It’s the time of year when back-to-school advertisements pack mailboxes, parents and students are scanning store shelves for school supplies, and hopeful teachers are busy preparing classrooms and lesson plans.

Humming in the background of all this activity is the harsh reality of pandemic-related learning loss. And as we enter a third school year with COVID-19 circling through our communities, an outstanding question looms large. How do we catch students up? 

Khan Academy, the free nonprofit virtual educational platform founded in 2008 by Salman Khan believes the mastery learning model might help, and it seems the nation’s teachers agree. 

A recent nationally representative survey of educators conducted for the organization by YouGov found that 90% of teachers can “identify learning gaps that need to be addressed” and “84% of teachers believe mastery learning can help address learning loss from the pandemic.”

What Is Mastery Learning?

Khan Academy considers focusing on mastery learning to be a form of  “disaster recovery” which refers to minimizing the impact of learning loss and a widening learning and socioeconomic gap.

In 1968, Benjamin Bloom proposed the mastery learning model, which is an instructional strategy and educational philosophy. He noticed that one-on-one instruction and tutoring until mastery was the most effective teaching method. 

Mastery can play a critical role in recovery. It allows teachers to personalize the learning so that students can progress through their grade level while also addressing the areas where they may need extra help.

Sal Kahn

To that end, mastery learning classrooms provide a flexible learning environment that allows students to move at their own pace, mastering one core requirement before progressing to the next lesson. “Unlike traditional learning, students in mastery-learning classrooms are not pushed ahead in lockstep, which can cause the accumulation of knowledge gaps,” according to the Khan Academy website. 

With mastery learning, students who do not fully understand a concept participate in additional learning activities and retest until they do, as may times as they need to, usually until they score 90% or higher. 

Critics of the mastery learning model say it consumes too much time with one-one-instruction. However Khan Academy says tech-based tools — like what it offers — can alleviate the stress on teachers.

Mastery Learning in the Classroom

The survey revealed that 53% of teachers already use mastery learning in their classrooms. And an additional 35%  of teachers surveys said they would like to use mastery learning in their classrooms.  

“It’s terrific to see so much enthusiasm for mastery learning. Mastery can play a critical role in recovery.  It allows teachers to personalize the learning so that students can progress through their grade level while also addressing the areas where they may need extra help,” Sal Khan explained in a post on the Khan Academy website.

In addition, mastery learning has the potential to be a culturally responsive learning technique — one that allows for the diverse forms of expression, linguistic practices, and world views of Black students. 

The flexibility and affirmation that mastery learning provides is certainly needed. A January 2022 Brooking’s Institute analysis of student standardized test scores found that “observed declines are more substantial than during other recent school disruptions, such as those due to natural disasters.” And the cause isn’t just virtual schooling. Everything from the stress on teachers leading them to quit the profession to the mental health challenges of students is taking a toll. 

Two-thirds — 66% — of teachers identified “increase emotional/behavior support” as a need and 56% responded that “more family engagement” is needed.

Indeed, according to the Khan Academy/YouGov survey, “More than 80% of teachers say that when introduced to new concepts, their students need more help than they would have needed before the pandemic.” In addition, “Only 59% of teachers say their students mastered the content they needed to last school year.”

Of course, mastery learning isn’t the only thing surveyed teachers said could help students catch up. Two-thirds — 66% — of teachers identified “increase emotional/behavior support” as a need and 56% responded that “more family engagement” is needed. 

Throughout the pandemic, teachers have identified mental health needs and a lack of behavioral support as barriers to learning. The competency-based, mastery learning model not only addresses learning loss but could help with mental health and behavioral issues. After all, research shows children who experience success in the classroom are more likely to feel confident and behave as they should in school.   

“I think we have to make the best of the constraints that we have now, but as we start to get out of this COVID period, it really does have to be viewed as a disaster recovery project because these gaps that these kids are accumulating and this lack of self-esteem and what’s hitting them socially and emotionally, this will have long-lasting repercussions for- for decades if we don’t- if we don’t try to fix it,” Khan said.