Math: Mastery Learning vs. Spiral Learning

While researching math curriculum you've likely come across references to "spiral learning" and "mastery learning." What is the difference and why does it matter?

Obviously, we want our students to master the material we are teaching them, so it seems a mastery-based approach would be the way to go. However, the term “spiral-based learning” does not mean that your student will never master the material. “Spiral vs mastery” simply refers to how the material is presented.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and there is not one "best" approach. As with all curriculum the best choice will depend on your student's learning style and your teaching method.

Mastery Learning

Mastery-based learning is a focused, sequential approach. A topic is introduced and explored deeply, with plenty of practice from different angles and with a variety of techniques. This allows for in-depth learning with the "how" and "why" behind a math problem. The idea is to build a solid foundation so that your student completely understands a particular concept before moving on to the next.

Mastery-based learning does not mean your student will learn a single topic and then never touch it again. Previously learned concepts are reviewed after they are mastered, as well as being included as one skill builds on the next. It's important to not get so focused on the current topic that a student forgets what came before.

Mastery-based learning can be self-paced. If a student quickly understands a concept it's fine to move on. On the other hand, it's also fine to slow down and and add in supplemental practice and extra review when needed.

Spiral Learning

Spiral-based learning builds on concepts little-by-little with continual review of previously learned material. New topics are introduced frequently but mastery is not initially expected. This approach covers a variety of concepts over and over to deepen a student's knowledge.

Each day's lesson includes an assortment of topics with just a few problems each. Some students love the variety. Others find it distracting and do better by focusing on one topic at a time.

Spiraling back to previously introduced topics allows students to keep moving forward even if one particular concept is more challenging for them. Some students benefit from setting a challenging topic aside for a bit and coming back to it later. Each time a student returns to a topic he will learn something new about it to deepen his understanding.

Which is right for your student?

Some things to take into consideration as you think about what would be best for your student include:

  • Does your student typically need a lot of review and repetition?
  • Is your student easily distracted?
  • Does your student enjoy variety?