student and teacher.

The plan must also include a method to monitor student achievement as well as student and teacher attitude toward the mastery learning program. Concrete results have been observed in the areas of student achievement, improved attitude, and increased expectations in all school systems addressed. Each school system reviewed literature and voluntarily choose the mastery learning approach. By implementing mastery learning these school systems have shown the capability to attain the scholastic excellence that is increasingly demanded in today's changing economy.

Summary and Conclusions

The Department of Labor's Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS,1991) report outlines the requirements of today's ever changing technology. The SCAN's report provides a blueprint of basic foundations necessary for success in the workplace. These foundations are: basic skills, thinking skills, and personal qualities. The research and implementation studies on mastery learning show significant positive effects in each of these areas. By using mastery learning programs in the basic skills areas, the academic foundation for success in the twenty-first century can easily be reached by the vast majority of our student population. 

School systems must recognize that traditional methods of teaching and learning are unsuccessful for many students. Mastery learning is an alternative to the unsuccessful traditional methods of teaching and learning. Robinson (1992) states a change from traditional curriculum and instruction models and adoption of a new method will require major restructuring of how the schools are organized and how teachers are prepared and empowered. School systems have the task of defining success, determine what it requires to be successful in the twenty-first century, and then evaluating research, outcomes, and discussions of which method would best be implemented to meet each individual's needs.