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How Can Mastery Rival Tutoring and Close Educational Gaps Caused by the Pandemic?

Uncategorized Mar 05, 2021

Schools closed. Remote learning. Exhausted teachers. The pandemic has had a huge impact on schools around the world. Perhaps the biggest issue we face now and going forward is the impact of learning loss and learning gaps caused by the pandemic. According to a paper by Libby Pier and others, they reached two key conclusions about the results of the pandemic on education:

  1. There has been significant learning loss in both English Language Arts (ELA) and Math, with students in earlier grades most affected.
  2. The equity impact is severe — certain student groups, especially low-income students and English language learners (ELLs), are falling behind more compared to others.

They summarized it in the graph below:

COVID-19 and the Educational Equity Crisis | PACE

The big question is how do we teach in light of the growing learning loss, especially with some of our most vulnerable students. Is there a way that we can reach students of a wide variety of ability levels in the same classroom? How can we catch students up? How can we work with such a wide range of comprehension and mastery?

Semi-Asynchronous Mastery Learning

In 2012 I co-wrote the book, Flip Your Classroom with Aaron Sams. In the second half of the book, we talked about how we merged Flipped Learning with Mastery Learning and dubbed it Flipped-Mastery Learning. Since that time, thousands of teachers worldwide have implemented the Flipped-Mastery model with great success. Though it has many iterations, the basics of it remain the same. 

  • Students move through the curriculum at a flexible pace, and at the end of each unit of study, they are assessed. 
  • If they have mastered the curriculum, then they can move on to the next topic. 
  • If not, they don’t move on. For those students who don’t demonstrate mastery, they get remediation and then retake the summative assessment. They do this until mastery. 

Mastery Learning isn’t a new concept. Doctors have to pass the Board Exam, lawyers the Bar Exam, and most of us took a driver’s test. All of these are examples of mastery learning. But how can the average teacher implement this when they teach 30 students per class and six classes a day?  What overwhelms most isn’t the concept of mastery; it is the logistics of implementing it on a day-by-day basis.  

Managing 30 students all at slightly different places in the curriculum seems impossible. You might ask:

  • If there is any direct instruction required in your class, how do you deliver it to students who are at varying points in the classroom? 
  • How do you have multiple assessments that students can take so that each time they are assessed on key objectives the questions vary?
  • How do I keep track of everything?

A Little Background on Mastery Learning — The 2-Sigma Problem

Did you know that Benjamin Bloom of Bloom’s Taxonomy fame spent a large portion of his career showing that mastery learning worked and advocated for its adoption?  In 1984, he wrote an article in Educational Researcher entitled The 2-Sigma Problem: Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. He cited studies that compared student achievement under “conventional teaching,” mastery learning, and one-to-one tutoring. The research indicates that one-to-one tutoring produces a two standard deviation improvement in student achievement (see his graph below).

The paper is essentially a challenge to the educational world to find a teaching method that is as effective as one-to-one tutoring. He further states:

If the research on the 2-sigma problem yields practical methods (methods that the average teacher or school faculty can learn in a brief period of time and use with little more cost or time than conventional instruction), it would be an educational contribution of the greatest magnitude. It would change popular notions about human potential and would have significant effects on what the schools can and should do with the educational years each society requires of its young people.”

It’s as if he was challenging us to find the educational holy grail. In the intervening 30+ years, nobody has found the grail — or have we? 

If I may be so bold — the method that Bloom was looking for is Flipped Mastery. It marries mastery learning with one-on-one instruction. It allows teachers to get quality one-on-one and one-on-small group time that genuinely works. 

What does Flipped Mastery look like?

By now, I hope you are at least intrigued. How does a 2-Sigma class look?  What are the essential elements?  The best way to understand this model would be for you to visit a Flipped-Mastery classroom.  In lieu of that, let me try and describe what you would see.

  • No whole-class direct instruction: Direct instruction still occurs — in a flipped manner — with students watching videos or reading as pre-work.
  • Flexible Pace: Students work through the content at a flexible pace. Not every student is on the same “page” of the curriculum, but they do move through it at the level appropriate for them.
  • Extreme Differentiation: I literally talk with every student in every class every day and in doing so I am able to customize the learning path of each student.
  • Teacher-Student Interactions: I spend my class time walking around the classroom interacting with students — always being in a formative assessment mode — checking for understanding, asking questions of students, having students ask questions of me.
  • Students working collaboratively:  Though each student is on their own individual learning path, they clump together and work collaboratively to learn the curriculum. This has a myriad of benefits including making the logistics work better, but also gaining the value of a group of students learning from each other and from me. 
  • Summative Assessments: In my class, I expect students to score at least 80% on all summative assessments. Many take these multiple times until achieving mastery.
  • Thousands of Versions: Each time students take a summative assessment they get a different test. I am using D2L Brightspace quizzing feature, which allows me to literally have thousands of versions of the same test where students get different questions each time that assess the same objectives. 
  • Immediate Feedback: Many studies have shown that immediate feedback reveals significantly larger improvement in comprehension. When students complete a summative assessment, they come to me and we grade it together. During those conversations, a variety of things happen. If they are successful I ring a gong and we celebrate. If they don’t I use the session as remedial time to help them prepare to take the assessment later.  
  • Relationships: With the extra time to interact, Flipped Mastery teachers have more time to develop positive relationships with their students. We all know that students learn best when they are in classes where their teacher isn’t just interested in their academic achievement but also believes in them.

This brief introduction to the Flipped-Mastery model might feel a bit overwhelming. It is easy for me to say that all of the above things happen. But I imagine that you are wondering about HOW to do each of these tasks… no worries. This is the first in a series of articles where I will flesh out the bullets above. I will also share how this works in a wide variety of classroom settings. From elementary to middle and high schools. From science classes like mine to history and language classes. We will also address how this looks in remote or hybrid classrooms.  

Additional Resources

  • Podcast: I am starting both a video and audio podcast that focuses on Mastery Learning with my two daughters, Kaitie and Emily, who teach English and Science respectively. The podcast is entitled Chalkboard Stories. Find more at
  • Community: I have just launched a community section on my website and you can create an account and connect there about mastery learning.

Note: I wrote this piece for and you can find the original story here


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