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As education emerges from the first two years of the pandemic and looks to the future of learning, educators are focused on how best to mitigate learning gaps

Mastery learning can help close pandemic learning gaps


As education emerges from the first two years of the pandemic and looks to the future of learning, educators are focused on how best to mitigate learning gaps

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and prepares for its first post-pandemic school year, the results of a new Khan Academy survey of teachers offers hope for a brighter future and, at the same time, reaffirms education’s deep commitment to staying laser-focused on recovery.

The findings show: 

  • Nine out of 10 teachers say they’ve been able to identify learning gaps that need to be addressed. 
  • 84% of teachers believe mastery learning can help address learning loss from the pandemic.

We wholeheartedly agree. Mastery learning ensures each student has the opportunity and incentive to master a concept before they stop working on it. It’s the philosophical core of Khan Academy, and decades of research shows that mastery learning works. 

The nationally representative survey of teachers shows that the majority of teachers are using mastery learning or would like to. For example:

  • 53% of teachers use mastery learning in their classrooms. 
  • An additional 35% would like to use mastery learning.

While this news is encouraging, the survey also shows the profound impact of the pandemic: 

  • More than 80% of teachers say that when introduced to new concepts, their students need more help than they would have needed before the pandemic.
  • Only 59% of teachers say their students mastered the content they needed to last school year.

Mental health and behavioral support were also prominent threads. After a tumultuous two years, teachers identify student mental health needs and a lack of behavioral support as major barriers in the classroom.

Mastery learning can fill in the learning gaps 

We believe mastery learning can accelerate pandemic recovery. Sal Khan, our founder, is a longtime advocate for mastery. Unlike traditional learning, students in mastery-learning classrooms are not pushed ahead in lockstep, which can cause the accumulation of knowledge gaps. (Sal calls these “Swiss cheese gaps.”) 

Last year, in the wake of pandemic school closures, several large school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, turned to elements of mastery learning to address lost learning time. Six superintendents published a high-profile op-ed advocating for the widespread adoption of competency-based learning, which shares many of the same tenets. 

“It’s terrific to see so much enthusiasm for mastery learning,” Sal says. “Mastery can play a critical role in recovery. It allows teachers to personalize learning so that each student can progress through their grade level while also addressing the areas where they may need extra help.” 

Mastery learning allows students to progress at a pace that’s right for them under the watchful eye of expert teachers who make decisions about instruction. 

In our survey, teachers say they think the elements of mastery learning are important for closing learning gaps. For example, they’d like more flexibility so they can spend additional time on a concept if it’s needed (for example, less rigid pacing guides). They’d also like to allow students to retake tests. 

Teachers say the best way to identify learning gaps is to work individually with students during class. What’s more, they say the best way to encourage students to catch up is through one-on-one instruction. 

Freeing up teachers’ time 

Teachers also consistently report that they do not have enough time to do the work they want to do: 

  • More than six out of 10 teachers feel they don’t spend enough time providing feedback to students.
  • Teachers would like to spend, on average, an additional 3.6 hours providing feedback every week. 

Lack of time is the most commonly reported barrier to mastery learning. “We think technology can help with the time bind,” Khan Academy chief learning officer Kristen DiCerbo says. “Teachers don’t have time to have those individual conversations with every student on every skill. They can look to edtech tools to do the heavy lifting of supporting unfinished learning so they can focus on the grade-level learning.” 

A snapshot of math and science

YouGov conducted a survey of more than 600 teachers for Khan Academy between May 16 and May 31, 2022. The online survey was weighted to reflect the overall population of K-12 teachers. 

Subgroups in math and science were identified. Among those, results show teachers feel less confident that they’re able to identify learning gaps in science: 

  • 76% of science teachers have been able to identify student learning gaps in science.
  • 97% of math teachers have been able to identify student learning gaps in math.

The findings released today are the first time Khan Academy has surveyed a nationally representative population of teachers to gauge sentiment around mastery learning. The survey also shows which steps teachers think will be the most impactful for helping kids make up for lost learning time.

“Overall, I’m heartened by the findings,” Sal says. “The results show teachers believe in mastery learning and think it’s an important solution for pandemic learning gaps. While we have a lot of work to do, we’re hopeful about what’s ahead.”

Kristen DiCerbo, Khan Academy’s chief learning officer, offers teacher tips for mastery learning:

Focus on learning skills – Be clear what skills students need to learn. Standards are too broad for day to day work. Break them down into skills for a lesson. Focus students on the goal of mastering these skills (as opposed to just getting high scores), and provide understanding of why these skills are important. Research shows that learners who have goals related to learning as opposed to goals related to achieving high scores in relation to others have better learning outcomes.

Understand what students know – have multiple low stakes opportunities for students to show what they know. Use these assignments as ways to identify areas that need more work, as opposed to activities that will pull down a learner’s final grade if they are not successful.

Encourage multiple attempts on assignments – Allowing multiple attempts on assignments helps ensure learners are reinforced for continuing to learn and improve and not penalized for taking longer to learn a particular skill or not getting it right on the first try.

Provide feedback and support to learners who are struggling – Doing an assignment over and over without help probably isn’t going to lead to different results. Instead, provide feedback on what was incorrect on the first try, alternative instruction and explanations, and additional opportunities to practice prerequisite skills the student may be missing. Use technology to do this at an individual level so each student can get faster feedback and more targeted support.

Methodology: All survey figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size 639 teachers. Fieldwork was undertaken between May 16 – May 31, 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of US teachers in kindergarten through 12th gradeIf you’d like to see the full survey findings, please email WEKhanAcademy@we-worldwide.com to receive a PowerPoint report.

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