A fundamental change in thinking about the nature of instruction was initiated in 1963 when John B. Carroll argued for the idea of mastery learning. Mastery learning suggests that the focus of instruction should be the time required for different students to learn the same material. This contrasts with the classic model (based upon theories of intelligence ) in which all students are given the same amount of time to learn and the focus is on differences in ability. Indeed, Carroll (1989) argues that aptitute is primarily a measure of time required to learn.
The idea of mastery learning amounts to a radical shift in responsibility for teachers; the blame for a student’s failure rests with the instruction not a lack of ability on the part of the student. In a mastery learning environment, the challenge becomes providing enough time and employing instructional strategies so that all students can achieve the same level of learning (Levine, 1985; Bloom, 1981).
The key elements in matery learning are: (1) clearly specifying what is to be learned and how it will be evaluated, (2) allowing students to learn at their own pace, (3) assessing student progress and providing appropriate feedback or remediation, and (4) testing that final learning critierion has been achieved.
Mastery learning has been widely applied in schools and training settings, and research shows that it can improve instructional effectiveness (e.g., Block, Efthim & Burns, 1989; Slavin, 1987). On the other hand, there are some theoretical and practical weaknesses including the fact that people do differ in ability and tend to reach different levels of achievement (see Cox & Dunn, 1979). Furthermore, mastery learning programs tend to require considerable amounts of time and effort to implement which most teachers and schools are not prepared to expend.
The mastery learning model is closely aligned with the use of instructional objectives and the systematic design of instructional programs (see Gagne, Merrill). The Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI) model of Mager is an attempt to implement the mastery learning model. In addition, the theoretical framework of Skinner with its emphasis on individualized learning and the importance of feedback (i .e., reinforcement) is also relevant to mastery learning.
Block, J. H., Efthim, H. E., & Burns, R.B. (1989). Building Effective Mastery Learning Schools. New York: Longman.
Bloom, B.S. (1981). All Our Children Learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Carroll, J. B. (1963). A model of school learning. Teachers College Record, 64, 723-733.
Carroll, J.B. (1989). The Carroll model: A 25 year retrospective and prospective view. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 26-31.
Cox, W.F. & Dunn, T. G. (1979). Mastery learning: A psychological trap? Educational Pyschologist, 14, 24-29.
Slavin, R.E. (1987). Mastery learning reconsidered. Review of Educational Research, 57(2), 175-214.