This guide outlines key practices for using mastery learning in the classroom.

Know how to make sure your students learn

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers | Focus Area 3.2: Plan, structure and sequence learning programs

Mastery learning is a way of designing units of work so that: 1. each task (or set of tasks) focuses on a particular learning objective, and 2. students must master a task in order to move onto the next one. Teachers use formal or informal assessments to monitor students’ progress and provide additional support to students who have not yet mastered the learning objectives. Research shows that when instruction is sequenced in this way, students learn more efficiently and effectively.

This guide outlines evidence-based practices for implementing mastery learning. Note that some of the examples offered may not apply in all contexts, may be more suitable for primary students than secondary students (and vice versa), and/or may look different in different content areas. Reasonable adjustments must be made where necessary to ensure full access and participation for students with disability.

Children playing in courtyard

The evidence-based practices outlined in this guide are proven to provide the greatest chance of success for addressing learning gaps and disruptions to student learning. These practices will make a difference when implemented in conjunction with formative assessment (know where your students are), explicit instruction (know how to teach your students) and focused classrooms (manage the classroom to maximise learning).

Key practices

You and your students should know what is expected from every task.

  • Identify the set of learning objectives that your students need to address and describe how they will show evidence of mastery. These should be aligned to the curriculum and be responsive to student needs.1
  • Design tasks for your lessons that explicitly teach students each of the skills or understandings required in order to show mastery. Ensure that during each task, you explicitly state and explain the learning objective and what would constitute mastery.2 
  • Sequence the tasks so that they build upon each other. You should be able to explain to your students how each task builds on previously learnt objectives.3 
  • Explain to students how each task is related and builds upon the last; for example, you can show them the progression of learning objectives that you have planned. This may help students understand why you are so determined that they master a particular task before they can move on.4

1 Guskey, 2010
2 Bloom, 1968
3 Bloom, 1968
4 Panadero & Jonsson, 2013

You should know exactly where each student is in their learning.

  • Formatively assess your students after each task. These assessments do not need to be time intensive, formal or assessed using marks. What is important is that any assessment should show you what your students have and have not learned (including any misconceptions) and help you decide if students can proceed to the next task, or if re-teaching is needed.5 
  • Ensure your students receive frequent and specific feedback. Your feedback should help students understand what they were expected to learn, identify what was learned well and describe what still needs to be learned – followed by further teaching.6 
  • Use information from your formative assessments to reflect and refine your own teaching. Ask yourself, ‘Are there patterns in what my students are not learning? Do these relate to how I am teaching these particular objectives?’7

5 Bloom, 1968
6 Son & Simon, 2012
7 Heitink et al., 2016

Take full advantage of your students' learning time by ensuring tasks are adequately chunked and appropriately sequenced for their level.

  • Re-teach tasks to students who have not met the learning objectives. Mastery learning is most effective in situations where all students are learning together at a teacher-directed pace. So, if few students need re-teaching, then try using flexible grouping strategies and differentiated instruction.8
  • Provide enrichment opportunities in class for students who demonstrate early mastery. These enrichment opportunities should allow students to apply their skills and knowledge so that they are challenged in their learning.9 Students might be asked to apply what they have learned in a new context or be guided towards more complex formulations such as higher-order vocabulary, for example. 
  • Once students have mastered an objective, plan opportunities for review and space practice sessions over time. This helps students retain their skills and knowledge – for example, if you assign homework, include some previously mastered tasks, rather than only the task that was covered in class on that day.10

8 Guskey, 2010
9 Guskey, 2010
10 Kang, 2016

Further reading

Bloom, B. (1968). Learning for mastery, instruction and curriculum (Regional Education Laboratory for the Carolinas and Virginia, Topical Papers and Reprints, Number 1). ERIC Clearinghouse.

This paper is one of the seminal papers on mastery learning. It was written for the Regional Education Laboratory for Carolinas and Virginia, which has the primary mission of putting the results of education research into practice. The paper considers one approach to learning for mastery and the underlying theoretical concepts, research findings and techniques required. The author defines the problem of developing a strategy for mastery learning as one of determining how individual differences in learners can be related to the learning and teaching process.  

Guskey, T. (2010). Lessons of mastery learning. Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology Faculty Publications, 14.

This paper outlines the core elements of mastery learning, including how mastery learning works and how mastery learning relates to more recently developed instructional models and interventions. It states that mastery learning is one of the most powerful research-supported strategies in education, and that the core elements of mastery learning provide the foundation for many innovations and interventions that teachers are implementing in classrooms today.  

Heitink, M., van der Kleij, F., Veldkamp, B., Schildkamp, K., & Kippers, W. B. (2016). A systematic review of prerequisites for implementing assessment for learning in classroom practice. Educational Research Review, 17, 50–62.  

