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Mastering the Mastery Technique

Mr. Emerson, Dr. Hills and Dr. Ross have implemented a program called mastery learning into their Chemistry I classes.

In learning the material, students must read the section in their online textbook and complete two “learning opportunities” which include videos and practice problems. Then students must get a grade of 80% or above on an unrecorded, checkpoint quiz in order to move onto the next section in their book. Students can choose which days to do their labs and take chapter tests.

“Mastery learning is a style and technique of working through a [course] where there is recognition of the fact that kids learn and move at different speeds,” Mr. Emerson said. “In chemistry, there is a lot of stuff that builds on a foundation of material, and without mastering that material, you end up not being able to move forward and really learn the content.”

After reading an article on the technique, Dr. Hills, Mr. Emerson and Dr. Ross decided to try mastery learning. “Dr. Hills and I were both teaching Chem I, and we got frustrated as what we felt should be a fun and exciting class got bogged down with deciding what content we needed to get in there,” said Mr. Emerson.

[pullquote_left]”Mastery learning is a style and technique of working through a class where there is recognition of the fact that kids learn and move at different speeds.”
-Mr. Emerson[/pullquote_left]During class, Mr. Emerson gives traditional lectures as well as helps groups of students. “Ideally, although this has not happened quite yet, there will be pockets of kids all in the same place and they will work together,” he said. “I think that it’s a little bit of taking me out of the front of the classroom and allows for a little more shared responsibility.”

The change in the classroom is noticeable, according to Megan Retana ’15, who is in one of Dr. Hill’s classes. “Students are used to–especially in science and math–listening to a teacher lecture and memorizing what they teach,” she said.

“Even though it feels like you’re learning the material on your own, you still have your teacher to answer questions, and your classmates to help you learn the material,” said Victoria Castellano-Wood ’16, who is also in one of Dr. Hills’ classes. “It motivates you to reach out to others.”

There are multiple challenges for students in mastery learning, according to Mr. Emerson. “It requires students to be able to self-assess how they are doing with the material,” he said. “It will be difficult for students who are just trying to finish everything as fast as they can and not really mastering it, sort of faking their way through it.”

Another problem students can run into is falling behind in their work. “If I have other homework and I don’t need to have something due the next day, I’m not going to do my chemistry homework,” Retana ’15 said.

At the beginning of each week students hand in notecards with their goals for that week as well as what progress they made the week before, what topics they are confused on and what days they are planning to do a lab or take a test.

“When I get those back, if Johnny is five days behind everyone else, that’s a red flag,” Mr. Emerson explained.

So, what will become of mastery learning after this trial run? “I personally follow a philosophy that you can’t do something just for one year,” Mr. Emerson said. “I hope we feel good enough about this that we can give it three years to work, but if we don’t like it and students aren’t really gaining a lot from it, I don’t think we are married to this for any length of time.”

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