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Self-Directed Schooling with a Mastery Learning Approach

What is Self-Directed Schooling?

Self-Directed Schooling represents an educational approach that integrates metacognitive constructivism, competency-based learning, and social-emotional development to cultivate self-determination in students. Grounded in the principles of cognitive and psychosocial developmental theories across K-12 grade levels, this educational paradigm emphasizes the importance of fostering competence, autonomy, and relatedness in learners. By promoting metacognitive awareness and constructive engagement with learning tasks, students are empowered to take ownership of their educational journey. Competency-based learning ensures that students progress at their own pace, mastering essential skills and knowledge before advancing to more complex concepts. Moreover, social-emotional learning components nurture students' emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, enabling them to navigate challenges and form meaningful connections within their learning community. Through Self-Directed Schooling, students develop the resilience, agency, and self-regulation necessary for lifelong learning and success in various personal and academic endeavors.

What is Mastery Learning?

Mastery Learning is an educational approach focused on ensuring that students attain a deep understanding of content before moving on to more advanced material. Rooted in the belief that all students can achieve mastery with appropriate support and resources, Mastery Learning emphasizes personalized instruction and continuous assessment. In this approach, students are provided with multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding, receive targeted feedback, and engage in corrective instruction until they achieve proficiency. Unlike traditional methods where students progress through material at a fixed pace, Mastery Learning allows learners to advance based on their individual readiness and mastery of concepts. By prioritizing depth of understanding over speed of coverage, Mastery Learning aims to promote long-term retention, critical thinking skills, and academic confidence among students. Overall, Mastery Learning seeks to ensure that all learners reach mastery of essential skills and knowledge, providing a solid foundation for future learning and success.

A Mastery Learning approach involves a number of practices that support a Self-Directed Schooling approach, including these three fundamental practices:

(1) Feedback and Corrective Instruction

(2) Reassessment Opportunities

(3) Aligning Assessments with Learning Goals

While traditionally associated with teacher-led instruction, these practices have the transformative potential to foster a student-led, self-directed learning environment. Because a Mastery Learning approach represents a departure from conventional teacher-centered methods, with a focus on promoting student-centered practices, it is not unreasonable to imagine classroom settings where teachers offer their students opportunities to develop their sense of agency and autonomy, competence, and relatedness - components of the increasingly popular Self-Determination Theory by Deci & Ryan (1985, 2000).

Something to consider is how much personalization of student learning is inherent in Mastery Learning. Dr. Thomas Guskey suggests in Chapter 1 of his book 'Implementing Mastery Learning' that "programs designed to 'individualize' or 'personalize' instruction require that learning be student paced... however, there is no guarantee that any but the most highly motivated, self-directed students with a strong sense of agency and self-regulation will learn essential concepts and skills within the time available" (Guskey, 2023, p.3). While this may suggest that students cannot be coached to develop the necessary agency and self-regulation, or at least is not a priority, with a Mastery Learning approach, we must be sensitive to the fact that the typical classroom settings have one teacher responsible for the learning of twenty-five or more students with a well-established curriculum pacing guide and limited instructional time (Guskey, 2023, p.4).

My hope is that the following paragraphs present how practices specific to Mastery Learning are not only best suited to support a "personalized" approach to teaching and learning but are practices that can effectively transform the traditional (teacher-centered) classroom into a genuine student-centered teaching and learning environment.

Mastery Learning Practices in a Self-Directed Classroom

Feedback and Corrective Instruction

Feedback and Corrective Instruction in a Mastery Learning approach can effectively empower students to take control of their learning by providing them with the necessary support and guidance to succeed. This practice can encourage students to reflect on their mistakes and be taught learning strategies that target areas for improvement that use academic objectives as evidence of that learning. Rather than passively receiving instruction and being assigned various reassessments that may or may not address different students' learning needs, students are taught how to be actively involved in shaping their learning experience and fostering a sense of ownership and autonomy within the shared learning space. This practice of feedback and corrective instruction, as part of a Mastery Learning approach, can help to create this vision of student-centered learning in a classroom setting.

