Mastery learning in a large first year physics class


  • Paul Francis
  • Cristina Figl
  • Craig Savage


In 2009 we tried an experiment in our large core first year physics course: we introduced mastery learning. The basic idea behind mastery learning is that any student can learn anything well, but that it takes some students much longer than others. We should therefore let students proceed through a course at different speeds, while insisting that they totally master each section of the course before moving on. The students have to get over 80% in each homework assignment before they are allowed to take the next one. They are, however, allowed to take different versions of each assignment multiple times until they reach this threshold. At the end, the weaker students would have covered less content than the strong ones, but they should have fully understood whatever they did. In the laboratory component, the students were assessed in each experiment against a set of lab mastery goals. The students could pass the lab component only if they have mastered each of these goals at least once. Did it work? Logistically it worked very well, somewhat to our surprise. There were a number of striking unexpected benefits: students did more work, complained less about the workload, asked for help more often, and showed an improved ability to solve questions first time around. Gains in student conceptual understanding were much improved, but this may be due to other innovations introduced in the course. Examination performance, however, did not improve, even on the most basic material. Students could do the problems when given unlimited time and assistance from peers, but not in exam conditions.