I’ve done some more in-depth reading into mastery learning and some of the other mastery-related instructional approaches. It’s actually quite a big area, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, the point of the project is not to study the concept of mastery, but I do want to choose a model.

After a review of some of the literature, I’ve found some key points. Mastery learning, as a theoretical approach, goes back to the work of Benjamin Bloom in 1968, who came up with the “Learning for Mastery” (LFM) method. Bloom was interested in how he could improve traditional classroom instruction by examining what it was about individual tutoring that made it an effective instructional approach.

Bloom contended that most instructors were dividing their instructional material into smaller units of instruction, but that the way the students’ progress was assessed was not helpful for their learning. To be specific, instructors typically had the students take an assessment at the end of the unit of instruction, which served to give the students a grade for their performance, but regardless of how the student did, he or she continued on into the next unit of instruction without any benefit or lesson learned through the assessment.

Bloom’s proposal, instead, was to have 2 formative assessments per unit of instruction. The purpose of the first assessment is similar to the traditional instructional approach; however, this time, the results of this first assessment are not only used to give a grade to the student, but also function as a diagnostic to the instructor as to what particular areas of the instructional unit the student is having difficulty with.

Those students who failed to achieve mastery for the first formative assessment would now be given further instruction using different instructional approaches (Bloom believed that varying instructional methods would help a larger percentage of students achieve, since learners learned effectively in different ways). They would be assessed a second time to determine how far they had progressed.

Meanwhile, students who achieved mastery in the first formative assessment would go on to learn concepts which extended and built upon the unit of instruction, and their second assessment would primarily revolve around these extended concepts. The purpose was to raise the bar higher, while not leaving the rest of the class behind.

There are other similar or derived approaches; the literature also mentions the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), the Problem Based Learning (PBL), and Outcome-Based Education (OBE) as related concepts. PSI allows students to control the pace of instruction themselves, and use primarily written materials for self-instruction. I don’t think this will fit well into the Chinese educational context. PBL is more concerned with the process of inquiry and authentic learning models, than centrally on the idea of mastery. Fhe focus of OBE seems to be more on the larger curriculum development process, and defining desired “outcomes” or “goals,” then working backwards to instructional strategies. Mastery learning is used frequently in conjunction with OBE, but is not a necessary component.

After brainstorming a little on mastery learning, I’ve come up with a slightly modified model based on Bloom’s. What I plan to do is to have 2 assessments, similar to Bloom’s model, but for students who pass the first assessment, the primary task of the 2nd stage is to tutor and assist other students who did not pass the first assessment. It’s often said that having to teach a subject forces one to learn it in depth. More importantly, I believe that this works relatively well with the collaborative bent of Chinese students, and as long as students’ scores are not comparatively dependent on each others’ success or failure, this could mean a relative win-win situation for all students involved.

There is a question of whether my proposed system will have the idea of group mastery. The idea was that groups would achieve mastery only when all the students in that group achieved individual mastery, and that this would somehow be tied to assessment of the group. While in principle, it could motivate students and provide an opportunity for collaboration, there are negative consequences to consider when a large majority of the group is pressuring an individual who is unmotivated or has social adjustment problems.

But now that I am adapting Bloom’s approach with a collaborative tutoring aspect, I feel more inclined to discard the idea of group mastery altogether, since I am delving into the cultural value of collaboration through different means. If I can think of a different way to approach group mastery that doesn’t have the obvious potential to reduce students’ intrinsic motivations to learn, then I’ll put this back into the site design; otherwise, for now, I’m shelving it.

Here is a list of articles I read, which helped me to understand Bloom’s idea of mastery learning. These are mostly secondary sources, so I’ll need to read up on some primary and peer-reviewed sources later for a proper literature review, but it’s a sufficient start. I’m not taking the time to look up exact references and do APA and all that jazz, since I’ll be getting better references later anyway. 🙂

Articles Read

  • Anderson, S. A. (1994). Synthesis of research on mastery learning.
  • Douglas, C. (2002). The effects of mastery and performance goals on college students’ motivation.
  • ERIC Digest E530. (1984). Connecting performance assessment to instruction: A comparison of behavioral assessment, mastery learning, curriculum-based measurement, and performance assessment.
  • Ford, B. & Klicka, M. A. (1998). The effectiveness of individualized Computer Assisted Instruction in basic algebra and fundamentals of mathematics courses.
  • Guskey, T. R. (2005). Formative classroom assessment and Benjamin S. Bloom: Theory, research, and implications.
  • Guskey, T. R. (1994). Outcome-Based Education and Mastery Learning: Clarifying the differences.
  • Price, R. (2000). PSI revisited: Designing college courses using the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) model.
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