Mastery versus cohort learning

Subtitle: Tends in Education

1) What is cohort learning? 

It starts in kindergarten where we intake and begin processing kids by their date of manufacture. Although there are attempts to work with students independently, evaluating and giving them personal attention where needed, we continue to promote the expectation that the cohort will stay together and graduate at a fixed date. Although there are notable exceptions (i.e. self-paced, online courses) this model of learning persists throughout most formal education. 

One negative outcome is that students are shuffled up to the next level of learning, despite not having mastered the pervious one. Sal Khan in his TED talk describes his personal experience in grade 12, where kids in his cohort that should have been more than capable of doing advanced math where unable to due to a gap in knowledge. They dropped out convinced that they were missing the “math gene”.

2) How does mastery or competency training work?

Competency-based or mastery education is a “program of study with clearly defined, concrete, measurable objectives of which every student must have demonstrated mastery” before moving on to the next, more advanced level (Bell & Mitchell). Sal Khan compares it to martial arts where students must master a white belt level, regardless of age or time date of admission, before they are given their yellow belt.       

3) Why do this?

Bell & Mitchell note that mastery learning is the way training and education has been practiced for centuries and “it is only the logistical demands of modern educational settings that” force students to move on, with their cohort, to a more advanced skill before mastering the simpler one.  

4) Criticism 

I personally have wondered if some of the challenges faced by the cohort I am teaching is has less to do with competency and more to do with language challenges (for up to fifty percent of them English is a second language). However in a controlled study the “competency-based program participants seemed less adversely affected by [language and literacy difficulties] since they had greater responsibility for their own learning (Bell & Mitchell). The greater responsibility forced them find a way to learn it on their own. 


Bell, Sinclair & Mitchell, Robin (2000) Competency-Based Versus Traditional Cohort-Based Technical Education: A Comparison of Students' Perceptions, Journal of Career and Technical Education, from

Khan, Sal (2016) Let's teach for mastery, TED from