7 Challenges You Will Face with Mastery Learning

Chad OstrowskiBlog, Innovate Better, Mastery Done Better, The Method

7 Challenges You Will Face with Mastery Learning

Success with mastery learning doesn’t come without challenges.

Working with teachers across the country to implement mastery learning has shown me a lot of things. I’ve seen amazing educators, fantastic ideas, new solutions, and innovative concepts that I think will change education one day.

I have also worked with many teachers to overcome challenges as they shift their classroom from a more traditional model to a mastery-based one.

Here are 7 of the most common challenges I see when teachers start implementing mastery learning in their classroom.

1. You’re going to teach more than you ever have.

While working with an amazing teacher recently, she was explaining how tired she was at the end of the day. I inquired whether she thought she needed to adjust her classroom or make some changes.

She told me the amount of exhaustion she felt wasn’t abnormal, but that now, even though she was exhausted, she felt exponentially better about reaching her students.

So instead of working harder, she was working smarter. But she was still working. Mastery learning is not a free pass for easy work. It can be tiring.

But if you do it right, you should be providing your students with more opportunities to connect, ask questions, and grow. You should be teaching MORE not less.

A common misconception is that self-paced learning is self-taught learning. This could not be further from the truth.

Without this fundamental belief that your learners can thrive, can grow, and can succeed in a mastery setting, you might as well just quit now. Click To Tweet

2. Sometimes students aren’t motivated.

Another common struggle I hear  is that students just “won’t work”, or they are “unmotivated.” While this can certainly present a challenge, dismissing it as the “student’s fault” is not the answer. The simple truth is that if a student isn’t motivated, there is reason.

Are the topics and activities engaging? Are their needs being met? Do they feel safe in the classroom?

All of these are potential reasons for disengagement or lack of effort. Furthermore, whether you are in a mastery-based classroom or a traditional one, an inactive student is one who isn’t learning.

The reason for that lack of activity doesn’t matter if there is no effort in the first place. The goal must become identifying the barrier and engaging the student, so their effort and motivation will grow. A mastery learning environment can provide the setting, but without the reflection, hard work, and your relationships with your students, motivation is typically going to be a problem.

3. Planning based on content, instead of time, might be new to you.

Planning is one of the most important parts of mastery learning. I remember sitting with teachers during planning time in our shared office and discussing planning as a representation of time.

Conversations would consist of discussions like:

Next week is a 4 day week, so Monday I’ll do notes, Tuesday I’ll review vocabulary, Wednesday I’ll just have them do a worksheet, and Thursday we’ll play a review game.

I was no stranger to this way of planning, and, honestly, I was guilty of it myself early in my teaching career. I truly thought this was how you were supposed to plan.

Just open up the calendar and fill in the boxes. If I remember correctly, I literally had sheets with boxes on them that were filled with activities, labs, quizzes, and assignments that I lived by in my classroom.

Then something changed. I realized that it wasn’t the “time” that was important. It is their understanding of the content and the experiences my students were having in front of me. 

If you truly think about it, this is one of the most fundamental issues we have in education. We plan to “fill time” instead of focusing on what our students need, and where they are in their current level of understanding.

This time-based approach has created a teacher-centered structure where we forget about alignment, strategies, and engagement, as well as what makes classrooms purposeful, exciting, and fun.

In education, when we talk about differentiation, assessment, mastery learning, personalization, or any other initiative, one of the most common questions that I hear is, “How do I ‘fit’ this into my classroom?” Upon first read, this sounds like a completely normal question, but I think that it identifies a HUGE misconception.

Best practices shouldn’t need to “fit” into our personal view of instruction. They should be embedded into our pedagogy. Just like I was trying to fit assignments into those boxes and “fill up the time” for a week of planning, we tend to try and “fit” things into our instruction.

It is only when we take these things and incorporate them into who we are as teachers and let them reshape our instruction, that they can truly be effective.

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4. Stakeholders might not understand mastery learning.

Whether it’s mastery learning or anything other initiative, making sure all stakeholders are informed and understand the changes is imperative for its success. Many parents went through school in a more traditional setting. They probably remember their teacher lecturing the entire day (which doesn’t work), or giving homework every night, or maybe even giving “participation” or “effort” points.

It is sometimes hard for parents to grasp newer concepts in education. Because of this, being transparent about moving to a mastery-based model and what it is going to look like becomes very important. Stakeholders are more likely to support what they understand and more likely to fear what they don’t.

5. Grading is different in a mastery learning classroom.

Grading is probably one of the most common areas of concern we see when working with teachers on how to implement mastery learning. This is because the increased focus on knowledge directly lends itself to modifying your grade book to be more standards-based.

This is also a very important component to consider because it is how you will translate your students’ work and assessments into a representation of their mastery, growth, and progress. Grading should be carefully considered.

A simple rule to follow is this: If the grade represents a student’s understanding and mastery of content, it is well founded. If the grade represents the amount of time a student has been in your class, or the number of worksheets they have completed, you should adjust your grading practices.

6. Letting go of control is not easy.

The single hardest personal challenge that mastery learning creates is letting go of some of the control you have in your classroom and giving more power to your learners. The pacing of the class and what they are working on will be more dependent on your students, not your daily plan.

This can be very difficult, but if the right systems and routines are put into place, this can be a powerful shift that drives the success of your classroom. Allowing your students to guide the pace in your classroom can help reduce the stress on you as a teacher and help you motivate, inspire, and facilitate the learning your students experience.

7. Believing your students CAN do it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

If there are 5 words I hate more than anything in this world, they are: “My students can’t do this.

As soon as you say this, you’re putting yourself and your learners at a huge disadvantage. In fact, recent studies have shown that teacher expectation or estimates are one of the highest factors in student achievement.

To put it simply, if you don’t think your students can, they won’t. If you believe your students can, they will find a way.

Without this fundamental belief that your learners can thrive, can grow, and can succeed in a mastery setting, you might as well just quit now. This is one of the most important steps in any change to your classroom, and we all need to believe (before anything else) that our students are capable of amazing things!

While implementing mastery learning in your classroom certainly offers its share of challenges, the benefits it offers still far outweigh them.

When students take ownership over their learning, and when you work to meet them where they are instead of where you think they should be, the results are almost unreal.

We see it all over the country. As more and more educators take on these challenges and make these changes, they’re seeing the same results: increased student achievement, higher levels of engagement, and a renewed excitement for teaching.