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Glossary of Terms Used to Discuss Mastery Learning

Certain common words are given specific alternate meanings within the Mastery Learning pedagogy. The following is an partial list of terms essential to the understanding of Mastery Learning.

Mastery Learning--  an education method in which a student stays with a particular learning unit until the objectives of that unit are met before moving on to the next learning unit. In this method, time becomes the differentiating factor between students rather than success vs. failure.  Varying instructional procedures can be used ranging from one -on -one self-paced learning  to a traditional group classroom paced together with faster learners engaging in enrichment activities while slower learners receive differentiated corrective instruction/tutoring, etc.

Self-Paced Mastery Instructional Process

Traditional Mastery Learning Instructional Process

2nd chart is based upon illustration by GGS Information Services found in Guskey, Thomas R. “Mastery Learning.” Psychology of Classroom Learning 2(2008): 587.

Objectives-- Objectives are measurable learning goals. In Mastery Learning objectives are set for each unit. They should consist of a verb (the learning task) and object (the learning topic). Ideally verbs should correspond to a specific level in ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’. Examples: Students will summarize the cultural impact of early settlers in the New World. Students will solve systems of linear equations by substitution.

Learning Unit-- Learning units are discrete topics or skills sets that would take about a week or two to cover in a typical classroom. This is the level at which objectives are set and mastery is determined before advancing to the next unit. For example, a unit might be on photosynthesis, dividing fractions, the U.S decision to enter into WWII,  and so forth.

Bloom’s Taxonomy-- Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues developed a “taxonomy of educational objectives” in the mid 50’s. They divided learning into 3 main ‘domains’:

  • cognitive: development of intellectual skills and knowledge
  • affective: development of emotions, attitudes, values, etc.
  • psychomotor: development of fine and gross motor skills such as coordination, precision, strength, etc.

Traditional educational settings bias the cognitive domain and arguments can be made that the purposeful development of affective and psychomotor domains are the role of the family or other social institutions besides schools. However all three domains are interlocking and success in school and society depends upon capabilities in each domain.

Each domain is divided into a hierarchy of increasingly complex learning tasks.
  • cognitive: remembering -> understanding -> applying -> analyzing -> evaluating -> creating (Bloom’s revised taxonomy-Anderson)
  • affective: receiving phenomena -> responding to phenomena -> valuing -> organizing -> internalizing values (Krathwohl, Bloom, Masia, 1973)
  • psychomotor: perception -> set (readiness to act) -> guided response (imitiation) -> mechanism -> complex overt response -> adaptation -> origination  (Simpson, 1972)

At times, the phrase “Bloom’s taxonomy” is used to refer specifically to the hierarchy of tasks in the cognitive domain.
Additional cogent information can be found here:

Formative Assessment-- an activity, assignment, quiz, test, etc. that allows a teacher to determine what (if any) additional instruction, practice, or help is needed for a student to meet learning objectives of a particular unit. Formative Assessments can vary in formality and are aguably most useful when they provide 'real time' direct evidence of each student's skills and knowledge, for example, as in a dialogue with the teacher or tutor.

Differentiation-- providing instruction or resources that meets an individual student’s optimum learning strengths. Different materials, content, interactions, activities, etc. would be provided to different students or groups of students.

Correctives-- Additional instruction (tutoring, activities, etc) provided to students who have not yet demonstrated mastery of a unit. Ideally correctives would be differentiated to specific learners to provide optimal (quickest) learning.

Enrichment-- In a multiple learner environment, enrichment activities are provided for students who have achieved mastery at the first formative assessment. Enrichment activities should allow a student to deepen or extend the unit topic according to their interests.

Aptitude--How much time it would take a student to achieve mastery of a learning task.

Perseverance-- The time a student is willing to try at a particular learning task. 




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