Mastery-based learning refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education. In public schools, mastery-based systems use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define “mastery” in a given course, subject area, or grade level (although other sets of standards may also be used, including standards developed by districts and schools or by subject-area organizations). The general goal of mastery-based learning is to ensure that students are acquiring the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers, and adult life. If students fail to meet expected learning standards, they typically receive additional instruction, practice time, and academic support to help them achieve mastery or meet the expected standards.
Defining mastery-based learning is complicated by the fact that educators not only use a wide variety of terms for the general approach, but the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. A few of the more common synonyms include competency-based, proficiency-based, outcome-based, performance-based, and standards-based education, instruction, and learning, amongothers.
In practice, mastery-based learning can take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school—there is no single model or universally used approach. While schools often create their own mastery-based systems, they may also use systems, strategies, or models created by state education agencies or outside educational organizations. Mastery-based learning is more widely used at the elementary level, although more middle schools and high schools are adopting the approach. As with any educational strategy, some mastery-based systems may be better designed or more effective than others.