From Cramming to Mastery

From Cramming to Mastery

How Mastery Learning Can Revolutionize Science Classrooms

I like to ask chemistry teachers what it would be like if their students showed up at the beginning of a new school year with a thorough knowledge of the metric system prefixes and complete proficiency at performing unit conversions. The teachers usually smile, roll their eyes, shake their heads, and mutter something like, “That’ll be the day!”

There is one good reason why such proficiency seems unachievable, what I call the Cram-Pass-Forget Cycle: students cram for tests, pass them, and then forget almost all of it in about three weeks. The Cram-Pass-Forget Cycle has been the enemy of education for many decades and is, I believe, one of the big factors behind underperformance in science in American schools. Prior to the modern era, mastery and long-term retention were standard expectations. No scholar three hundred years ago would have been promoted—or even allowed to continue in the school—who hadn’t fully mastered his lessons. Recovering mastery is an essential feature of a true classical education, distinguishing it from the modern system of merely setting up hoops for students to jump through.

Although the Cram-Pass-Forget Cycle is ubiquitous, it doesn’t have to be, and in a growing number of schools it isn’t. Enter the mastery-learning teaching model, a game-changer for students and teachers alike. In the typical mastery-learning model, every child is required to master the subject matter at hand before moving on to new subject matter. Students who fail or perform poorly on a test revise the subject matter and then are given a new version of the test, for as many tries as it takes for them to master the subject at hand. While these students “catch up,” students who performed well on the first test are given “enrichment activities.”

But this model is incredibly labor intensive for teachers. It demands that they write multiple versions of tests, carve out class time for reteaching and retesting students who do not demonstrate mastery, and develop enrichment activities for students who do demonstrate mastery. And, because mastery learning in this form is so inconvenient, it has never been widely adopted.

A more useful—and powerful—mastery-learning model is one based on cumulative assessments (quizzes or tests) and study via practice. When students face regular cumulative assessments, they are repeatedly tested on learning objectives going back to the start of the year. This means they are called upon to continue to demonstrate mastery of those learning objectives by answering questions and solving problems over and over, month after month. When students study correctly, they follow up on topics they haven’t yet mastered (because they know they will see those questions or problems again) and they are ready to address any question or solve any problem at any time throughout the year.

Cumulative assessment is successful when students are taught to study via practice. Rather than simply reading over old notes or skimming old test papers, students study actively via reciting, quoting, and solving. If students must be able to quote Newton’s laws of motion, for example, then they practice by saying the laws over and over. If they must be able to explain how the mole is defined, they practice by explaining it to their special study friend—a parent, cat, teddy bear, or what have you. And if they must be able to solve density problems, perform unit conversions, or calculate percent slope, then the way to be prepared for such problems is to make solving practice problems a regular, weekly exercise. The teacher’s role in this is to train students to study properly, encouraging them to make and use flash cards, and to practice solving old problems and answering questions.

The combined effect of cumulative assessments and regular practice is nothing short of phenomenal. I saw the results in my own classrooms twenty years ago, and now hundreds of teachers across the nation are seeing the same outcomes. I remember arriving at final exam review week only to have my students announce that they didn’t need it. One young man piped up and said, “Mr. Mays, every week in your class is final exam review week. We don’t need a review, so can we use the time in your class to study for our other finals?”

Such performance is thrilling, but what encourages me the most is that the main benefits of mastery learning accrue not to the smart kids but to those who normally struggle. For them, the novel experience of true competence is life changing.


John D. Mays was an electrical and control systems engineer in industry for fourteen years. He taught high school physics and math for twenty-three years, while simultaneously teaching math and literature at local private colleges for nine years. In 2009, he started Novare Science, and introduced the Centripetal Press curriculum imprint in 2015. His graduate study includes MEd and MLA degrees, as well as thirty-six hours in physics. He is married and has three adult children.

Image: Science lab at TCE, 1982, photograph. Source: Thomond College of Education.

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