#162 – Mastery Learning, with Jon Bergmann

Unpacking Education March 1, 2023 50 min

Teacher, author, and learning expert Jon Bergmann joins us to discuss mastery learning. Our conversation touches on the basics of mastery learning as well as its benefits, how it connects to flipped learning, and how to get started implementing this approach in your classroom.

Much of the conversation revolves around Jon’s new book, The Mastery Learning Handbook: A Competency-Based Approach to Student Achievement. Jon believes that this is his best work and says, “Everything I believe about education is in that book more than any other book I’ve ever written. And I think that the way to teach is mastery learning.” He also adds, “If you talk to people who’ve done this, they all say, ‘I could never go back.’”

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

We soon realized that the best use of our face-to-face class time was not standing in front of students lecturing them; it was getting students actively engaged in learning.

Jon Bergmann, from his introduction to The Mastery Learning Handbook

“The Best Way To Teach”

Right from the start of his research, Jon Bergmann felt that the most impactful part of his work around the flipped classroom was to use flipped learning to facilitate mastery learning. The flipped lessons were the vehicle through which he could facilitate mastery learning. After years applying this approach, he says, “It’s the way that we should be teaching. It works. It just plain works.”

The mastery learning strategies that Jon uses in his science classroom allow him to not only differentiate learning more successfully but also help more students reach mastery, empowering them with the skills to learn on their own while also helping him develop deeper relationships with his students. Jon says, “I love science, but I also love kids. . . . I now get to really get to know my kids.”

Tune in to this episode to gain deeper insights into how a mastery learning approach can be put to use in a K–12 classroom. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Jon is one of the pioneers of the flipped class movement. He has coordinated and guided flipped learning programs around the globe. He’s also the author of 10 books, including the one we talk about in this episode: The Mastery Learning Handbook. Jon has been an educator since 1986 and currently teaches high school science in Houston, Texas.
  • A Return to the Classroom: Jon took a multiyear leave from his science classroom to speak and consult with districts around the world. Since 2019, he has been back teaching high school science and says, “It’s been so good to be in the classroom, and also timing-wise, it was ideal. I was able to be in the classroom in the middle of COVID and to really understand where teachers are at and what they were facing because I was facing it right along with everybody else.”
  • A Mastery Learning Cycle: Jon describes mastery learning as a cyclical process where “students move through content or the curriculum . . . at a flexible pace.” The process includes setting clear objectives and using backwards design to determine what students need to know and how they will be assessed. This is followed by lesson planning, assessment, and remediation, if students don’t meet mastery. This cycle repeats as lessons are completed in each unit.
  • An Effective Approach to Remediation: “What I’ve really found is almost the best remediation strategy is just a small group working with me,” says Jon. “I usually try to find a group of students who are struggling with the same thing, and we make an instant group, and we are going to work together to solve physics or chemistry problems. . . . In that session, I can figure out what’s their biggest struggle and then figure out how to remediate.”
  • Organization Is Key: Jon stresses, “You can’t walk in and just wing it.” Instead, he says, “One of the key things to making mastery learning work is that you have to be hyper-organized. You have to be really specific about what you want your students to learn and how you know that you know that they’ve learned.”
  • The Importance of Content Expertise: To help students at varying levels in one class period, a mastery learning teacher must be an expert in the content. These teachers must know the content deeply enough to move from student to student, helping them wherever they are at in their learning.
  • Wandering the Room: “I think the most important thing that I do is I just wander around the room and check in with kids,” says Jon. This time is typically used for constant formative assessment, remediation, and enrichment. Instead of looking at a formative test score, Jon says he values a conversation with each student. “I wanted to hear them say it. I wanted to have a conversation with them. And also, in that conversation, I’m differentiating.”
  • Reflection: An important part of the mastery experience is self-reflection. Jon sets an alarm on his phone to notify him when there are 5 minutes left in a class period. At that point, every student answers two exit, reflection questions: What have you learned today about science? What is the next step in your learning journey?
  • Relationship Building: Relationships get built and reinforced in multiple ways in a mastery classroom. Most importantly, they happen in all the micro-conversations and check-ins taking place throughout the class period. They are also embedded into other class routines, even class attendance. Jon combines attendance-taking with a class check-in. As each student is marked present, they answer a question of the day, such as, “What song would be the anthem of your life?”
  • Preparing Students: “It’s important that you do set it up because you need to teach them how you want them to learn. Too many kids are too used to sitting and getting, and there’s no sitting and getting. It’s up and doing. . . . and so they need to be taught how to do that.” This preparation involves tasks, such as how to actively and effectively watch a flipped video. In fact, the first three videos that Jon assigns are about how the class operates. One video is always last year’s students giving advice to this year’s students. “And that really helps them,” says Jon. “They’re not going to listen to me, the old guy, as much as they will to the kid who’s the junior or senior who’s walking around the hall of the school who they know.”
  • Flexibility Within a Framework: Even though students work through lessons at their own pace, they are still kept relatively close together with some hard deadlines. Typically, there is flexibility within a unit, and then all students move on when the unit is finished. There are exceptions to this, such as when students enter the class partway through a term. In that case, the new students are assessed on their current skill level and then placed at the appropriate place in the unit sequence. He says, “The beauty of the mastery program is that a kid can come in and get caught up if they’re behind.”
  • Multiple Assessments: When it comes to assessment, Jon says that it’s a bit like a “choose your own adventure.” He prepares two versions of each summative assessment—a deep test and a clear test—and students choose which version they will take. Students who wish to score up to 100% of the points must take the more-challenging deep test. If students don’t feel ready for that challenging version but still want to move on, they can take the clear test, which assesses them for mastery and caps out at 92% of the possible points. He says that students find this approach “imminently fair,” and it’s one way to challenge the higher achievers to continue growing after reaching mastery.
  • It’s Not About Learning Fast: Jon says that there’s often bias about the pace of learning and student intelligence. He emphasizes that pace is secondary to mastery: “I don’t care when somebody learns it. I care that they learn it.”
  • Flip First: Jon gives advice to teachers starting the mastery journey. He says, “Make sure they understand how to build a flipped classroom before they move to a mastery classroom because then the lift is a lot less difficult.” This takes one big task off their plates when they begin to focus on the mastery element. Fortunately, many teachers learned how to flip with recorded videos during the pandemic, so this makes that transition a bit easier than it used to be.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What is mastery learning?
  • How does flipped learning help facilitate a mastery classroom?
  • How does remediation look in a mastery classroom?
  • How can formative assessments be implemented in a mastery classroom?
  • Why is organization so important to this approach?
  • What is gained by “wandering the room”?
  • How can you build better student–teacher relationships using this approach?
  • What questions do you still have about mastery learning?
  • What aspects of mastery learning are you interested in trying in your classroom?
  • What are your next steps?