Compare this practice to what is discussed in the 2022 article, What Teachers Really Want When It Comes to Feedback - teachers often seek feedback that offers evidence of their own improvement quickly, emphasizing the importance of establishing procedures for teachers to gain feedback on their efforts' results within weeks, not months or years (Guskey & Link, 2022). This aligns with the principles of a student-led, self-directed classroom learning environment, where the students are provided a similar structure for meaningful feedback offering evidence of improvement quickly. However, this structure actively engages students in learning about their learning process with timely feedback to develop a sense of responsibility and autonomy toward their role as an integral part of the learning-related decisions in a classroom setting.

Additionally, this practice not only involves providing students with feedback on their performance but also guides them toward corrective measures to enhance their learning. Teachers must encourage students to take an active role in their academic development by engaging in reflective practices and seeking assistance when needed. As part of corrective instruction, students can be coached to identify areas where they are struggling and formulate questions to ask their teacher about how to adjust their learning strategies accordingly. Teachers, in turn, as learning coaches, can offer suggestions and guidance on potential effective learning strategies tailored to individual student needs. By fostering a collaborative learning environment where students are empowered to articulate their learning challenges and seek targeted support, Mastery Learning promotes a sense of ownership and autonomy over the learning process, ultimately contributing to enhanced academic outcomes and student engagement.

A quick note:

For those concerned that doing this for every one of their students is overwhelming, know that this practice is far less overwhelming when students in lower grade levels with smaller rosters are coached in this way before they get to high school where their teachers may be trying to apply these changes to hundreds of students in need of learning "how to earn". That's not to say a high school teacher cannot apply these strategies in their classrooms but that expectations for implementation must be relative to your context and situation. Starting with a few students who are most in need of this kind of coaching and support may be the most appropriate starting point for you.

Reassessment Opportunities

Another practice in a Mastery Learning approach involves Reassessment Opportunities, offering students the opportunity for reassessment and continuous improvement. I am constantly surprised by how many teachers continue to insist that students will learn to respect deadlines for assignments and assessments only if deadlines are held firm and consequences for missing them are felt. This opposition to providing students reassessment opportunities is a stark contrast to what Dr. Guskey describes is a major tenet of Bloom's Mastery Learning approach. In an interview to which I had access as a graduate student in a program designed by Dr. Link, a colleague of Dr. Guskey, he brilliantly explains how the practice of reassessment can provide students with valuable motivation to succeed, emphasizing their intrinsic motivation from mastering a subject. This highlights the role of reassessment in fostering a growth mindset in students and encouraging them to persist in the face of challenges. This notion aligns with Christine Davis, interim principal at Eric S. Smith Middle School in Ramsey, N.J., who emphasizes that allowing students to revise and resubmit work fosters a growth mindset and the pursuit of excellence rather than mere completion [of assigned work]. Davis suggests that students learn it’s not about getting work done, it’s about getting it done well (Heubeck,2023).

I would argue that the primary obstacle in the opposition toward this reassessment practice is in a strongly held belief that learning is the result of external rewards and punishments **more** than it is a result of a developing sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness in one's capacity to learn something. With Mastery Learning, students can be taught how to set meaningful learning goals, track their progress relevant to their needs and resources available, and learn specific strategies for taking proactive steps to achieve mastery. Reassessment then becomes a tool for active evaluation and internal validation of a person's approach to learning (as a process) that can continuously improve their scholarly identity **more** than it is a tool for passive evaluation and external validation with little knowledge of each student's actual learning processes.

Alignment of Assessments with Specific Learning Goals

A third practice in a Mastery Learning approach is the alignment of assessments with specific learning goals. This practice ensures assessments are aligned with students' learning goals, allowing them to monitor their progress and make informed decisions about their approach to learning. It is commonly said that Benjamin Bloom emphasized this alignment of assessments with learning, underscoring the importance of assessments as tools for learning rather than mere measures of achievement. What I think is important to note is that the assessment, as a tool aligned with Bloom's original framework, benefits from not only a consideration of assessing cognitive development of content but also affective development regarding learning.

