Mastery-based learning, also sometimes referred to as competency-based learning, is an alternative approach to typical grades. Whereas a normal grading system assigns a score based on work completed, mastery-based learning allows students to work on a concept until they’ve mastered it. Therefore, every student should get an “A” in every concept because they keep working at it until they master it. They do not move on until they demonstrate proficiency, especially in subject areas where content builds upon itself.
I believe this is an excellent approach for several reasons. First, it eliminates gaps in students’ learning. As a classroom teacher in a public school system, we had a certain amount of time to teach each concept, and then we had to move on. The students that did not master the skills received a poor grade, landed in a remedial group, and/or struggled with more complex concepts due to the lack of mastery of the previous one(s). When every child works on something until they master it, learning gaps are eliminated. Students have the time and resources to work on something until they truly learn it and can apply it in multiple ways. In other words, practice makes perfect.
Another reason to implement a mastery-based assessment system is that it frees children to work on what they need when they need it. Let’s look at math as an example. Student A may fly through third and fourth grade math in one semester and then spend the rest of the year on fifth grade math doing in-depth projects and applying new knowledge in real-world ways. Student B may spend a semester working on just third grade multiplication and division because it happens to be difficult for him. But, once he “gets” it, he moves on quickly through other concepts, such as fractions, with a secure mastery of the building blocks that ensure success. In mastery-based learning, each student is able to progress at the rate that works for them. Less time is wasted on skills that students have already mastered and more time is spent on skills that prove to be more of challenge.
Finally, this approach respects the student and what they are capable of doing. Rather than comparing progress student-to-student, mastery-based learning compares the student to their own potential. It gives them the freedom to fail and try again and the skills to determine their own educational needs and advocate for them. When students are aware of their progress and have control over their learning, they are more engaged, motivated, and confident.
Mastery-based learning is a shift in thinking and can be tricky to implement. But research shows that it is an effective way of showing progress while meeting the needs of each individual learner. The highly personalized approach of micro schools in general combined with our philosophy of building student agency and self-advocacy make it a fantastic approach for planning and assessment.