Teaching to maximize retention through mastery learning

Making people learn is tough. I’ve taught classrooms ranging from 1 person to around 3000 (through an online course), and the gap between what I teach and what students learn has always been present.

This is true for all teachers, of course, but I think I’ve felt it more than most. As someone who’s self-employed and charges by the hour, when people stop learning, they often ask for a refund. That refund comes from my pocket. Their learning gap becomes my rent gap.

This means I’ve developed a number of strategies to keep students engaged and learning, and my pockets full. Of these, probably the most important has been my adaptation of mastery learning.

Mastery learning, popularized by Benjamin Bloom, is, at its core, both simple and a powerful alternative to the traditional classroom structure.

A traditional classroom structures relies on lecture first, then homework, then a test at the end. If a student doesn’t get the material, they’re expected to go to office hours, but it’s far more common for them to do poorly on the test. At that point, the student and teacher both tacitly agree that the student will likely never learn the material.

In a simplified mastery learning model, material is taught, then homework and tests are used as checks to see how well the material is learned. If the student doesn’t reach a specified standard, they spend more time on the material until they can reach the standard on another check (i.e. homework or practice test).

To put it in another way, in a traditional classroom model, every student spends the same amount of time on each subject, but their achievement varies. In a simplified mastery learning model, every student’s achievement reaches the same standard, but the amount of time they spend on a subject varies.

I’m a big fan of the simplified mastery learning model because it results in greater student achievement (literally, by definition). I also find it doesn’t impact how much material an individual student is able to get through, as most of the material I teach stacks on itself anyways. Students who didn’t understand the material at the beginning were never going to understand the material at the end, even if they did encounter it.

The big trouble, though, is that it’s inconvenient. The traditional classroom model is so popular because it fits so well with the pressures of a course with limited time and a syllabus to get through. A traditional mastery learning model seems like it could take an infinite amount of time, and it’s possible that you’ll never get to what you need.

In response to this, I adapted the mastery learning model, so that I could still get through the material I needed in the time that I had. Here’s what I did:

  1. I started off all my students with a diagnostic test. No matter what your subject, some of your students will come with some background in it. It’s important to know how much, so that you can tailor your lectures accordingly and spend time wisely. It also gives students a heads up with regards to the material that they’ll need to know.
  2. My lectures were short and to the point, taking up only half of class time. While I recognized that I needed to make sure my students were exposed to the proper frameworks and problem-solving strategies, I left the details of those frameworks up to their own learning. Details tend to be lost over the course of a lecture anyways, so it wasn’t particularly useful for me to try to drill them into the students’ heads.
  3. The second half of class time was always devoted to assisted self-study. I gave my students a lot of high quality material to learn from (questions, answers, answer explanations, and practice tests) and showed them how to learn from it. In the second half of class, they’d work quietly through the material related to the lecture. If they had any trouble, I’d help them on their question.
  4. I consistently checked in on their homework and their tests. Homework was given every class, while tests were given as needed. Both homework and tests were consistently encouraged, and I checked in to see how students were doing on both. Any problems specific to a student were addressed during self-study (e.g. not doing enough homework), while problems specific to the class were addressed during lecture.
  5. I left myself a lot of leeway on the syllabus. Not every lesson stuck the first time. I wanted to revisit those. Occasionally, a lesson stuck really well, and I wanted to explore that topic deeper. Just as mastery learning encouraged the students to revisit topics again and again, I wanted to encourage myself to revisit topics as needed.
  6. I required my students to reach a minimum level of knowledge, but didn’t insist on the same level of knowledge for all of them. If I had gone full Benjamin Bloom, I would have insisted all my students reach the same level of knowledge. This might have been possible on easier subjects, but it would have been time-prohibitive on the difficult subjects I taught. Instead, I was ok with certain students diving deeper than others, as long as everyone reached the same level.

This adapted mastery learning model worked way better for me than a traditional classroom model. In the traditional classroom model, I was always shocked at how little my students seemed to learn. I’d occasionally reach the end of a lecture, take a question from a student, and realize that they hadn’t even understood the first slide. The rest of the lecture must have been gibberish to them.

The mastery learning model worked much better. My students actually learned and internalized what I taught. If they had trouble on anything, I could adjust my teaching and help them adjust their learning. When I started the next lecture, I felt confident that I was “preaching to the choir”.

Throughout my experiments in mastery learning, the most important tool I used was 21st Night, an app I created. That’s what allowed me to assign my students questions, check their understanding of the questions, and encourage them to reach proficiency on those questions.

If you’re interested in trying out 21st Night for free with your classroom, contact me. I’m looking to get 21st Night into the hands of other teachers, and I’d love to hear from you.

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