Opinion: COVID-19 makes mastery-based learning more important than ever

Courtesy Unsplash

The coronavirus has forced schools across the nation online, and students are rapidly falling behind. According to a recent report in the New York Times, “by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains.” Worst of all, the students harmed most by the switch to online education are those who are struggling most to begin with. Students from poor families often lack adequate technology or internet access at home and have parents who are less familiar with their curriculum and less available to help make up for the inherent difficulties of online education.

We need to be doing way more than we are now to combat this,  but it also reveals a much deeper flaw in our education system that makes the situation as bad as it is: our education system doesn’t deal well with failure.

In our current system, when a student gets a 70 percent on a test, we just…  move on. You didn’t understand 30 percent of the material about division? Fantastic, I bet you’ll love fractions. This means that students who don’t understand all the material on the first try wind up with an education that looks a bit like Jenga tower, filled with holes and gaps of the parts they didn’t understand. Like a Jenga tower, these gaps slowly build and build and build, making each successive concept more difficult than the last, until students filled with potential eventually decide that they’re ‘not smart’ and ‘just a C student.’ Those students didn’t fail. The education system failed them. 

School closures from the coronavirus are going to make this problem worse than ever. When disadvantaged students eventually return to classrooms after the pandemic, they’ll be lost, left behind. 

So what can be done? Schools across the country have already figured out that assigning a letter grade to a student right now is probably going to be more indicative of privilege than academic achievement, but that still doesn’t address the underlying issue of learning. To fix that, we are going to have to go one step further and eliminate grades altogether by switching to a mastery-based learning system. 

What is mastery-based learning? It is nothing more nor less than how you learn almost every other skill in life. It’s not like your parents gave you an 65 percent on crawling and then ask you to move on to walking. You mastered crawling first, and only once you were ready did you move on to the next concept, taking as much time as you needed with each to achieve competency. 

For decades, we’ve known that mastery-based learning works better, but we haven’t implemented it for a very good reason: logistics. Simply put, teachers couldn’t give multiple lectures at the same time. We don’t pay them enough as it is, and now we’re asking them to be in multiple places at once? It simply wasn’t feasible. 

The coronavirus forcing schools to be fully online has changed that. Now, while it is already necessary, teachers can record their lectures and post them online with corresponding assignments. The burden here doesn’t even have to be on teachers, either: Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational organization, already has a catalog of thousands of freely available lectures and activities on everything from basic addition to the works of Shakespeare. 

Wherever they come from, students can work through these at their own pace, making all that’s required for mastery-based learning a switch in mindset, both in how we measure success and in how students approach learning.

Instead of assigning students a grade based on test scores, tests need to become an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding and highlight areas where you need improvement. If you get a 60 percent, that’s great! It means you’re more than halfway there, and now you know what to focus on to complete your understanding.

Putting aside that many schools aren’t even assigning grades right now, some critics have argued that this method fails to provide the same level of measurement of success as traditional systems, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. If I were trying to find a trumpet player, I’d much rather know that they can successfully perform Jingle Bells than that they got a 20 percent on their attempt at Flight of the Bumblebee.

Best of all, this setup fosters the fabled growth mindset, empowering students to try again instead of labeling them a failure, and it sets them up better for real life. Students will be a lot better off having a solid understanding of algebra than having a Jenga-tower understanding of everything through calculus. Besides, it isn’t even a trade-off. Without accumulating holes in their understanding, students in mastery-based learning systems are able to achieve understanding of much more complex topics than all but the brightest of their traditionally-schooled counterparts. 

Because the resources still have to be online, it doesn’t fix the online achievement gap right now: regardless of what learning system you use, that requires infrastructure. Instead, it provides a much better environment for those students to return to, when that access is provided or they can return to school. Instead of being left behind, they’ll just pick up where they left off. With lectures available online, teachers will be able to focus their class time on helping students in need.

Many of the barriers to the implementation of mastery-based learning we have already been forced to surmount by the pandemic, and the need for it is greater than ever. It’s about time we give it a go.