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Why Class Size and Student Mindsets are Not Barriers to Flexible Pacing

Uncategorized May 06, 2021

Are some of your students way behind? Do you feel like you are holding back some students in order to accommodate those that struggle? At what point do you simply move on and hope that those students who are behind will catch up? Mix in a little pandemic teaching and now this problem is multiplied by some crazy number.  

Enter Mastery Learning where students only progress when they master the content. Since students learn at different paces, it just makes sense that we should allow them to learn at their own pace. But making that a reality, well — it seems daunting — even impossible. And if you teach six classes a day with 30 students in a class, how do you make this work? 

This article is one in a series where we will discuss how you can make mastery learning a reality. I will share how I, and thousands of other teachers, have transformed classrooms into a place where every student succeeds. In my previous articles, we learned that you don’t have to lecture to the whole class at the same time ever again. Today we are going to focus on the logistics of a flexible pace. 

You Do have to Set a Pace

First, read carefully, I didn’t say at their own pace. I said, at a flexible pace. In my experience, if I let all students move at their own pace, some students would not have a pace. They would choose to do very little and would learn nothing.

In most Mastery classrooms, the teacher sets an ideal pace. They tell students that they need to have accomplished x by time y. In my class; I give students weekly targets. They must master through, say objective 15.4 by the end of the week. If they don’t, then their grade will suffer. In most cases, this is sufficient motivation to get them to keep up. 

Instead of all the students being in the exact same place in the curriculum, they are at similar places. This is critical because there is only so much chaos that I will allow in class. This problem is exacerbated in my science classes because labs will not all be done at the same time. This means that I have a lab set up for about one week and students must complete it during that window.  

The Biggest Problem: What  to do with the Stragglers

The biggest issue in all of Mastery Learning is this problem: What to do with students who get behind —- the stragglers. I have found stragglers straggle for two common reasons:

  • They are genuinely struggling with the curriculum and need extra support.
  • They are not sufficiently motivated to work very hard. 

For the first group, I have much empathy and work with them. I will spend more one-on-one time with them and modify their assignments. I also take a hard look at the essential objectives in a given unit and will often have them skip some of the non-essential topics. I do this on the fly and make snap decisions as I work with the students.

For the second group, I simply do good teacher stuff. I communicate with them about their behindness, I connect with other adults in the school who might assist, I call their parents, or I find out more about them to find what motivates them. This is all happening in the context of positive relationships with students. I find the best motivational technique is to let students feel cared for and supported. Students who struggle will work much harder for a teacher who is invested in them. 

Let’s move on and go deeper into some specific strategies.

Identifying Essential Objectives

I teach science, and within each unit, there are what I would call critical objectives and non-critical objectives. As students progress through a given unit I will put the non-critical objectives at the end of the unit. That way, if a few students don’t master every objective, the ones they miss are the non-critical ones.  Thus, some straggling students won’t learn some things. I am perfectly OK with that. But they will have learned the critical objectives.

The benefit of this approach is that I can keep my students roughly at the same pace. This simplifies pacing, set-up, and minimizes the chaos that already is a Mastery Learning classroom.

As I have worked with countless other Mastery Learning teachers, they all have come to realize what is essential and what is not. And being able to release some content and being OK having every student not exposed to everything can sometimes be a big hurdle for some teachers. If you struggle with this I would simply ask: “Is it better that they actually learn, say, 85% of your content, or have them exposed to 100% but not really learn anything?”

As I write this article, I have a student in my room. I just made the call to have him skip the last objective in the unit and he is now taking his summative assessment a few days late. I made a call that he has sufficient knowledge to demonstrate mastery of the essential objectives. 

Setting up the Room

Though COVID has significantly changed how I set up my room for mastery, setting up your room is critical. The key is to lay out your room to have many flexible spaces where you can group students who are working together. In my case, I look at my clipboard of who is where and then for each day I group students into pods. Lisa MaCaulley, an 8th-grade math teacher in Gurnee, Illinois, has letters hanging from her ceiling, and students are assigned to a different letter each day depending on how advanced they are. Those students who are working ahead are in group A and then those who are a little bit behind are in group B, etc. These groups change each day and she has created an environment where there is no stigma for sitting in whichever group. 

In my case, I also have specific areas set up for experiments. Experiment A is at one station, Experiment B is at the 2nd, and so on. This takes significant planning, but once students understand the system, they just adapt and flow with this learning. 

The Other Problem: Students who get ahead

You have your stragglers, of course, but what do you do with the students who are eager and ready to learn? These students, in particular, pose a problem during your first year of Mastery Learning. They will push you to get things done early. They will ask when the next unit is ready and sometimes you won’t be ready. 

But like the straggler group, I have found that the “fast movers” fall into two categories:

  1.  Students who are nailing it and are super interested. 
    These students are the ones who will test your system. Be thankful for them and enlist them in helping you be better.
  1. Students who are just trying to check boxes. 
    If there is a “dark side” to Mastery Learning, it is those students who are just trying to finish fast and not really understand the material. They like checking boxes. I would argue that these students will be your most challenging. Students who fit this description in my class are very frustrated. They turn work in, and I give it back to them to do it again. They are mad because they “did” the work. But they haven’t mastered it. It is sometimes tempting to let the box checkers get their boxes checked. This is where I insist that students explain or perform well. I won’t accept anything that isn’t true mastery. I had a student in just this morning who had come close to an 80% on a summative assessment (I expect all students to score 80% or more). He wanted me to let him move on. After all, he said, “I’m almost there.”  But I am holding the line. He needs some more remediation, and I am confident he will demonstrate mastery. What I find with these students is that the more you “hold the line,” the more they realize that the goal of the class is learning and not box-checking. I wish I could say that I have been wildly successful at this in my classes, but I do feel like many start to shift their thinking as the school year progresses.   

Tying it Up

I know this may sound chaotic, but trust me, it just works. The quality and quantity of my interactions with students are amazing. I am more their coach than their teacher. Sure I am an expert at my content. I know the topic, but I am more Dumbledore (wise sage) than Snape (stand and deliver teacher).  If you adopt this model, you will find that your role changes in so many good ways.

More Resources

If you want to learn more about Mastery Learning, go to and join the community. You may also want to read the other articles in this series. 


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