Evidence for Learning: Mastery learning

Mastery learning

High impact for very 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 students 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 students 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 students have mastered the unit. Curriculum time is varied according to the progress of the class. In other approaches, students 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 students 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 students; 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 students move on to new content – it is crucial to monitor and communicate student progress and to provide additional support for students 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 students 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 students work at their own pace (see also individualised instruction).

Mastery learning also appears to be particularly effective when students 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).

In Australia, no high-quality studies of mastery learning appear to have been conducted since the 1980s, although a number of small-scale studies have assessed related approaches such as Response to Intervention. Although 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. Individual elements of mastery learning have been examined within an Australian context, and these have had positive impacts on learning.

  • Studies involving primary school students have tended to be more effective (+8 months) than for secondary school students (+ 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 approaches aim to ensure that all students have mastered key concepts before moving on to the next topic – in contrast with traditional teaching methods in which students may be left behind, with gaps of misunderstanding widening. Mastery learning approaches could address these challenges by giving additional time and support to students who may have missed learning, or take longer to master new knowledge and skills.

In order for mastery approaches to be effective for students with gaps in understanding, it is crucial that additional support is provided. Approaches that simply build upon foundational knowledge without targeting support for students that fall behind are unlikely to narrow disadvantage gaps.

Mastery learning works through designing units of work so that each task has a clear learning outcome, which students 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 student learning and regular feedback so that students can master topics prior to moving to the next
  • Additional support for students 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.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Overall, the median costs of implementing mastery learning approaches are estimated as very low. The costs associated with mastery learning approaches mostly arise from professional development training for teaching staff, which is most commonly a start-up cost for introducing the new approach. Costs are estimated at about $5,900 per class per year ($236 per student) to include professional development, additional resource preparation and intensive support for 20% of the class over the year.

Whilst the average cost estimate for mastery learning is very low, the range in costs of professional development training, and the option to pay for ongoing training and additional staff to provider greater timetable flexibility, mean that costs can range from very low to moderate. 

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 students 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.

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