A systematic review of 25 studies (4 quantitative, 12 qualitative, 9 mixed methods) on ‘assessment for learning’.  Studies were included in the review only if they: had been published in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal or were a dissertation; involved empirical research; and focused on the use of formative assessment in classroom practice. The aim of the review was to reveal prerequisites needed for implementation of assessment for learning. Results identified prerequisites regarding the teacher, student, assessment and context. Prerequisites included:

  • teachers must be able to interpret assessment information on the spot
  • student engagement in the assessment process is vital
  • assessment should include constructive and focused feedback
  • schools should facilitate collaboration and encourage teacher autonomy. 

Kang, S. (2016). Spaced repetition promotes efficient and effective learning: Policy implications for instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 12–19.

This paper is a literature review that investigates how available instructional time might be optimally utilised via the scheduling of review or practice. It finds that there is ample evidence to support the use of spaced practice to improve educational outcomes, including the efficacy and efficiency of learning. However, spaced practice is not widely applied in the classroom. The paper cites two major obstacles that may impede implementation of spaced practice in education: 

  • teachers defaulting to familiar methods (for example, how they themselves were taught) and/or relying on their intuitions
  • conventional instructional practice (for example, modular textbooks, worksheets), which typically favours massed practice.  

Panadero, E., & Jonsson, A. (2013). The use of scoring rubrics for formative assessment purposes revisited: A review. Educational Research Review, 9, 129–144.

A systematic review of rubrics undertaken using qualitative methodology. Twenty-one studies about rubrics were included in the review. The aim of the study was to review the research on formative use of rubrics, in order to investigate if, and how, rubrics have an impact on student learning. Findings indicate that rubrics may have the potential to influence student learning positively, but also that there are several different ways for the use of rubrics to mediate improved performance and self-regulation. A number of factors are identified as potentially moderating the effects of using rubrics formatively, and other factors are identified for further research. 

Son, L. K., & Simon, D. A. (2012). Distributed learning: Data, metacognition, and educational implications. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 379–399.

A literature review that investigates the benefits of spacing (that is, spreading study sessions relatively far apart in time), as compared to massing (where study is crammed into one long session without breaks). The paper presents data and theory related to the spacing effect. It focuses on the importance of spaced strategies within educational contexts where long-term performance is crucial for academic success, and it discusses the challenges that exist for the practitioner and the learner, including the lack of awareness of the benefits of spacing and the difficulties of deploying spacing. It concludes that spacing leads to better performance (for the most part) than massing and that pacing study is the optimal strategy. 

Additional references

Guskey, T., & Pigott, T. (1988). Research on group-based mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Educational Research, 81(4), 197–216. 

A meta-analysis that synthesises findings from 46 studies on group-based applications of mastery learning strategies. For inclusion in the analysis, studies had to report data on measured outcomes for students (or teachers) in mastery learning and in control classes or have a clear time series design. The paper finds that applications of mastery learning strategies yield consistently positive effects on both cognitive and affective student learning outcomes, as well as several teacher variables. 

Kulik, C., Kulik, J., & Bangert-Drowns, R. (1990). Effectiveness of mastery learning programs: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 60(2), 265–299.

A meta-analysis that synthesises findings from 108 controlled evaluations on mastery learning. Studies were included in the analysis only if they were field evaluations of mastery programs, and performance of students taught for mastery was compared to performance of students taught using a conventional teaching method. It finds that:

  • mastery learning programs have positive effects on the examination results of college, high school and upper elementary students
  • the effects of mastery learning appear to be stronger on weaker students and vary according to function of mastery procedures used, experimental design of studies and course content
  • mastery programs have positive effects on student attitudes towards course content and instruction but may increase student time on instructional tasks. 

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Achieving explicit learning goals  

This resource provides examples of ‘ensuring students know what is expected from tasks’, ‘designing tasks for lessons’ and ‘sequencing tasks’.  

This video is an illustration of practice of a maths lesson in a Victorian primary school. It shows the teacher structuring his lessons around learning intentions and success criteria, using tasks that are clearly defined and engaging, and promoting reflection by asking students at the end of the lesson how their learnings can be applied to their everyday lives.  

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Explicit learning goals  

This resource provides examples of ‘aligning tasks to objectives’, ‘sequencing’ and ‘providing opportunities for revision and enrichment’. 

This video is an illustration of practice that shows a primary school teacher consolidating with his students a previously learned technical skill in soccer, and introducing two new skills. The teacher aims to scaffold skill development in order to support all students. He begins with simple drills and then adds new physical challenges over time. He embeds within the lesson a focus on leadership and self-assessment. In planning, structuring and sequencing the lesson, he makes sure to connect with students' prior learning and to target students' learning needs and strengths. He gives students constructive feedback during the lesson and provides time for them to evaluate their own learning. 

Keywords: practice implementation, evidence-based teaching