Applying Mastery Learning to Instructional Design: Part 1

Ensuring that a mastery learning program is successful requires some creativity in the development of training materials.

By Robert Cooperman, Training Academy Program Director, Ohio Office of Budget and Management

In my previous articles, I have stressed the application of mastery learning concepts in the classroom. Most often, these concepts affect the delivery of training (allowing for increased classroom time, for example, for administering formative assessments). However, ensuring that a mastery learning program is successful requires some creativity in the development of training materials and a willingness to modify the typical instructional design “defaults,” exemplified by ADDIE (which shall be the model I refer to throughout this discussion). The focus of this conversation will be the “A” of ADDIE—the Analysis phase—which arguably is the most important element to consider if mastery learning is to succeed.

Before any course can be designed, a thorough analysis of the topic must occur. When designed for a mastery learning program, the very concepts of “topic” and “course” go through renewed scrutiny. Let’s take an example from my world of financial processes: Accounts Receivable (AR). AR is a complex topic and those hired to perform AR-related tasks are expected to know the gamut of AR processing from invoice generation to customer payment posting. (Note: Of necessity, the example provided is of a functional nature. The master learning concepts, however, certainly can apply to “soft skills,” as well.) It, therefore, might be tempting to design a course covering as many AR topics as possible, making the result a “one-stop shop” for all things AR. The AR employees then would take this complex and detailed course and be expected to return to the floor able to process AR transactions, often regardless of their in-class ability to master the topic in its entirety. A true mastery learning program will not, however, allow a learner to move from topic to topic—let alone from course to work application. A complete analysis of the topic, therefore, would be necessary, breaking it down into sub-topics.

In this example, it is conceivable that this one monolithic AR topic would be broken into two (or more) sub-topics: “Creating Receivables” and “Posting Customer Payments,” an all-too familiar solution for instructional designers. Mastery learning, however, requires that sufficient time be given to each learner to master one set of concepts before moving to the next, so it is equally conceivable that rather than breaking the AR material into topics, it is broken into courses. The “Creating Receivables” and “Posting Customer Payments” courses would be standalone, with the learner not able to move from one course to another until mastery of the first course occurs. Further consideration may be given to breaking the “Creating Receivables” course itself into multiple courses: “Entering Invoice Information,” “Preparing Items for Posting,” and “Troubleshooting Posted Items.” The value of such an approach would be to guarantee the time for mastery of each topic (which in itself is an entire course). The downside, of course, is that the organization would have to allow the time for learners to take a lengthier curriculum. However, an organization committed to mastery learning will allow that time.

Once it is determined how the general topic is broken into digestible chunks, the Analysis phase continues with the development of learning objectives. In a mastery learning program, the learning objectives must be directly tied to the business. As a result, learning objectives should not be goals set solely by the Training unit; instructional designers must consult with operational teams to determine all the tasks necessary to do a job within the confines of the already- established topics. Operations staff also must help determine which of the defined tasks are the most important, a process known as valuing in mastery learning. Importance can be determined by the frequency at which these tasks are performed on the job, by the performance measurements for which the learner will be responsible, or by recognized gaps in performance. Regardless of how they are chosen, the business must value the chosen tasks for legitimate business reasons (not simply because they are “good to know”). It will be these tasks that are stressed during training and around which formative assessments and enrichment exercises will center.

Also in the Analysis phase will be a determination of the delivery methodology of the course and an analysis of the learners (if possible). These appraisals go hand-in-hand in a mastery learning program, particularly because mastery learning is an instructional technique designed to promote learning in all students by proper instructional method. If, for example, we have a knowledge of the learners as individuals (and mastery learning stresses the individualization of learning) and their learning preferences, we can design training delivery accordingly. We also can have formative assessments and enrichment exercises ready for particular learner preferences. What this means is that standard instructor-led training, with learner guides and in-class exercises, may or may not be chosen depending on what is known about the learners. In the K-12 system where mastery learning has most successfully and consistently been utilized, teachers often have time to get to know their learners and their preferences. The adult learning world often does not have this luxury, but mastery learning necessitates available time (that is, a learner’s learning rate) that allows all learners to be successful.

An Analysis phase that has been carefully and conscientiously undertaken can mean the difference between a successful mastery learning program and an unsuccessful program. With objectives set by the business and learning centered less on content alone and more on the design and delivery of the content, the percentage of successful learners should grow.

In my next article, I will introduce a tool called the Table of Specifications that helps to target learning objectives more specifically and aids in valuing content. It is a tool that serves as a natural transition to the Design phase in ADDIE, taking the high-level business decisions made in the Analysis phase and applying them to instructional choices that ultimately will lead a learner toward mastery.

Robert Cooperman is the Training Academy Program director, Ohio Office of Budget and Management.

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