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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Mastery Learning and Scaffolding for Student Achievement

“The Advanced Level is Mastery of the Basics”~Ray Mancini

First proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968, mastery learning is an educational approach that suggests that students must achieve mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills before learning more complex material. Unlike traditional methods, where the entire class is expected to learn simultaneously regardless of individual students’ ability, mastery learning suggests that all students possess the aptitude to learn. Still, some may require more time to reach the objective. Nevertheless, the research supporting mastery learning is significant. For example, a meta-analysis of 108 controlled studies of upper elementary, high school, and college students found that mastery learning increases student academic performance, particularly for weaker students (Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990).

to mastery goes beyond simply “covering” material through the course of a lesson, hoping that students learned what they were supposed to. Instead, teaching to mastery focuses on what students learned and not what the teacher taught. There are several components of mastery teaching. The first is that teachers must communicate to their students clearly defined learning objectives. In other words, students must know precisely what they are required to know and be able to do as a result of the lesson or unit of study. Additionally, students must understand what mastery looks like and know when they reach it. An excellent way to communicate mastery to students is by providing them with examples of mastery-level achievement. This could be a completed project, a sample essay, or other artifacts of learning. Next, teachers should provide their students with multiple opportunities to reach mastery. Understanding that not all students will achieve mastery simultaneously, teachers allow students to take summative assessments as many times as needed to demonstrate that they have mastered the content. Lastly, teachers need to provide students with timely, ongoing feedback on their learning progress. Feedback should focus on the knowledge and skills teachers want students to master and is best accomplished using a rubric.

Teaching Strategies for Mastery Learning

To master complex skills and concepts, students must first become proficient in the sub-skills that lead to mastery. For example, students need to master vocabulary, grammar, syntax, mechanics, voice, and style to write well. Additionally, students must be able to group and organize their thoughts logically and make sure their writing is well suited for the audience, purpose, and genre for which they are writing. Teachers' main difficulty in teaching to mastery is that many of these subskills have become automatic, and they take for granted that many students have not mastered them. Because teachers don't routinely think about subskills, they are challenging to communicate and teach to learners. Scaffolding is a powerful way to help students achieve mastery of skills and content.


Teachers should provide their students with scaffolding and support as they move from novice to mastery. The concept of scaffolding is based upon the work of cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD refers to the area of learning between what a person can do on their own and what they can do with the assistance of a skilled partner. Based on the concept of ZPD, Jerome Bruner coined the term “scaffolding” in the 1970s and applied Vygotsky’s theory to the educational setting. Scaffolding is when the teacher breaks up concepts and skills into manageable chunks and provides students enough support to guide them to mastery of complex concepts or tasks. In other words, scaffolding helps students bridge the gap between what they know and what they need to know. Scaffolding can be done with one-to-one teaching or in collaborative learning environments where students can observe, ask questions, and teach others content and skills.

Teaching Strategy There are several ways that teachers can provide scaffolding to their students to help them reach mastery. One of the approaches I use, especially when introducing a new concept or skill, is to model the behavior I want students to have. For example, suppose I am teaching students how to effectively communicate with their peers in cooperative learning groups. In that case, I will role play with another student how to get one’s point across, what it looks like to listen actively, and how to engage in healthy dispute resolution. We cannot assume that all students possess effective communication skills, and they must be implicitly shown how to work well with their peers. Additionally, I model intellectual processes too by doing a think-aloud. A think-aloud is when the teacher verbally articulates their internal thinking as they engage in an area of learning. This approach is effective, especially when students learn a skill or concept consisting of several steps or components.

Another effective scaffolding technique is to ask students open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. They require students to reflect and produce in-depth answers. They are a perfect way for teachers to focus on a specific concept while allowing students to elaborate and communicate what they know. Teachers can use student responses to identify gaps in understanding and provide support to reach mastery targets. In addition to whole-class questioning strategies, teachers can put students into small discussion groups or use “shoulder buddies” to have students engage in small group discussions. This is an excellent way for students to think about and process new information and concepts

Using students’ prior knowledge about a topic is an excellent scaffolding strategy. Teachers should try to tap into what students already know by utilizing something familiar to explain new and unfamiliar ideas. For example, a foreign language teacher could tap into their students' understanding of English grammar to teach the concepts of verb tenses, articles, and noun genders. Analogies are an effective way to teach students new concepts. An analogy is simply a comparison between two things. For example, when I teach students about 9/11, I compare it to the attack on Pearl Harbor. While history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme, and it can help students understand how the nation responded to the surprise attack.

Visual aids are a helpful device to scaffold student learning to mastery. They are supplemental materials that give shape or form to words and thoughts and help learners understand concepts or processes. Some examples of common visual aids in the classroom include slide shows, models, pictures, videos, infographics, handouts, graphic organizers, concept maps, flashcards, and informational posters. Further, they have been shown to increase the learning process because students learn better when presented with multiple representations (Shabiralyani, Hasan, Hamad, & Iqbal, 2015). Visual aids are an excellent way for the teacher to get and retain students’ attention and keep them focused, especially during a presentation or lecture. As a history teacher, I like to present my students with parchment reproductions of important primary sources such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Scaffolding is essential when engaging students with big projects or activities that have multiple steps. This is because some students may become overwhelmed by the project’s proportions. A strategy to help students tackle big projects is chunking. Chunking is simply breaking the project down into small manageable pieces. Approaching projects in this way makes the task a lot less intimidating. Students are more likely to stay engaged with the project when small portions are assigned at regular intervals rather than having the project due all at once with little to no support. Additionally, teachers can help students complete large projects by creating checkpoints throughout the project. Checkpoints or milestones are predetermined points along the project timeline to evaluate progress toward completion. Checkpoints, like chunking, keep students moving forward without overwhelming them.

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