Mastery-based Learning

The case for mastery-based learning

By Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn on June 11, 2019

Many of us take it as a given that success in formal education is measured in letter grades, with “A” corresponding to excellence and “F” indicating failure. But our current letter grading system has actually only been widely used since the 1940s  — and it gained popularity not for its accuracy or relevance to student progress, but rather because universities needed a simple, consistent way to compare and communicate performance.

In fact, letter grades and their predecessors — which included four, nine, and 100-point grading scales — have been controversial almost since their invention. Educators have pointed out that grading scales are inconsistent and imprecise, and that they were designed more to rank and compare students than to make clear statements about a student’s ability to apply skills and knowledge in practice.

Moreover, grades became a measure of the worth of a student, which led to enormous pressure to inflate them—faculty didn’t want to disrespect students, parents wanted evidence that their investment was paying off, and the administration liked the idea that the students were succeeding. And, of course, students were delighted to receive high grades for less work and less-than-stellar performance. Unfortunately, such pressure inexorably led to grade inflation, which in many universities has run amok (e.g., over half of Harvard seniors report GPAs of at least an A-).  

What’s the alternative to letter or number grades? One option stems from mastery-based learning. In a mastery-based system, students aren’t graded on a scale and there is no such thing as “failing”; a student has either mastered a set of knowledge or a skill or is still learning. In the latter case, they’re given feedback, support, and practice to continually move them closer to mastery.

Mastery-based learning doesn’t just change grading — it also changes the way students progress through an educational program. The emphasis isn’t on graduating in a certain timeframe or on moving through courses with a fixed cohort of peers; rather, progress is measured by the depth of a student’s understanding, and the student has “completed” a course or program only when they’ve truly mastered the knowledge and skills and can put them into meaningful practice.

Think about it: Would you want your airline pilot to have graduated flight school with a C average? Or your surgeon to have scored only 80% on her exams? Clearly, we want mastery in many domains—and so do employers.

In the past few years, mastery-based learning has gained attention and popularity at both the K-12 and university levels, and its benefits have become increasingly apparent. Several New York high schools, for example, have achieved above-average graduation rates and test scores with a mastery-based learning model, despite serving a heavily disadvantaged student population. For example, Frank McCourt High School Principal Danielle Salzberg says that mastery-based learning “allows [students] to understand themselves and be empowered as learners,” and that the new approach has helped teachers reframe grading as “a way to provide feedback, and not a random act that we do because the quarter is ending.”

At Foundry College, we’ve made mastery-based learning a central part of our curriculum. Each course in our associate degree program teaches skills and knowledge in intentional sequences, with advanced work building upon foundational capabilities. Students are given multiple opportunities to pass each end-of-class quiz — where “passing” means demonstrating complete mastery, rather than eking out an acceptable score. If a student is struggling with a skill or concept, our personal coaches and mentors work with them one-on-one to ensure that they have the support they need to achieve mastery.

Like Principal Salzberg, we’ve noticed that mastery-based learning is incredibly empowering for students. Every student in our program is acutely aware of his or her own progress, from knowing little or nothing about a topic, to nearly passing a quiz, to achieving a perfect score and moving on to confidently apply new skills and knowledge in a more challenging context. And, of course, mastery-based learning is attractive to employers, because it provides concrete evidence of a student’s ability to succeed on the job.

At the end of the day, mastery is what matters — and Foundry College is here to help students achieve deep mastery of future-proof knowledge and skills, one step at a time.