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Mastery learning and geography

‘Mastery learning seems to be effective as an additional teaching strategy. How will you decide which topics and concepts are appropriate for a mastery learning approach?’

Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit

Topics on this page:

  • What is mastery learning?
  • Mastery learning in practice
  • Mastery learning in geography
  • Reading

What is mastery learning?

Every so often education has a new ‘buzzword’. In 2015 ‘mastery learning’ caught the attention in England and the Department for Education flew in teachers from Shanghai.

The Guardian ran the headline, ‘Differentiation is out. Mastery is the new classroom buzzword’ (1 October 2015). The approach impacted on mathematics teaching, but also had a wider impact across the school curriculum. The DFE frameworks for ITT and ECTs require new teachers to know how to help pupils master important concepts.

Despite the media hype, mastery learning is not new, nor did it originate from China. It has a basis in educational research, from the work of Benjamin Bloom (1968). Its principles have been adopted by good geography teachers for decades. In 2001, Catherin Owen wrote in Teaching Geography:

‘In developing a scheme of work I decided to use Bloom’s (1976) “Mastery learning” approach, teaching the unit through normal teaching methods and then through enrichment or support work. This approach appealed to me as it embraces differentiation as a core part of teaching rather than it being an “add on”.’

Bloom proposed that students should demonstrate ‘mastery’ of knowledge before they move on to learn new knowledge and he believed that all students are capable of learning anything if presented in the right way. 

Both ideas resonate with good geography teaching. However, the notion of ‘mastery’ does give the impression that knowledge is always right or wrong, which is not always the case in our subject. Perhaps geographers should consider it as ‘learning for excellence’?

Bloom’s mastery learning strategy outlined, in summary:

  • The teacher identifies the concepts and skills they want students to acquire and plans short learning units.
  • High-quality initial teaching of these concepts/skills.
  • Formative assessment to identify precisely what students have learned well by the end of the unit and where they still need additional work. The formative assessment provides correctives – i.e. what students must do to correct their learning difficulties and to master the desired learning outcomes.
  • Students complete their corrective activities. Then there is a second formative assessment that addresses the same learning goals but includes different problems or questions. This offers students a second chance to succeed and finds out if correctives were successful.
  • For students who demonstrate their proficiency on the first assessment, enrichment or extension activities are planned. These give opportunities to broaden and expand learning.

Bloom believed that by using this approach nearly all students could truly master academic content. Later research has supported him showing that students consistently reach higher levels of achievement and develop greater confidence in their ability to learn and in themselves as learners.

Mastery learning in practice

Mastery learning is a teaching strategy recommended by the Education Endowment Foundation particularly for lower achieving students and when students work in groups and take responsibility for helping each other (see here for further information).

Put simply, mastery means that students should be able to recall and apply what they have learnt when they return to it in the future, rather than only at the time they first meet the idea or skill. Most supporters of mastery learning stress the importance of diagnostic assessment before a teaching sequence to hone the specific goals for the unit. 

All emphasise the importance of high-quality teaching and see the use of formative assessment to monitor student progress and give specific feedback as equally important. Both of these are basically good practice for geography teaching.

Read Hutchings (2003) where an example of ‘mastery learning’ is explained in the context of raising the achievement of 14-19 students. It is used in conjunction with a self-assessment approach and is described by the author as a ‘find the fault and fix it’ process.

The ‘corrective’ teaching designed to remedy identified learning problems appears somewhat dogmatic. It certainly should not be seen as ‘re-teaching’ in the same way as it was taught before. If an important concept or skill has not been remembered, it should be revisited but by adopting a different approach to the original teaching, e.g. by using different example and practice activity. 

Most geography teachers will recognise in the case of six-figure grid references, that they thought students had mastered this in year 7, but when they need to use this in later lessons, they often have to remind students how to do it.

It should be noted that Bloom’s initial strategy recognised high achievement and recommended challenging and rewarding enrichment experiences beyond the established curriculum.

Mastery learning in geography

One of the advantages claimed for mastery is that the thorough learning of content and procedures facilitates subsequent learning. This is most advantageous in subjects where learning is linear and builds directly on previous learning, such as mathematics. This is not the case in geography because it is the ability to make connections between often apparent disparate ideas that is of key importance for geographical thinking.

If the mastery learning approach is interpreted to be prescriptive and highly structured, it does not sit comfortably with several pedagogical approaches that operate most effectively to bring learning gains for higher order concepts in geography, such as dialogic teaching and geographical enquiry.

However, the biggest problem with the notion of mastery learning in geography teaching is knowing when students have ‘mastered’ something. Learning in geography takes time and new ideas have to be seen in different contexts for students to understand them securely. 

It is risky to assume that students have ‘mastered’ understanding a geographical concept or a skill and it never has to be returned to. Indeed, the notion of the spiral curriculum is that returning to previous learning and developing ideas further is important for consolidating and extending geographical learning in new contexts and at different scales (see Planning for continuity and progression).

It is better to consider that mastery has been achieved in an area of geography when a student has the confidence to apply the learned skill or knowledge independently in a new context. They also feel able to return to this aspect of geographical learning after a gap and can use the skill or knowledge without difficulty, connecting it to other learning.


  • Bloom, B.S. (1968) Learning for Mastery. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA/Center for the Study of Evaluation of Instructional Programs.
  • Hutchings, P, (2003) ‘Formative assessment makes a difference’, Teaching Geography, October. Outlines the benefits of involving 14-19 students in assessment.
  • Kelly, A. (2017) ‘Mastery or Wonder?’, Primary geography, Spring.
  • Owen, C. (2001) ‘Developing literacy through key stage 3 geography’, Teaching Geography, October.