Measuring Learner Success in a Mastery Learning Program

Mastery learning calls for the use of formative assessments, evaluation tools used to diagnose individual learning difficulties.

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

A mastery learning program, once adopted by adult-learning-based training units, requires that organizations change their approach to learning. As my previous article ( indicated, time becomes a central concept when administering mastery learning: Organizations must allow employees time to master topics based on their learning rate, which may test the patience of Human Resources but nevertheless demonstrates an investment in the employee. The training unit, however, must be prepared to use time efficiently and to be an active part of the employee’s learning, both inside and outside the classroom. Trainers must understand and have the ability to assess a learner’s learning rate. They do this by determining a learner’s ability to master a topic and providing targeted training, specific to the individual’s needs. It all starts with carefully constructed assessments that will provide feedback to both the learner and the trainer.

In the traditional adult-oriented classroom, a topic is introduced, discussed, even practiced, but this method assumes an equal playing field among the learners. Learners, habitually designated as “good learners” or “poor learners” based on their capacity to grasp concepts quickly, all go through the same instruction and often are released to the workplace regardless of their ability to demonstrate competence successfully or consistently. Sometimes learners are tested in class on their ability to perform tasks they have just learned. Usually this test comes at the end of the training session, encompassing everything covered at the event. In a training program following the tenets of mastery learning, this type of assessment—generally known as a summative assessment—is not sufficient.

Mastery learning calls for the use of formative assessments,evaluation tools used to diagnose individual learning difficulties. Unlike the summative variety, formative assessments are given throughout the training at critical points to determine the level of understanding each learner has attained. If it is determined a learner is not grasping the necessary concepts to move on, he or she does notmove on. Instead, the learner is provided with feedback(where he or she succeeded and/or made errors) and a corrective,designed specifically and purposefully so as not to mimic class instruction. This feedback is based solely on the assessment results, so the assessment itself needs to be designed so it is truly diagnostic: It must test the concepts considered vital to mastering the topic and nothing more.

Creating Formative Assessments

There are many ways to create formative assessments and, provided that they test vital concepts for mastery, any type is useful. According to Thomas R. Guskey (“Implementing Mastery Learning,” 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 1997, 55-56), formative assessments should:

  • Be clear (there should be no ambiguity on the test).
  • Have precise directions (the learner should know exactly what to do in order to be tested).
  • Take up a minimal amount of classroom time.

This last requirement poses problems for the adult classroom as already limited classroom time must be reserved for assessment, feedback, and corrective action. While the summative assessment often is built into adult-based curricula, formative assessments and their accompanying follow-up would need to be inserted and accounted for. What this means is course length may have to be altered, perhaps spanning more hours than originally allotted. Or the course may have to be broken into smaller chunks and delivered over several days, allowing for learners with difficulties to work on their correctives and those without difficulties to work on enrichment activities. In any event,the training unit must work with management to determine course duration as it applies to the learners and not solely on the content. This could mean an entire reworking of the course, but it will allow learners the timeto reach mastery (time being the missing element in most traditional adult learning methods).

Corrective Exercises to Produce Consistency

Once designed, formative assessment results should lead directly to corrective exercises, designed to get the learner back on track toward mastery. Correctives are notmerely restatements or re-presentations of the original lesson (presumably the one the learner could not master). Rather, they are new approaches to the topic involving alternate methods of instruction and different learner involvement. They should be administered based on what is known of the learner’s learning preferences, if possible, so the training unit should have at its disposal a number of options for corrective activities. One (but certainly not the only) option that may work particularly well within the adult learning environment is the use of tutors/mentors who might be able to demonstrate concepts using a “hands-on” methodology within the work environment and away from the more sterile classroom setting. Additionally, the tutor/mentor will by nature present the material with a different voice and approach, which may be enough to result in the learner’s mastery of the subject. Whatever the method, correctives must be varied, unique, different from the original instruction, and numerous. Ultimately, their goal is to produce mastery consistently.

Trainers Get Feedback on TheirPerformance

Finally, training units taking advantage of formative assessments would do well to use the tools as feedback for their ownperformance. For example, a formative assessment given to all learners at the completion of a small unit is made up of several questions/demonstrations (and maybe even an essay). It is noticed that learners consistently score poorly on one or two of the prompts. The training unit immediately should question the value of those sections as a diagnostic and ask itself if the classroom instruction on those topics is, indeed, successful. Consistent poor performance on a particular question should raise a red flag about the classroom instruction for that topic. While it may be that the question itself is unclear, it is also possible the classroom lesson covering that question is incomplete or in some other way ineffective. The content for that portion of the course, therefore, should be re-examined and altered as necessary. Additional administration of that formative assessment then will determine if the lesson or the question caused the poor results.

In the next article, we will examine enrichment,or how to accommodate those learners who do master classroom instruction.

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

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