The affective stages of Bloom’s taxonomy, though much less popular than the cognitive stages, describes the receiving and awareness, or willingness, to hear new information as a first and second stages of learning. Students who are passively accepting new information, unwilling to genuinely engage out of passivity, will likely seek to passively recall or reproduce that information on an assessment for a desired score or "point value". Thus, when engaged in the next stage of responding to phenomena, a motivation to respond with understanding is likely to be lacking if not missing entirely. Consider then the third stage of valuing, seen in the visible actions due to the belief and desire to understand the presented information. This is followed by organization, which involves prioritization and balancing of values and concluded in internalizing values, exercising beliefs across different contextual situations. These stages are explained by Bloom et al to be codependent with the cognitive stages such that knowledge and complex thinking are as necessary as a person’s capacity for valuing and organizing their beliefs toward their own cognitive and affective development (Bloom et al, 1956).

A major challenge of this third practice is mentioned in Jonathan Bergmann's article "Mastery Learning" in which he describes a difficult scenario: "In my high school chemistry class, I have twelve units in a year and each unit on average has six specific objectives. That means that I need to either create or curate 72 separate prelearning readings and/or videos" (Bergmann,2022) This example underscores the intensive effort required by teachers to implement a student-centered approach to learning, especially in the context of addressing learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic. However, Bergman continues to describe his solution to this scenario: "Not every student will be on the same 'page' of the curriculum at the same time, but they will move through it at the level appropriate for them."

With a Mastery Learning approach, assessments serve as checkpoints for students to gauge their understanding, identify areas for improvement, and adjust their learning strategies accordingly. By aligning assessments with learning goals, students are empowered with clear markers for academic pathways that develop student ownership of the learning so they can make informed decisions about how and why they will make progress in meeting academic objectives. In this way, the teacher does not control every student's every attempt at every assessment. Instead, a limited number of formal "independent" assessments are provided once the student is confident in their learning based on various informal "interdependent" assessment opportunities.


In conclusion, many practices inherent in a Mastery Learning approach offer not only a transforming approach to improve teacher-led instruction but can also serve as pillars that can help to foster a student-led, self-directed learning environment. While Mastery Learning is often portrayed as a departure from traditional teacher-centered methods, it holds the promise of transforming classrooms into genuine centers of student-centered teaching and learning. Dr. Thomas Guskey's insights underscore the importance of aligning instruction with student-paced learning, highlighting the need for students to develop agency and self-regulation. Moreover, the emphasis on Feedback and Corrective Instruction, coupled with Reassessment Opportunities, encourages a growth mindset among students, promoting perseverance and excellence. Finally, the alignment of assessments with specific learning goals not only provides students with clear markers for progress but also empowers them to take ownership of their learning journey. Despite the challenges posed by implementing a student-centered approach, Mastery Learning offers a pathway to creating dynamic learning environments where individual students can thrive by internalizing personalized learning strategies.

Greg Mullen

May 15, 2024


Bergmann, J. (2022). Mastery Learning, Flipped. In Educational Leadership (Vol. 80, Issue 3, pp. 46-). ASCD.

Bloom, B., Engelhart, M., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, originally published by David McKay Company, Inc.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Guskey, T. R., & Link, L. J. (2022). What Teachers Really Want When It Comes to Feedback. In Educational Leadership (Vol. 79, Issue 7, pp. 42-). ASCD.

Guskey, T. R. (2022). Implementing Mastery Learning (3rd ed.). Corwin.

Heubeck, E. (2023). Should Students Get a ‘Do Over’? The Debate on Grading and Re-Doing Assignments Deepens. Education Week.

Link, L. (Interviewer). (2024). Interview with Dr. Thomas R. Guskey [Video interview]. Unpublished.

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