Fostering Enrichment in a Mastery Learning Program

Mastery learning programs require that we look beyond the organizational requirement to place workers in their positions as quickly as possible.

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

In any classroom situation, be it K-12 or adult, there will be students who “get it” and those who don’t. Teachers and trainers understandably focus their attention on those who don’t, although what motivates teachers to pay attention to those students (to determine an accurate grade, for example, or to attempt to keep the student on par with the rest of the class) can differ greatly from what motivates trainers in the adult learning arena (for example, to get the learner ready to perform work). In either case, though, the student who doesn’t “get it” the first time is a prime target for additional educational support (although I would argue that adult-centered training units do not build in post-class assistance unless it is part of their operational model). However, do we ever pay attention to the learners who do “get it”? In a mastery learning program, we do.

As noted in my previous articles, mastery learning emphasizes time as a key factor in determining a learner’s success. But, as also was noted, time is often not a luxury afforded to adult learning. Therefore, a conflict can arise between the operational demands of the organization and the true needs of its workers as learners. Generally speaking, in the adult learning world, successful learners are immediately positioned within the organization, deemed ready to perform their job tasks as a result of their in-class success (unfortunately, many learners who are unsuccessful in class are similarly positioned). But mastery learning programs require that we look beyond this organizational requirement to place workers in their positions as quickly as possible. And while the training emphasis is still on less successful learners (the concept of correctives, discussed in my previous article), if we are truly dedicated to using time to our advantage (that is, to ensure successful learning for all), there must be accommodations made for those who “get it” in class. This is where the term enrichment becomes important.

Enrichment is the mastery learning approach taken with those learners who do not need correctives. For these learners, classroom instruction was just right and provided in precisely the right time frame for them to master the concepts being taught. However, it is not necessarily true that those who require correctives have greater learning needs than those who “get it.” This is particularly true if classroom instruction focuses on the time it takes for learners to grasp concepts as in a mastery learning program: The successful learners may be waiting around for others to catch up (or asked to serve as in-class tutors, a role they may be unequipped or uninterested to play). Instead, these learners should be provided with enrichment exercises to extend their learning. These exercises have the advantage of keeping the learner within the curricular unit; he or she also does not automatically move on to the next unit as a result of his or her success. If the training program does not allow for learners to catch up before the course continues, enrichment exercises can enhance learning on the job.

Thomas Guskey’s “Implementing Mastery Learning” provides excellent guidance on the characteristics of enrichment exercises (although his focus is the K-12 classroom). It is important that enrichment exercises be seen as “more of the same” (that is, not simply busywork or a repeat of classroom activities). They are not simply more or harder problems; they need to present challenges to the learner, allowing him or her to use higher-level cognitive skills such as analysis or critical thinking (Guskey, 118). Obviously, the scope and content of these exercises will depend on the line of business in which the learner will be engaged. Guskey’s general suggestions that might be applicable to the adult learning world include peer tutoring (if the learner is so inclined; may promote coaching or supervisory skills); assisting the training team in developing exercises for others (rewards the learner’s cognitive abilities, even if content is new); and special projects related to the content of the curriculum (Guskey, 117-118). It is up to the training unit to assist in the design of enrichment exercises and to have them in inventory to be used in class or to provide to supervisors to be used on the job. Furthermore, the training unit, with the assistance of supervisory staff, should be prepared to analyze the results of enrichment as it would the results of correctives.

The rewards and benefits of assisting unsuccessful learners (although mastery learning posits that all learners can be successful in time) are obvious. But the rewards of providing further assistance to successful learners—other than grooming them for supervisory positions whether they desire them or not—often are not thought of. Or when they are thought of, it is translated into “advanced” courses. Mastery learning recognizes that even successful learners have continued educational needs, not remedial but nonetheless immediate. Good enrichment exercises may be difficult for the learner, but these are the kinds of challenges fast learners find stimulating. They may motivate them to further their professional and personal development without waiting for their supervisor to assign such development to them via goals or individual development plans. This motivation also may increase personnel retention, keeping people on the job longer as they consider themselves valued. In short, do not neglect the needs of the learner who earns enrichment! They are as equally worth a training unit’s time as those who require correctives. And in mastery learning, time is the foundation on which the entire program depends.

In the next article, we will examine the “translation” of mastery learning concepts into instructional design.


Guskey, Thomas R., “Implementing Mastery Learning,” 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 1997. Print.

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

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