As we collectively start to look beyond COVID-19, we share both the anticipation of a return to “normal” and an expectation that we likely won’t return to the typical pre-pandemic education model. This recognition that traditional instructional models alone are no longer sufficient is coming from teachers and parents, from policy makers and system leaders, and from students.
As the K-12 system makes the pivot, the question is: What is the path forward—both in the immediate term and in the future?
Increasing flexibility in the time, pace, and place/modality of learning is among the expected coming adjustments. We agree. We also view mastery-based learning (MBL) as an important component for both a near-term learning recovery approach and a long-term systemic model to support student growth and success.
Understanding and Overcoming Learning Loss
On-the-ground experience and factual evidence of test score data both point to measurable losses in instructional access and learning opportunities over the past year, as well as a widening gap for students of color, those from low-income families, and those with exceptionalities. Challenging circumstances meant that schooling and learning was, understandably and unfortunately, less than optimal.
An analysis of test score data by McKinsey found that sampled students “learned only 67 percent of the math and 87 percent of the reading that grade-level peers would typically have learned by the fall.” In majority-minority schools, that gap was greater, at 59% and 77%.
Learning loss is a very real issue that must be addressed, but there are also important debates going on around it. We at D2L share the view of many educators and families concerned with a “deficit” approach to learning recovery, which may negatively impact both student mindset and instructional approaches. While needs are significant, we also want to recognize the amazing efforts of educators to persevere, innovate, and deliver unmeasured student experiences and growth.
Alternatively, an asset or growth approach to learning loss can help accelerate learning with a focus on current grade-level content and a scaffolding of interventions to address gaps. This can provide a more effective ramp for learning recovery now and establish a more student-centered, resilient instructional approach to support student progress into the future.
Mastery-Based Learning: Pros as a Learning-Loss Solution
No matter the approach to learning loss, one of the solutions we’ll need in our portfolio is a shift from what’s long been considered “normal” to an MBL, or mastery-based learning, education model.
Before we define what MBL is, let’s review some of its relevant benefits given where we find ourselves now:
- It’s inherently student-centered at a time when disparities among student experiences, achievements, and academic and life needs have grown dramatically.
- MBL aligns with the increase in student agency during the pandemic, as families and learners have increased both their understanding of learning goals and the self-directedness of instruction.
- MBL advances the need for more engaging, meaningful, and effective learning experiences, including lessons that are deeper and more authentic.
- It makes more effective use of our most precious resource—time—both the time of students and the time of teachers.
In fact, in a January 2021 survey of 500 parents and their children, D2L found that they most valued the flexibility and personalization of digital learning. 74% of parents found value in digital learning tools that helped adapt course content to the student’s needs and 72% valued tools that allowed students to learn at their own pace. 84% of grade 4–12 students identified their top value as having the option to look for extra content when they needed it.
What Is Mastery-Based Learning?
Mastery-based learning models nurture deeper and accelerated learning by aligning content and activities with individual learning goals and needs. Educators can more easily identify and address gaps, students can take different paths based on their needs and strengths, and everyone (teachers, students, and families) can benefit from greater transparency into learner progress.
We can think of a mastery-based model, also referred to as competency-based education, in two ways:
- Accountability and Promotion: The first is as an accountability model whereby advancement (to the next course or grade level) is based on the student’s demonstrated mastery of the content rather than instructional time on task or calendar. In contrast to MBL/mastery-based education, the traditional “seat-time” methods hold time constant (e.g., 180 school days per year times six hours per day), while achievement too often varies.
- Teaching and Learning: The second is focused on optimizing instructional and learning time by increasing the transparency of learning goals, understanding student progression, and aligning curriculum and instruction. The resulting student-centered model differentiates the pathway for each student, allowing interventions for students at risk and adding acceleration or enrichment for high performers, while advancing all students to success.
Our focus will be on the latter way, with this instructional approach being a step toward regulatory reform. In Part 2 of this blog series, we’ll take a closer look at MBL for teaching and learning and talk about how to scale MBL during this unique time.
D2L survey of over 1,000 adults (2021). D2L partnered with Innovative Research Group to issue an online survey between December 2020 and January 2021 regarding perceptions of education and training. The survey was issued to 1,288 adults 18+ meant to be representative of the general adult population in the United States. 500 of the respondents were identified as parents and gave permission for supervised questions directed at the child.