Mastery Learning at EFS

In Upper School, Elmwood Franklin School uses a “mastery learning” model to build students’ skills and confidence and to prepare them for the academic rigors to come. While the model is fairly straightforward, it is sometimes misunderstood as a lowering of standards. We believe it is the exact opposite. Mastery learning assures that all our students reach a certain level of understanding that not only builds their confidence but also gives them the foundation upon which to build future learning.

Most of us went to schools where time was a constant and achievement and understanding were the variables. For example, a unit in Math class might take two weeks, and at the end of those two weeks there is a test. Those who master the material receive an A. Those who don’t receive an F. At EFS we believe that time should be the variable, while achievement and understanding are the constants.  As a small school where teachers know each student and her/his learning style well, we can take the extra time to ensure mastery of whatever skill, concept, or content is being taught. Isn’t our job after all to ensure that each student is learning?

Mastery is achieved in various ways. Some teachers allow retests after they have sat with the student to reinforce what was taught, while others ask students who haven’t proven their mastery of a topic to make corrections or resubmit their work in other forms. Maybe the content was difficult to grasp or study skills are the problem or there was something else that stood in the way of mastery. Again, if the goal is to have each student achieve true understanding, there are many ways this can be achieved, and our teachers have a full arsenal of methods at their disposal to diagnose the problem and to realize this goal.

Unfortunately, myths have developed around mastery learning that have led some to believe that it is less effective or valid than the more traditional model in which many students move forward without truly grasping the material. All EFS students do not get As. The very best students, who master the material quickly and perform well on assessments, earn the highest grades and never need to redo work to achieve mastery. Those who do not can sometimes raise their grades through the mastery process, but usually not to the A level. Typically, less than half of our 7th and 8th classes earn induction into the National Junior Honor Society, which requires an A- average (so even some of them have Bs averaged in). Students do not take endless retakes of the same test. Again, teachers have many methods at their disposal to help students master the material taught. Retesting is one tool, but retaking the same test multiple times would not be an effective measure of a student’s understanding.

Mastery learning is among a group of teaching methods known as “outcome-based education” that are widely defined as focused on student outcomes rather than inputs (resources used in classrooms). At EFS we believe that mastery learning fits well with our mission to prepare children for success in school and in life, and many years of our graduates excelling in the most challenging high school and college programs is clear evidence of its effectiveness.

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