Revolutionizing Gifted Education Through Mastery-Based Instruction

Traditional school systems generally adhere to “seat time requirements” in which students must spend at least 9 months in each grade level before advancing to the next. This is the system most of us are familiar with. And, to be honest, it can make sense that students of a certain age are learning in a classroom full of same-age peers that are developmentally similar, both physically and emotionally.

However, as we all know to be the case, not all same-age students develop academically at the same rate. Mastery-based learning, also known as Competency-based learning, serves to rectify this problem. With a mastery-based learning model, a student’s learning needs are the focal point. This may not be the easiest option for teachers or school districts, but it is often the best option for the learner.

Principles of Mastery-based learning

There are common features among the most effective mastery-based learning systems. For example, with a mastery-based approach, all student performances are competency-based and criterion-referenced so that academic success is not based on student-student comparisons. 

In addition, formative and summative assessments are used to constantly inform the learning process, and adjustments to the mastery-based learning program are made to meet the learning needs of specific students. Most importantly, students are given opportunities to make decisions about their own learning including assisting in designing the learning experience and choosing to demonstrate their mastery of a concept through personalized learning options.

How does mastery-based learning work?

A dedicated teacher in Piney Grove Elementary School in North Carolina works to provide mastery-based instruction for all of her fourth-grade students, who work at their own pace each day to improve skills specific to their needs. Ms. Nealeigh helps her students chart their own progress and understand their personal academic strengths and weaknesses based on their competency-based test results. The students take charge of their own learning and proceed with learning the next concept only after they have mastered the previous concept. 

This prevents the all-too-common classroom dilemma in which a teacher feels she needs to move on to the next lesson, even though a handful of students in the class did not master the skill. A similar dilemma, in which a majority of the class needs a re-teach lesson while one student who has already mastered the concept is sitting bored out of his mind, is also avoided.

In deciding whether a mastery-based learning program is likely to be successful in your classroom or school, it is important to consider a few criteria. The National Association for Gifted Children found that mastery-based learning has a positive influence on the academic achievement of gifted students when the program has the support of teachers, students, parents, administrators, and the school district. 

It is also important that the mastery program is based in a classroom and not solely online, and that all the schools in a school system (elementary, middle, and high schools) are following a mastery-based learning program as well. If you would like to implement mastery-based learning in your classroom, talk to your fellow teachers and school administrators. We must all work toward improving our education system, one student at a time.

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