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How do you use mastery to build progress over time?

By 15th November 2016Blog

The Master of Mastery

What is mastery?

According to the EEF,

“Mastery learning breaks subject matter and learning content into units with clearly specified objectives which are pursued until they are achieved. Learners work through each block of content in a series of sequential steps.”

It is a comprehensive knowledge of skill in a particular subject or activity.

It means that pupils show proficiency, capability, knowledge, comprehension, familiarity, command and grasp of a topic or skill.



Mastery is all about developing an understanding of a subject or skills and developing memory. As Tim Oates said at Assessment without Levels, Hackney November 2016, “You don’t want a pilot to have to think about flying, just as we don’t want to have children thinking about what they have learned, they just need to know.”

Mastery is not an easy approach. It should introduce concepts and knowledge that children are uncomfortable with and do find difficult. Vygotsky knew that children working within their Zone of Proximal Development is difficult because it makes children think, that can be uncomfortable, but they need to think to be able to learn. the knowledge gained has to move from the working memory to the long term memory so that it can be accessed. This requires repetition and accessing previous information from previous lessons. It is not just teaching a skill and moving on. Can a pupil reproduce the knowledge, skill or idea in an unexpected context?


How does using a mastery approach build progress over time?

Progress over time

Building progress over time is not about teaching to the test. This, for some schools, may be a different mindset. UK schools have been rated as amongst the worst in the world for teaching to the test. Research conducted by Oxford University highlighted that UK schools are the worst culprits for educating students just to pass an exam which leads to superficial learning and the short-term acquisition of knowledge which is quickly forgotten. As Dame Alison Peacock has said,

“A relentless focus on high stakes testing can so easily limit notions of what education is for. Our study illustrates how, over the years, we have worked to enable all children to have the chance to surprise us – and themselves – about what they can achieve when they experience a richly creative broad and balanced curriculum.”

Children do well because they know things or they have mastery over their own knowledge.

Progress over time measures how much things children know and can recall.

The current curriculum has been designed to show mastery of knowledge. There is more up front teaching at KS1 and KS2, to allow that knowledge to be deepened in KS3 and then applied in KS4 before being analysed and evaluated in KS5.



Ofsted Logo


In the 2015  Ofsted framework the focus is on progress over time. Some schools have scrambled to ensure that there are reams of evidence in books, despite Ofsted publishing advice to the contrary. Books are an important part of the evidence of course, and Inspectors will be assessing progress over time by looking at books and not spreadsheets, but Inspectors will be asking pupils about work they have done earlier in the term to see if they remember it and if they have understood it. The most beautiful, well-annotated books in the world will not help if they cannot remember what they did yesterday let alone what they did six weeks ago.

The Ofsted Common Inspection Framework states about the quality of teaching and learning:

  • assessment information is gathered from looking at what children and learners already know, understand and can do and is informed by their parents/previous providers as appropriate
  • assessment information is used to plan appropriate teaching and learning strategies, including to identify children and learners who are falling behind in their learning or who need additional support, enabling children and learners to make good progress and achieve well
  • learners understand how to improve as a result of useful feedback from staff and, where relevant, parents, carers and employers understand how learners should improve and how they can contribute to this


This is in line with the mastery teaching approach.

However, there is a new judgement as well:

“There will be a new judgement on personal development, behaviour and welfare. This will include a focus on pupils’ confidence and self- assurance as learners and their pride in achievement, the impact behaviour has on outcomes and the choices pupils make about their next stage.”

This means that not only will be there the traditional focus on challenging behaviour but passive behaviour as well. Pupils will be expected to talk about their learning and show animation in that discussion to illustrate pride. They will be expected to know the next steps. Attitude to learning is the key.


What is clear that a narrow approach to the curriculum will deliver neither a “good” rounded approach nor a good attitude to learning. We need to use a mastery curriculum to spark imagination and then children will thrive and be able to demonstrate their knowledge in exams and in front of inspectors because they know stuff.


What do you need to do to adopt a mastery approach?


Bloom believed that most students can achieve a high level of learning if:

  • teaching is approached systematically
  • students are helped when and where they come across problems
  • enough time is given so that pupils can achieve mastery
  • it is clear to both staff and students what mastery is

Bloom did go on to state that the variables of aptitude, quality of teaching, ability to understand teaching, perseverance and time allowed had a negative effect on this type of learning.

Mastery Approach


The teaching cycle:

  1. According to Guskey (2010), the most important start to any instruction is to administer a diagnostic test before teaching. This allows the teacher to have a thorough understanding of what each student can or can’t do. The teacher then starts with any missing prerequisites before moving on to the desired curriculum.
  2. High-quality group instruction of the concept to be learned. This could be direct teacher instruction, instruction using tools such as those found on Triptico, or those discussed by Robert MacGregor.
  3.  Constant use of AfL and regular formative assessment to systematically monitor the progress of students. this does not need to be reams of comments written in books but can be spoken and dealt with at the time in a dialogue between teacher and student.
  4. High-quality corrective instruction in response to the formative assessment. This is not just repeating the previous instructions, but different approaches to the same topic in different ways that help the students concerned whether that be the use of film, learning aids, peer-to-peer—learning, collaborative learning etc.
  5. After the corrective instruction then a second parallel test should be completed to see if the concept has been embedded and how effective the intervention has been.
  6. Enrichment activities for those who do not need corrective instruction. This could be using the concept in different formats or in different contexts or could be more open-ended tasks designed to stretch and challenge.


The positives.

Research has consistently linked the mastery teaching process to highly effective instruction and student learning success (Guskey, 2009; Marzano, 2009; Rosenshine, 2009).

The EEF states that “mastery learning approaches are effective, leading to an additional five months’ progress over the course of a school year compared to traditional approaches”. It particularly works well with the lower attaining students and can help accelerate them a further two months.




The negatives


The downsides of taking a mastery approach according to the EEF are:

  1. Implementing mastery learning effectively is not straightforward, however, requiring a number of complex components and a significant investment in terms of design and preparation.

  2. Setting clear objectives and providing feedback from a variety of sources so that learners understand their progress appear to be key features of using mastery learning effectively. A high level of success, at least 80%, should be required before pupils move on.

  3. Incorporating group and team approaches where pupils take responsibility for helping each other within mastery learning appears to be effective.


It could also be added that additional resources need to be planned for and available for those who do not pass the testing at a high enough standard so that the pupil can learn and review the information before being tested again. This cycle should continue until the learner accomplishes mastery and can, therefore, move on to the next stage. The challenge is having enough time and resources for those who do not understand at the same pace as the rest of the class.


How can I introduce mastery into my school or classroom?

You can follow the principles outlined above.

You can introduce some of the principles from the Shanghai maths classroom.

You can use a product such as SkillsMastery to encourage mastery of literacy across the age range no matter what their current attainment is.