Evidence for Learning: Mastery learning

Mastery learning

A summary of the research evidence on on mastery learning in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of mastery learning on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on mastery learning. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of mastery learning interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Mastery learning breaks subject matter and learning content into units with clearly specified objectives which are pursued until they are achieved. Learners work through each block of content in a series of sequential steps.

Students must demonstrate a high level of success on tests, typically at about the 80% level, before progressing to new content. Mastery learning can be contrasted with other approaches which require students to move through the curriculum at a pre-determined pace. Teachers seek to avoid unnecessary repetition by regularly assessing knowledge and skills. Those who do not reach the required level are provided with additional tuition, peer support, small group discussions, or homework so that they can reach the expected level.

Since 2008, there have not been any published studies on mastery learning based in an Australian or New Zealand context. It is necessary to go back to the 1990s to find such studies. The studies included in Hattie’s (2009) review of meta-analyses on mastery learning are all dated prior to 1990.

Even though mastery learning does not appear to strongly influence teaching practice in Australia, a few out-of-school programs aim to supplement schooling through mastery learning activities, such as intensive learning and homework programs. Despite some concerns about its currency, there is evidence (noted in Guskey’s overview of mastery learning that has been included in the Toolkit) of its dissemination as well as key elements and concepts being incorporated into other interventions. Feedback and collaborative learning, which have been studied more recently within an Australasian context, share elements with mastery learning and have proven to be moderately effective.

Hattie (2009) examined nine (pre-1990) meta-analyses on mastery learning and found a moderately significant effect on achievement (d=0.58). An important element of mastery learning is the time needed to master content, even though the quality and success of the learning is more important than the time spent. Citing Guskey and Gates (1986), he notes that mastery learning has particularly high effects for elementary school learning (d=0.94), but the strength of the effects decrease the older students get (e.g., d=0.72 for high school). Citing Kulik and Kulik (1987), he also notes mastery learning has strong effects for lower ability students (d=0.96). While mastery learning has positive effects, it also increases instruction time.

The Australian-based study by Carlson, Hemmings, Wurf and Reupert (2012) examined effective teaching practice, as outlined by Hattie and national curriculum textbooks, with a focus on classroom implementation. The study observed the teaching practice of six teachers, considered highly inclusive, from four different schools in New South Wales. Mastery learning was never employed by the teachers despite being in the top ten methods for affecting student achievement. The majority of techniques observed included feedback, questioning, cooperative learning, and direct instruction.

Carlson, L., Hemmings, B., Wurf, G., & Reupert, A. (2012). The instructional strategies and attitudes of effective inclusive teachers. Special Education Perspectives, 21(1), 7 – 20.

Guskey, T. R., & Gates, S. L. (1986). Synthesis of research on the effects of mastery learning in elementary and secondary classrooms. Educational Leadership, 43(8), 73 – 80.

Kulik, C. L. C., & Kulik, J. A. (1987). Mastery testing and student learning: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 15(3), 325 – 345.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London; New York: Routledge.

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Mastery learning; learning for mastery; Australia; New Zealand.