One of the most popular topics these days in education is mastery learning—the idea that the pace of a class should match what each student is ready to learn, as a way to ensure they’re really grasping material.
But it can be hard to show educators what mastery learning looks like in practice since it doesn’t follow a traditional pacing schedule. That is, students can’t move on to the next topic with the rest of the class if they haven’t yet shown mastery.
Cara Johnson has extensive experience both teaching and helping others using the approach. A former high school science teacher, Johnson pioneered what she calls a flipped-mastery classroom, where students learn concepts and take assessments whenever they feel ready. These days, Johnson works as an instructional specialist with her district’s science teachers at Allen ISD in Texas.
A few months ago at the ASCD Empower conference in Chicago, Johnson joined the EdSurge podcast to take a deep dive into how her model works. She explains how she reaches parents, skeptical students and those who were falling behind—and shares her best tips for a successful mastery classroom.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: When you were teaching, you were known for this mastery-based, flipped learning approach. Tell us a little about how you taught.
Cara Johnson: I taught both biology and anatomy for many years at my school district. My classroom didn’t look too different than anybody else’s, except I set one really unique expectation: The students had to demonstrate mastery. They had to prove to me and prove to themselves that they’ve learned a concept before moving onto the next one. When I set that really high expectation that there’s no failing on any skill or concept, the whole classroom environment shifted, and it was more about learning and less about the grades.
What does this concept of mastery boil down to?
The flipped classroom allowed me to create this classroom environment. I took my curriculum for anatomy and for biology and I looked at all the different concepts and skills that I needed students to learn. For every concept and skill, I made a video, and I really tried to keep those videos less than 10 minutes.
The students had access to all of the learning components in the videos. Then in the classroom, for every concept and every skill that they were expected to learn and master, I had some way for them to practice it—a vocabulary game, maybe an online simulation. When they felt like they had learned everything that they were supposed to learn, they would take what I call a “mastery check.” These mastery checks were usually about 5 to 10 questions long. They would go to a separate place in the classroom—no notes, no cell phones, no talking, just them and their brain—and they would answer a few questions. If they were successful, they would move onto the concept. If they struggled and they were not successful in that mastery check, then I sent them back to practice some more.
The whole time all of this is happening, I’m bouncing around student to student, tracking where they are, measuring what they’ve learned and what they haven’t learned and identifying misconceptions.
Rather than me saying, “Okay, everybody learn this today, and we’re going to take a test on Friday,” I really wanted to move in a direction where the students chose when they took the assessments and when they wanted to prove to themselves and to me what they had learned.
In those conversations, did you spend more time with kids who were struggling?
I’m kind of old school, so I had a clipboard, and I had every single skill and concept that I needed the kids to know. Every time I visited with a kid, I would check it off on the clipboard. When I saw a kiddo or two that really kind of were falling behind, those were the kids I targeted first.
What about kids who move too quickly through the content or too slowly? Because, in the end, you had a place to get to by the end of the year.
Unfortunately we are still in a system where you need to learn biology within nine months, right? So I gave all the students a pacing calendar. Something that said “by the end of these two weeks you should have mastered X, Y and Z.” It’s important to give the kids a pacing calendar because they don’t know what’s an adequate time to spend on an idea or a concept. When I saw students going ahead of that pacing calendar, I gave those kids a high-five. If you are learning the material and you’re proving mastery, who am I to say, “Slow down, you need to spend more time here?”
But I will say that with the kids that go too quickly, there’s two kinds. There’s the kind that just go so quickly to get the work done, but they’re not really learning. Then there’s the kind that really are just gifted in your subject area and really do grasp those concepts quicker and faster. For those kiddos that I identify as going through the material too quickly, I will slow them down.
Now the bigger concern for me is the kiddos that are going too slowly, because like you said, they have to eventually finish by the end of May. For those kids, if I notice a kid falling maybe two weeks behind my suggested pacing calendar, I would sit down with them with a blank calendar, and I would ask them to make me a plan. What are you going to do to catch up? In this plan, the focus was more on what are you doing every day in class? How are you deciding to use your time?
What I found was most of the kiddos that were falling behind just weren’t using their class time effectively. They were on their cell phones, they were chatting. So setting some realistic goals on what they could do each class time—such as, “I’m going to watch this video and I’m going to do this practice problem and take this one mastery check.” Simply having them map out their goals, that’s a skill that many of these kiddos don’t have.
What I’m hearing from you is that proving mastery is a two-part process. They have to pass this assessment, but they also have to talk with you so that you understand that they’ve learned the material.
Most of the grades that went in the grade book were the mastery checks, which they were allowed to retake as many times as they needed. But each time they sat down to take a mastery check—again, those are usually 5 to 10 questions and takes them about 10 minutes—the questions were different. The kids weren’t simply memorizing the answers to the questions, they actually had to go back and learn and be able to apply that learning to new questions.
That typically went into the grade book, but the other part was those conversations. It made some of the kids really nervous to know that I’m going to have to talk to Ms. Johnson and prove my learning to her through conversations. For each video I made, I gave them three or four what I called check-for-understanding questions—the “what you should have gotten from this video” questions. When I came up to a kiddo to talk, I wasn’t trying to give them something out of left field. I would simply read one of those check-for-understanding questions. The students could prepare for those conversations, they knew what I was going to ask. I think they felt more comfortable about having those conversations because they knew they had time to prepare their responses.
What are some of the big questions, stumbling blocks and misconceptions you get from teachers who like this approach but aren’t quite at a high level with it?
Most of the time, I don’t have to convince people that mastery learning should be done. I think most educators agree that students should prove they understand a concept before they move on to the next concept. It’s usually more about the logistics. How do you literally make it happen? How do you track student progress? Like I said, I held a clipboard, and every time I had a conversation with a kid I would mark that on the clipboard. I’ve seen teachers do it with an iPad or on a cell phone.
Figuring out the classroom management components. In this environment, kids will need you at all different times within the classroom. How do they call you over without interrupting the learning? I had this cup system using Solo Cups. If they wanted me to come over and talk with them, they would turn their cup to green, and I would go over there and I would have a conversation with them. If they weren’t ready to have a conversation with me, they kept their cup at purple.
How did students respond to this? And how did parents respond?
I think it’s important for me to be honest. A lot of students struggled, initially, with this environment. Because in my experience, none of these kids have ever been held to such high expectations. So often, students have learned, especially by their high school years, that, “Well, if I fail a quiz or if I fail an assignment, it’s not a big deal. I can just move on and do better on the next one and recover that grade.” But when I set the expectation that you have to prove mastery on every idea, that frustrated some of the kiddos.
However, with that said, within two or three months of learning in this environment, the students came around. They realized the value of really having the opportunity to retake assessments and continue to practice until they learn it. They started to understand how to be learners and use their time wisely in the classroom and become organized.
Parents loved it when they understood it. So, if a teacher wanted to do flip mastery learning, one of my big suggestions is to communicate, communicate, communicate. I used to film my classroom and send it home to the parents and say, “This is what it looks like,” I would send the videos home to the parents and say, “These are the things that your students are asked to watch, they’re only 10 minutes long, and here are some of the things that they’re going to do in class to practice that skill.” Because when the parents understand mastery learning, oh my gosh, they love it. What parent wouldn’t want that?
What are your other tips for getting started?
I would suggest teachers look at the lesson cycles that you’re going to send the kids through. You want to make sure that the video you have only covers one concept, that there’s a practice piece for each one of those concepts and that the mastery check is truly just covering that one concept. Because if the mastery check was covering three or four ideas and the kiddo was unsuccessful, how do you know what they were unsuccessful at? Was it this skill or that skill?