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Mastery-based learning

Would you build a house on a shaky foundation? Probably not. But as Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, pointed out in a 2015 TED Talk, that’s exactly traditional education does. Whenever a student’s knowledge is tested, gaps become apparent....

Why you should teach the way you build a house.

Would you build a house on a shaky foundation? Probably not. But as Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, pointed out in a 2015 TED Talk, that’s exactly traditional education does. Whenever a student’s knowledge is tested, gaps become apparent. But as long as they meet the basic requirements, they can just keep going. The problem is that these tiny cracks then grow into gaping holes until one day the student no longer has any idea what’s being discussed in the classroom. And this can happen to anyone: even straight-A students might fall behind.

That’s where the mastery-based learning model comes in, which Codecool’s Budapest school started piloting last December, after a year-long preparation. But what’s it all about?

The model helps students master the course material at their own pace following their own, individual path. Without any failures or gaps. The theoretical basis was laid down by American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom back in the 60s. He believed that the vast majority of students can perform close to 100% provided they are given the time and help needed to grasp the material. One of the biggest benefits is that students are in charge of their own learning process, which boosts intrinsic motivation and helps developing a growth mindset. And that’s something everyone needs to succeed nowadays.

So the method is anything but new. However, it couldn’t be widely adopted as personalized education requires a lot of extra resources. Not to mention a completely different approach to teaching. But thanks to today’s technological innovations, several schools have been successfully experimenting with it, primarily in America and Northern Europe. “The three essentials? Technology, groundwork and the openness of your teaching staff. Luckily, we had all this at Codecool and it also helps a great deal that the school’s small and the student-mentor ratio is excellent,” explains Tamás Tompa, a mentor at Codecool and one of the brains behind the implementation.

And what does this look like in practice? Students have to move through four rooms, only entering a new one if they’ve mastered the material in the previous one. They have 2-4 months to finish each module at their own pace while they work on projects in teams and get individual mentoring. This means that team members change all the time but they all support each other in going forward. “Differences between students are more and more visible every week, but that’s completely normal. And this is something everyone has to understand here,” says the expert.

So far everyone’s happy. “The method really works for me. Some of us have already been coding for three years, while others like me had never seen a line of code before,” explains Máté Görög, who switched to Codecool after studying industrial design at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. “On the one hand, mastery-based learning is like a lifebelt for those who need more time to learn something, as they have a chance to go back to it and make sure they really understand the material before moving on. At the same time, it’s also better for fast learners.” And the new set-up doesn’t only benefit students but their future employers too. “Just like in maths, solid foundations are crucial in programming. What the new method guarantees is quality: even though every student is different, they’re equally well-prepared when they graduate,” sums up Codecool’s mentor.

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Tamas TompaHead of education
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