On Learning & Mastery

Suppose we define learning as the acquisition of knowledge and skills (and habits of the mind) in some content domain, like Principles of Macroeconomics. Learning occurs when a student interacts with content (and with the instructor regarding the content). Perhaps the lowest potential for learning occurs when the student is merely exposed to content, for example by reading a chapter in a textbook or by listening to a lecture. Such examples of passive learning are less effective at facilitating learning than examples that require students to more actively engage with the content.

More than 30 years ago, Benjamin Bloom reported on some research that speaks to these issues. He and his graduate students considered three learning environments:
1. Traditional Classroom – 1 instructor teaching 30 students (e.g. lecture), with periodic summative testing (e.g. Chapter tests or midterm exams)
2. Mastery Learning – 1 instructor teaching 30 students. Similar to conventional teaching except for the inclusion of frequent formative assessments with feedback and corrective procedures, then retests.
3. Tutorial Learning – 1 instructor with one student. Frequent formative assessments with feedback & correctives…

Bloom’s findings were pretty startling. He reported:

“[T]he average student under mastery learning performed better than 84 percent of the students in the traditional classroom.”
“[T]he average tutored student performed better than 98 percent of the students in the traditional classroom.”

What this implies is that nearly every student can master the content with tutorial learning. Think about that. Nearly every student, not just the best students, can master the content.  Shouldn’t that be what all teachers want?  Of course, few universities can afford to teach that way. The stories of large lecture courses, sometimes very large lecture courses (at least at the introductory level) are legion. This led Bloom to issue a challenge, which has been called “The Two Sigma Problem”: How can we structure instruction that simulates Bloom’s results more affordably than getting a tutor for every student?

Why do students learn more under mastery learning and tutorial learning?

“In mastery learning, the teacher reteaches topics that the majority of students don’t master, small groups peer-tutor one another on challenging topics, and students individually review materials they’ve missed.

Mastery learning works because it makes sure most students learn prerequisite content before moving on to advanced content.  As Bloom puts it, “the class adjusts its pace and path to ensure foundational topics are mastered before moving on.” By contrast, if a class moves on to more advanced topics when students haven’t learned the prerequisites, any subsequent learning will be built on a weak foundation at best. Can a student be successful taking SPAN 102 without passing SPAN 101? Yes, but it will be harder for most to do. If a class moves on from each topic when some students haven’t mastered it, over time more and more students will fall behind. It will be like jumping into SPAN 300 before taking SPAN 101-102 & SPAN 201-202. Some students could do that successfully, but most will not. (By success, I’m not referring to grades, but to learning.)

Tutorial learning takes it a step further by making learning personalized.

“Personalization is defined as differentiating instruction and providing regular corrective feedback based on the needs of each student. This included personalizing both path and pace–identifying and addressing missing prerequisite knowledge, and spending more time where necessary to ensure students achieved mastery of topics before moving on.”

In short, traditional learning means the instructor follows the course schedule to cover all the content by the end of the semester, regardless of how much students have learned. This is because instructors face two constraints: required content and limited time.  Mastery learning means the instructor makes sure the class learns the prerequisites before moving on.  Tutorial learning is personalized, so every student learns before moving on.

Of course, teaching practice in real life occurs on a spectrum. Traditional classrooms can include some review, but the emphasis is covering the content and summative assessments. Tutorial learning could be one tutor with a few students, not just one student.

Mastery and tutorial learning seem to conflict with many teachers desire/need to “cover the content.”  I hear this most often from science faculty.  It would seem that these better approaches take more time, so that one would teach less of the content by the end of the semester.  Now I know that what an instructor “covers” doesn’t or shouldn’t matter if student’s don’t learn it, and I believe that.  But aren’t we setting students up to fail if we constrain ourselves to the same curriculum with the same traditional length term?  This must mean we don’t really expect all students to be able to achieve mastery, despite what Bloom found.  Or it could be a collective action problem.

My response, at least in my face-to-face courses, has been to teach with something like Socratic-questioning, which I try continue as long as students seem unsure about the material. The result is that I cover less content but teach it more deeply, at least that’s what I’ve hoped.

At the same time, it is easy for me to get lazy when I teach online. Since there are no class sessions, the opportunities for Socratic-questioning are limited. I have weekly Google hangouts for interested students; additionally, I offer twitter for daily discussions. As a result, the hurdles for conversation about the content are higher, and so we probably do less of that. At least that’s the case for some/many students.

Bloom said something else that resonates for me here. He postulates that conventional teaching falls short of what’s possible because teachers only call on some students. This can be true of mastery learning (as he defines it) as well. Perhaps this helps explain lower outcomes (or harder efforts) in online courses.

What could online instructors do differently? That’s something to ponder.


Image courtesy of Anne Davis 773 “learning” via Flickr.com

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