Mastery-based Tuition

If your child goes to a tuition centre with class size larger than 15, this is very likely what your child experiences:

  • When teachers go through examples or explains concepts, it is usually targeted to the whole class.
  • The bigger the class, the lesser time each student will get to ask questions to clarify their own doubts.
  • What is taught during the tuition class is determined by the tutor. It may not be what your child is learning is school.

What is Mastery-based Learning?

Mastery-based Learning is not a new concept. Hear the founder of Khan Academy talk about it ( I have my own interpretation:  

  1. Self-paced. Learning for each student does not have to follow the pace of the teacher or the majority of the class. Slower students are encouraged to take their time to practice more on a certain topic and only proceed to the next topic when they have fully grasped the topic. Faster students are encouraged to speed ahead to finish the topics. Motivated students can “clear” a few topics in a session, while those who are tired, unmotivated or unfocused may choose to take things slow at a session.
  2. Competency-based. How does a student know whether he has grasped the topic? At the end of every sub-topic there should be a mini-assessment, consisting of perhaps 5 questions. To get 4 out of 5 in that mini-assessment will be a proof and a sign that a student is ready to move on. It should be communicated very clearly that it’s in the best interested of the student to move on only when he has cleared the mini-assessment for a particular topic. It is not a sign of weakness and it is not a shame to be unable to clear a topic; rather it is a sign that he should seek help from the teacher.
  3. Personalized coaching. Teachers will not need to try to bring everyone to the same page. In fact, every student might be at a different page in a Mastery-based classroom. The teacher do need to be familiar with the entire curriculum, however, because there may be students who are very advanced. Teachers should not be pushing students to finish their assigned homework for the day, because students decide their own pace of learning. The main job of the teacher will be to work with each student to “clear” the topic that he is engaged in.
  4. Accomplishment-driven. Every topic is organized into sub-topics. Upon “clearing” each sub-topic, a student will get a badge or a seal (can be made cheaply at a rubber stamp shop), counter signed by the teacher. A student is given a small logbook to track each subject. This logbook is used by parents and by tutors to track the progress of each student.
  5. Linked. At the beginning of each topic it will be listed the pre-requisites for the topic. For example, for the Sec 2 topic Quadratic Equations, the pre-requisite is Straight Line Equations and Algebraic Manipulations, both Sec 1 topics. So when someone attempts Quadratic Equations topic and finds out it is very tough, he will know that he needs to go back to strengthen his Straight Line Equations and Algebraic Manipulations, which he might have forgotten or become rusty.
  6. Unbounded by topic or level. All material is available to each student to try. For a very motivated and advanced student, he will be given the freedom to move on to topics beyond his current class, as long as he has “cleared” every mini-assessment along the way. He does not need to even stop at his current level, but can move on to the next year’s topic if he can manage. As such, it is possible for a P4 student to complete P5 and even P6 curriculum in a Mastery-based class.

How does a Mastery-based tuition class look like?

  • The teacher-student ratio will still be kept small, around 1 to 6.
  • Students will be learning a same subject but may be on different topics (for example, one may be learning real numbers while another learning about speed-time-distance) or sub-topics (for example, one may be learning about LCM while another is learning HCF).
  • There will be a fair amount of self-reading by the students. Plenty of worked examples is available to the students. They are asked to attempt reading through the worked examples by themselves first. If they do not understand, the teacher will then explain. Students do not arrive at the tuition class expecting to be “filled-up” with knowledge. Rather they are expected to “suck-up” knowledge.
  • Teaching to the whole class will be rare. Most teaching or coaching will be done in a 1-to-1 or 1-to-few manner, as the objective is to clear learning obstacles rather than to go through formulas, examples etc.
  • Some advanced students might be seen as learning very independently, with little intervention by the teacher. The contact time will not be equal for all students.

What are the pros of Mastery-based Learning?

  • More solid learning. No one will be rushed along without a full understanding.
  • No bored students. Advanced students are given the room to speed ahead.
  • Takes full advantage of our small class size.
  • Since each student is progressing at his own pace, there is no need to put students of the same level in the same classroom. Logistically it is much easier to form classes that way.

What are the cons of Mastery-based Learning?

  • Some parents may not appreciate that mastery of a topic is more important than to follow the pace in the schools. They might be alarmed when their child is stuck at a particular topic for two or three sessions.
  • Some parents might be concerned that their children are learning things that are beyond their exam scope. They may not see the value
  • Sometimes a student might have cleared a particular topic or sub-topic, but yet does not score during exams. In such situations, parents may protest that the children is not spending enough time revising topics which he has cleared.
  • It’s harder to find teachers who can teach in such a classroom. Many teachers are used to the “same class, same topic” way of teaching and may be unwilling to change. Even for teachers who are willing to give it a try, they may find it a challenge to manage different topics and, worse still, different levels at one go.
  • If we encourage students to stay with a topic until they are fully competent in it, students with less patience or perseverance may feel discouraged to come back week after week to the same topic and yet be unable to clear it. It’ll be a kind of “Groundhog Day” effect for the students.

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