eBASE, effective basic services:Mastery Learning

Mastery Learning

High impact for low cost based on limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Mastery learning was originally developed in the 1960s. According to the early definition of mastery learning, learning outcomes are kept constant but the time needed for pupils to become proficient or competent at these objectives is varied.

Subject matter is broken into blocks or units with predetermined objectives and specified outcomes. Learners must demonstrate mastery on unit tests, typically 80%, before moving on to new material. Any pupils who do not achieve mastery are provided with extra support through a range of teaching strategies such as more intensive teaching, tutoring, peer-assisted learning, small group discussions, or additional homework. Learners continue the cycle of studying and testing until the mastery criteria are met.

More recent mastery approaches do not always have all these characteristics of mastery learning. Some approaches without a threshold typically involve the class moving on to new material when the teacher decides that the majority of pupils have mastered the unit. Curriculum time is varied according to the progress of the class. In other approaches, pupils are required to demonstrate mastery on a test to progress to new material, but there is not a specified threshold of at least 80%.

Mastery Learning should be distinguished from a related approach sometimes known as teaching for mastery”. This term is often used to describe the approach to maths teaching found in high-performing places in East Asia, such as Shanghai and Singapore. Like mastery learning”, teaching for mastery” aims to support all pupils to achieve deep understanding and competence in the relevant topic. However, teaching for mastery” is characterised by teacher-led, whole-class teaching; common lesson content for all pupils; and use of manipulatives and representations. Although some aspects of teaching for mastery” are informed by research, relatively few interventions of this nature have been evaluated for impact. Most of the studies in this strand, should be distinguished from this related approach.

1. Mastery learning is a cost-effective approach, on average, but is challenging to implement effectively. Schools should plan for changes and assess whether the approach is successful within their context.

2. A high level of success should be required before pupils move on to new content – it is crucial to monitor and communicate pupil progress and to provide additional support for pupils that take longer to reach the required level of knowledge.

3. Mastery learning approaches are often associated with direct instruction, but many of the high impact studies identified included elements of collaborative learning.

4.There is large variation behind the average impact – mastery learning approaches have consistently positive impacts, but effects are higher for primary school pupils and in mathematics. 

The impact of mastery learning approaches is an additional five months progress, on average, over the course of a year.

There is a lot of variation behind this average. It seems to be important that a high bar is set for achievement of mastery’ (usually 80% to 90% on the relevant test). By contrast, the approach appears to be much less effective when pupils work at their own pace (see also Individualised instruction).

Mastery learning also appears to be particularly effective when pupils are given opportunities to work in groups or teams and take responsibility for supporting each other’s progress (see also Collaborative learning and Peer tutoring).

There are no randomized trials or systematic reviews on the effectiveness of mastery learning in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). However, quasi-experimental studies suggest that mastery learning is an effective strategy to improve attainment.

The research from SSA shows that mastery learning is a promising teaching strategy compared to the conventional teaching method. Using various approaches to mastery learning such as Science Process Skills Mastery Learning, Cooperative Mastery Learning, Computer Based Mastery Learning, and Jigsaw Strategy Mastery Learning, the research shows students exposed to mastery learning as a whole significantly perform better in subjects and subject-specific topics in physics, chemistry, quantitative chemistry, biology, mathematics and English. Notwithstanding the positive results, the research have been conducted mostly in Nigeria and Kenya. Researching the effectiveness of Mastery learning on in other countries, particularly of the Lake Chad Basin like Chad, Niger and Cameroon will further reveal its effectiveness and possible challenges beyond that which has already been revealed.

  • Studies involving primary school pupils have tended to be more effective (+8 months) than for secondary school pupils (+ 3 months).

  • Mastery learning has been used successfully across the curriculum but particularly for reading, mathematics and science. Effects are higher in mathematics and science (+6 months) than reading (+3 months).

  • A high level of mastery of about 80% is associated with more successful approaches.

  • Mastery learning approaches that include collaborative learning can be effective.

Mastery learning works through designing units of work so that each task has a clear learning outcome, which pupils must master prior to moving on to the next task. Core components of the mastery approach that schools should be careful to implement include:

  • Effective diagnostic assessment to identify areas of strength and weakness
  • Carefully sequencing topics so that they gradually build on foundational knowledge
  • Flexibility for teachers on how long they need to spend on any particular topic
  • Monitoring of pupil learning and regular feedback so that pupils can master topics prior to moving to the next
  • Additional support for pupils that struggle to master topic areas

Mastery learning interventions are typically delivered over the course of an academic year, as choosing to take longer on topic or scheme of work requires flexibility in the planning and teaching of curriculum content.

Some schools may decide that certain topics are more suited to a mastery approach than others, and therefore the delivery time could be as short as half a term.

Few additional resources are required to introduce a mastery learning approach. Professional development and additional support for staff is recommended, particularly in the early stages of setting up a programme.

Against this backdrop, the cost of implementing mastery learning within the Lake Chad Basin is likely to be low.

Implementing mastery learning will also require a moderate amount of staff time, compared with other approaches. School leaders should be aware of the extra staff time required and think carefully about other activities they might need to cut back on to provide this additional support.

Alongside time and cost, school leaders should consider how to maximise support for struggling learners and avoid some pupils getting bored or frustrated whilst they wait for others to master content.

The security of the evidence around mastery learning is rated as low. 80 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. Overall, the topic lost two additional padlocks because:

  • A small percentage of studies that have taken place recently. This might mean that the research is not representative of current practice.
  • A large percentage of the studies are not randomised controlled trials. While other study designs still give important information about effectiveness of approaches, there is a risk that results are influenced by unknown factors that are not part of the intervention.

In SSA, evidence on the effectiveness of mastery learning is mostly underpinned by quasi-experimental studies. Given that the pre & post-test research design used in most of the studies do not account for non-program influences on outcomes, randomized trials in future research efforts will better ascertain the extent to which mastery learning approaches are effective in improving attainment. 

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies80
Review last updatedSeptember 2021