Math Mondays: Mastery Math

In Ms. Kendall’s third through fifth grade classroom, it is language arts time. Maria, a fifth grader, is writing sentences related to her spelling list for the week. “The witness told the detective that the man coming out of the store was tall.” Maria’s spelling list, which also includes words such as “locust” and “tinsel”, is in level 3, which roughly corresponds to about two-thirds through a typical third grade year. 

Maria, like eighty percent of her classmates at Hodges Elementary School, participates in the free- and reduced-priced lunch program. Forty-one percent of the students are English Language Learners. 

In Maria’s first year of school she gained some English skills, but by the end of Kindergarten she was already behind her peers not just in English but also in other skills according to the state-mandated annual test. Like the majority of her school peers, she did not meet proficiency. In first grade, Maria continued to fall behind. A lack of mastery of kindergarten concepts translated into the absence of the foundation for learning more complex concepts in first grade. 

By third grade Maria found school to be a defeating experience. When Maria started at Hodges Elementary, the school operated in what is best described as a traditional model. Classes were structured according to traditional grade levels i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on. Whole-class instruction was the norm – meaning every child was learning the same thing at the same time. While learning was happening in the sense of some of the basic skills, students struggled to stay on grade level. In 2010 just 31% of students performed proficiently in reading according to the annual statewide, standardized test. 

Fourth grade, though, brought a slow transformation for Maria and her classmates at Hodges Elementary. The school shifted from a remedial focus to one of competency-based also called performance-based or mastery-based learning. Students in competency-based classrooms are empowered to master individual content and skills before moving to more difficult material. Some students entered fourth grade reading and writing well below grade level. Rather than be lost as the teacher plugged through the fourth grade curriculum, the teacher met each student at his/her level. 

Students at first grade level started on first grade spelling lists, reading and writing skills. Students such as Maria began to learn steadily. With each step of mastery, students gained confidence. Students in the fourth/fifth grade classroom work on content that ranges from first to seventh grade levels. 

While Maria works diligently on her spelling lists, Timothy is reading Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, an often chosen fifth grade level book. When Maria completes her spelling lists, she turns them in to Ms. Kendall. Ms. Kendall will check them and work with Maria for the next step, possibly a spelling test to demonstrate mastery. Ms. Kendall makes notes in her online organizer. Maria checks her folder, which highlights skills she has mastered on a chart as she progresses towards the next level. 

While Maria struggled, Hodges Elementary did as well. The school was classified as “failing” by the state, a label of which everyone was aware. Teachers left each year seeking non-failing schools or a new profession entirely. As part of an entire district deemed by the state as in need of oversight, the district board opted to revolutionize the way in which they approached education. Led by a board member who had attended a conference focused on competency-based learning, the school and district transformed into one where every child begins where they are and are guided to build on their existing skills. This is the basic principle that underlies any mastery-learning program. The gamble, while certainly still experiencing growing pains, paid off. In 2013, 53% of third grade students were proficient in reading; 24% more students than three years earlier.

The story above is from a school I visited while research a book I am writing.  Whether you call it mastery-based or competency-based learning, there is a great deal of evidence that shows the benefits of this method for students. But from a teacher point of view it can be difficult- very little whole class instruction, lots of data to track, and a very real danger of burying students in worksheets are just some of the challenges of teaching mastery learning, particularly in math. 

My own experience and conversations with teachers has found the following makes mastery learning work:

  • Student ownership - every student has a binder with a list of skills/ activities. Students track completion with evidence in their binder of each activity. They know what's coming, and you can very quickly glance and see where students are.
  • Collaborative projects - mix in collaborative projects with skills development so students get the opportunity to work together.
  • Many options -  Have a large amount of curriculum connected to each standard.  Students then have the opportunity to work on skills according to their own learning needs.
  • Break it down - in terms of keeping track of students working at different paces, you can't possibly check every student's binder every day.  Instead, assign 5 - 6 student to each day for checking on progress in their binder.
For those of you on board, I gathered some tips for implementing mastery learning, but I am no expert.  For additional reading, I recommend Making Mastery Work from Competency  

Find tools and curriculum to support your mastery math classroom or fun projects in the links below.

Math Mondays is a weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching math.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message on Facebook or at the store in the question and answer section.



  1. I share your belief of student ownership and accountability. Love your idea of individual binders for tracking data and goals! Awesome!

  2. Thanks. Always good for finding like minded teachers. Post coming that talks about the nitty gritty of tracking if you need it.


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