What is the Most Efficient and Effective Method of Instruction to Assure Mastery during Acquisition of New Skills?

September 9, 2022

Educators are always looking for instructional methods that are effective and efficient.   Effective interventions can vary with respect to how rapidly content is learned.  Efficient methods result in rapid learning of content.  Part of determining learning is establishing a mastery criterion (i.e., 90% correct over a specified number of days).  The most common method for determining mastery is to establish a mastery criterion for a set of instructional content (i.e., sight words, math facts).  Mastery is assumed when the percent correct score is at or above the mastery level (i.e., 90% correct).  This approach may obscure that some items in the set have not been mastered, but the aggregate score is at mastery.  Another way to determine mastery is to calculate it at the level of the individual item (individual sight words).  Once an item is mastered, it is removed from the list, and a new item is added.  The question is which approach results in greater learning?  A recent study by Wong and Fienup (2022) was designed to answer the question, at least for sight words.  Their results suggest that the individual item approach resulted in greater acquisition and required less time to achieve mastery of an item. An additional analysis in this small study was to compare the retention of items four weeks following the end of teaching.  There were very small differences between the two approaches to instruction.  For one participant, maintenance was 100% for both approaches.  For a second participant, the individual item approach resulted in better maintenance scores.  For the third participant, the set approach produced a slightly higher maintenance score.

The results of this study are important in that they suggest that the commonly used set approach is less efficient at producing initial acquisition and has no advantage with respect to the maintenance of mastered items.  Implementing the individual item approach could be relatively simple.  The only real change would be to analyze responding at the level of the individual item rather than aggregating data at the set level.  As the student progresses through additional set lists and more difficult items are added, the student’s failure to have mastered all of the content may lead to more errors and failure experiences.  If we can accelerate learning by making mastery decisions at the individual item level, consider how much more can be learned over the course of a school year.  These simple changes may result in great benefit to students.


Wong, K. K., & Fienup, D. M. (2022).  Units of analysis in acquisition‐performance criteria for “mastery”: A systematic replication.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

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