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Learning for Mastery: Some Practical Issues

When I wrote about mastery learning last week, I discussed our 80% rule: if our children get below 80% on a test they fail, and we will relearn and reteach as necessary.  Why?  Because we want our children to master the material they are studying, and if they do not understand the material well enough to get 80% on a test, they have not learned it.   Actually, for some subjects I consider anything below 90% a red flag, and my friend Jenn goes for 100%.

Of course, a few practical issues arise when you actually try to do this.  Here are some our family has dealt with:

Suppose your teen gets 74% on an algebra test.  You go over the chapter together, redoing as much of the material as necessary until your teen understands it.  Then you do some extra work so that your teen becomes really confident and has truly mastered the material.  Then you retest.

Often you won’t be able to use the same test, although sometimes you will.  I love courses that come with several tests per chapter, but you may need to tweak the original test or put together a new one.  Using assignment problems can work for this, but often you’ll have to put in a bit of extra effort.  Remember it’s worth it to have your child actually learn the material.

Say the next test mark is 91%.  So now, which mark is the ‘official’ one, the one you’ll use for transcript purposes?  You could take the final mark, to indicate that the student knows the material.  You could take the average, to indicate that it took a few tries.  Or you could do anything in between.  I usually choose a mark about ¾ of the way between the two marks, leaning toward the higher mark, but I’m flexible on this.  To me, marks indicate knowledge, not the amount of time it took to learn something, but they also represent a bit about the effort it took the student to learn something.

Students will complain or be sad.  After all, redoing the chapter is extra work, sometimes a lot of it, and they will also have to deal with the fact that they did not succeed on the first round.   But I point out to my kids that if they don’t know this stuff, they’ll never understand the future stuff and tell them that this is a great chance to figure out what was causing them trouble.  We’re in this together, and we’ll work through it together.

It takes extra time and energy from mom.  Sometimes neither of those is available and the thought of adding a few extra hours of re-teaching to your full schedule is enough to make you cry.  But think again.  If you’re homeschooling to teach your kids something, you will want to ensure learning is happening.  We can only do what we can but it is a goal toward which we strive.  I’ve not been able to manage this all of the time, and I regret it deeply.

You might not finish your curriculum if you take extra time to relearn material properly.  But think about it:  is it your goal to finish the curriculum or to have your child understand the material that is covered?  One comforting fact to note is that, apparently, school teachers rarely finish the curriculum either.  One teacher told my friend that ‘only homeschoolers actually try to finish the textbooks.’

Finally and most importantly, you must be sure your child is able to get that 80%.   If after repeated efforts, he or she cannot seem to master the material, you’ll need to consider the following questions.

  • Perhaps he/she did not learn the earlier material well and needs an age-appropriate remedial program.
  • Perhaps his/her brain is not developed adequately for the work you are trying to do; you may need to give it some time to mature.  That is one reason we avoid chapter tests for the earlier grades.  In the meantime, you may be able to approach the topic in a more hands on-way, or focus on different ways of learning, or study related topics.
  • Perhaps your child is experiencing some sort of simple learning problem that you can deal with on your own.  Our family has made some surprising discoveries about learning problems.
  • If, however, the problem continues for a year or two, you might want to get a professional assessment.  After all, although we parents know our children best, most of us have no understanding of serious learning disabilities.

Since our main goal in homeschooling is to teach our children, we need to face all these practical issues involved with mastery learning.   Next week I’ll give some examples of how this actually works in our homeschool.

What other things does your family do to encourage your children to master the material?


  1. Kristi says:

    Great tips! I love that homeschooling is so flexible, I can make sure my kids really *understand* the subject, rather than just pushing them along. Thank you!

  2. Annie Kate says:

    You’re so welcome! 🙂

  3. Amy says:

    I haven’t had to think about testing at all yet. We are going for general understanding at this point. I really like your idea about requiring a minimum grade. Really, what is the point of all the time spent teaching/learning if there is not comprehension? I’ll have to remember this for the future!

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