Mastery Learning in Science: Students as Teachers

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SWBAT master scientific concepts by acting as a tutor or student.

Big Idea

Students teach each other in order to encourage mastery of the standards.


5 minutes

What should we do when our students don't quite get it? Time is short. Students are restless. We are trying to differentiate for students who need more challenge and those that already have challenges. In terms of best practice, using assessment to drive instruction is somewhere near the top of the list.

"Mastery Learning" is a strategy that can help students master the content without boredom or too much time away from the wide array of other standards on our plates. By turning students into teachers, students leverage leadership skills and develop empathy for each other while working together to teach or relearn a concept. As shown here, students find this process very rewarding:

For a more detailed explanation about the history and structure of Mastery Learning, read this Mastery Learning article.

While this lesson is not aligned with specific Performance Expectations or Disciplinary Core Ideas of the NGSS, it meets the spirit and purpose of the Science and Engineering Practices. This strategy can be used to help students learn any science practice or science standard. While participating in mastery learning as a tutor or student, students are challenged to analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena (SP4) by critically looking at the results of their assessments and looking for Cause and Effect relationships (CCC). Students do this by identifying Patterns (CCC) in how their preparation for an assessment affected the outcome and by looking for patterns in the types of learning difficulties they demonstrated. This is a non-traditional way to think about cross-cutting concepts, but if students are familiar with the terminology from discussions about science content, they may be able to apply it in this alternate application.

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, I simply ask the following questions:

1) Who would like to retake an assessment in order to show proficiency?

2) Who is willing to help other students to show advanced understanding?

By asking these questions, it is possible to engage nearly every student. For students who do not answer yes to one of the questions, there are several ways to encourage engagement. For students who are not proficient, I explain that participation is required but that I understand it is a very vulnerable position to be able to ask for help. For students who are proficient, by offering advanced credit for their work to teach other students, most are instantly engaged. If they are not, I appeal to their sympathies and ask authentically for their help. Students rarely say no.

In order to set up effective Mastery Learning, review this section's reflection: How to Set Up Mastery Learning.


40 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. At this point, it is time to generate enthusiasm for and explain the "Master Tutor Project". Using the strategy outlined in the reflection: How to Set Up Mastery Learning in advance, students are called to the front in a "Master Tutor Project" ceremony. Students are formally introduced to each other and are given the Master Tutor Script if they are a tutor and a relearn activity such as this one: Measurement Mass Relearn Activity if they are a student.

Once all groups are set, we review the instructions for the process:

Part 1: Identify

Use the quiz or activity to identify learning challenges. You may review all parts of the concept, but it is important to identify and focus on the specific learning challenges. Think about what teaching resources you might use to help teach your learning partner. List the challenges and teaching resources in the data table. An example of this step can be viewed here: Master Tutor Student Work 3.

Part 2: Teach

After you have identified targeted learning challenges, use the activity or other resources (textbook, Web-sites, movies, diagrams, etc.) to help the student learn each challenge. Your job is to teach each topic. Video of the teaching and learning process can be seen here:


Part 3: Feedback and Corrections

If your learning partner makes errors during the learning, identify the error (this is called feedback) and clarify or reteach (this is called a correction). Continue to provide feedback and corrections until your partner can explain the concept independently.  Then, move on to the next concept.

Part 4: Check for Understanding

When you have worked through all of your learning partner’s challenges, go back through each challenge and quiz with your partner to make sure they know it.

Part 5: Assess

Help your partner manage the official reassessment. You may read and clarify questions on the quiz, but you may not give them any answers.

Part 6: Repeat

Repeat this process until your learning partner is proficient. When complete, you and your learning partner will write a short reflection identifying what worked well in your Mastery Learning Process. Turn this paper in for your credit.

During instructions, I may role play with a student to show how the process could look when they are working independently. At this point, students collect their materials and are given specific areas in the room to work.

While students work, I monitor groups for engagement, provide results of assessments, help tutors find teaching resources and administer reassessment. Generally, students are highly engaged as shown in the photograph resource "Classroom Collaboration".


5 minutes

The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. In mastery learning, there are two sides to the evaluation stage:

1) Students who are "tutors" complete a reflection on the Master Tutor Script as shown here: Master Tutor Student Work 1 and Master Tutor Student Work 2. The purpose of this reflection is for students to record their successes and challenges in a way that helps them assess how effective they were in their teaching strategies.

2) Students who are "students" complete a reassessment of the topic they were relearning. This reassessment is often something that can be graded quickly during the EXPLORE stage, so that tutors and students receive immediate feedback.

In terms of grading, because "students" develop proficiency, their new grades replace the old. For "tutors", I change their proficient score on the quiz to an advanced score. My rationale is that by teaching the concept to someone else, they are showing an advanced understanding of the material.