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Leonard's “Mastery” Approach Takes the Mystery out of Learning

Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard

In the summer of 2005, William Leonard of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department was having lunch with ECE Department Head Christopher Hollot, and they had one of those “OMG moments” that change the course of human events.

Leonard was expressing his concern that many of his students, even the ones who were getting good grades, had not mastered some of the basic subject matter of his two-course sequence of Circuit Analysis classes. Leonard had arrived at this assessment after studying many of the answers on student exam papers and discussing the coursework with some of his students. All the evidence pointed to an inescapable conclusion. Even by the end of each course, his students still didn’t get some of the essential concepts in Circuit Analysis.

So Hollot said, “Well, Bill, what would you do?”

What followed was an intense brainstorming session that led to a brand new educational approach, one which Leonard invented and has been perfecting in his Circuit Analysis courses over the last few years. Leonard calls his approach “Mastery.”   “The basic idea,” says Leonard, “is to allow students to master each of the course’s 16 modules by letting them take tests more or less on their own schedules after they have gained a thorough understanding of each module. Part of the concept is to let students try again if they earn a less-than-perfect score on each test.”  

The philosophy behind Mastery is that, given enough time, motivation, and feedback, everyone can learn any subject.  In the Mastery-learning approach, there are no midterms, no weekly quizzes, and no traditional homework or final exam. Instead, students are encouraged to work through the online modules in a logical, well-conceived sequence, seeking mastery over each.

Leonard says that, in the 10 years since he first conceived of his Mastery technique, it has evolved progressively over time.    One reason for this evolution, says Leonard, “is that I teach SO much that I have many, many more development cycles than most people have. First, it’s a full year, two-course sequence, so if something doesn’t work in one semester, I can change it for the next semester. Further, because nearly all of the assignments and support materials are online, I can offer these courses during the interterms very easily, and they provide additional opportunities to revise the approach and content. I am always willing to try something new to make the approach work better.”   The Mastery approach soon leads to…well, mastery. As Leonard puts it, with his approach “You need to be able to do everything in the course that allows you to have a professional mastery over the knowledge. You have to understand the whole context: analyzing a problem situation, performing algebra and calculation, answering each question accurately, and knowing the content thoroughly.”

Leonard believes that the Mastery approach “shows great promise for transforming undergraduate education, especially those courses that provide foundational skills and prepare students for future learning. The approach could have a positive impact on the retention rates of all students and even greater impact on those for underrepresented groups.”

Leonard says that “A” is the most common grade in his Circuit Analysis courses, but the predominance of good grades doesn’t mean that Mastery isn’t extremely difficult. In this case, high grades are proof positive of mastery.

“Also, I suspect part of the high grades is that students know exactly what they need to do to earn every grade,” says Leonard. In addition, Leonard’s testing is very diagnostic and tells students what they need to learn. “Then I urge them to go out and learn it so they can be retested,” he says. “So the course is tough, but if they follow the approach, they will master the course and get a good grade.”

As Leonard says, “We believe that the Mastery approach provides the motivation students need to learn critical skills and techniques. We also believe that the Mastery approach applied to appropriate foundational courses could transform engineering instruction and give many more students the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to become successful academically and ultimately successful professionally.”

Judging by Leonard’s teaching awards, other educators see the wonderful possibilities of his approach as well. In 2015 he was chosen by the Office of the Provost to receive a University of Massachusetts Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award (DTA). The purpose of the DTA program, a feature of the UMass Amherst campus for 40 years, is to honor exemplary teaching at the highest institutional level. Among other teaching honors received by Leonard due to his invention of Mastery are: the IEEE/ASEE Frontiers in Education Conference Benjamin J. Dasher Award (with C.V. Hollot and W.J. Gerace, 2009); and the UMass Amherst College of Engineering Outstanding Teaching Award (2009).

As Hollot writes, “It was clear to me from day one that Bill was a very, very special teacher. He thinks deeply about how students learn, he cares about students, and he invests enormous amounts of time and energy in his craft. He made a keen observation in his first pass through these circuits courses; i.e., that due to partial-credit scoring in exams, students can pass the course with only partial knowledge of key topics and that this has detrimental effect on both student learning and on our program. This observation was the basis for his invention of Mastery, its application to our circuits courses, its continued refinement, and his receipt in 2009 of the Dasher Award, given by the American Society of Engineering Education.”

Leonard concludes that “This approach just sort of makes sense. Some of our students have never actually experienced completely learning something in a way that would allow them permanently to remember it. The Mastery approach requires them to do that…They might actually hate mastery, but they love the results.” (February 2016)