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The "Why" and "How" of Mastery-Based Progression


Scott Ellis


What is Mastery-Based Progression?

A critical part of blended learning is mastery-based progression: enabling students to move forward in their learning at their own pace as they master content rather than based on traditional time structures. As more and more educators across the country are moving towards blended learning, they are struggling with a very challenging question: how exactly do I make mastery-based progression happen in my classroom?

It’s tricky.

I have been working on this specific issue for the last few years and have learned a lot that I hope could help educators decide whether they are ready to try it and how to actually make it happen. 

Where to start: 

When I advise educators about mastery-based progression and how they should approach it, I usually encourage them to think about the following critical decisions:

  • Decide whether you are really ready to try it.
  • Decide how to address the data and technology infrastructure.
  • Decide how to deal with the various transitional issues since mastery-based progression is still so new. 
  • Decide how to address the 5 key elements that must be crystal clear as part of any successful implementation of mastery-based progression.

Are you really ready to try it?

This is challenging work. Mastery-based progression is a different way of thinking about student learning progress and it has significant implications (e.g., no letter grades!). It is new and innovative, and we are still inventing the tools needed to make it possible at scale. So it is important to decide whether your school or district is ready to go on this journey of innovation. Educators need to assess who needs to be on board (e.g., superintendent, principals, teachers, students, parents) and whether they are. It probably makes sense to start working with specific schools, grades, teachers, and / or subjects. Determining where to start should be part of the decision-making process.

How to address data and technology infrastructure

We are continuing to develop better data about student learning as well as better ways to visualize that data. The tools are improving, but they are not yet where we all need them to be. It is essential for educators to decide how to move forward given this reality. A key decision is whether educators will use data dashboards from their various learning solutions and try to integrate them somehow, use an integrated system that combines both learning solutions and data, or use a standalone system to display data about student progress. Each of these options has benefits and drawbacks. Hopefully more and better alternatives will be developed and made available to educators in the next few years.

How to deal with transitional issues

Data about student learning progress connects to many parts of the education ecosystem, and since mastery-based progression is so new, these other parts have not yet adapted in the ways we all need. As a result, educators on this journey of innovation will need to consider important transitional issues like how to address the need for traditional ABC grades, current reporting requirements, and existing state and district assessments. And as students start to move forward at their own pace, they will quickly bump up against the constraints of the existing grade level structure—what do we do with a student who has finished all of “third grade” by March? These are all important parts of the current time-based educational system, and educators moving to a mastery-based system will need to address these issues.

Clarity is critical! 5 key elements

As with any new approach or model, you must be crystal clear about certain key elements in order to successfully implement mastery-based progression. When working with educators and leaders, before we even start discussing their approach, I ask them a few key questions which will set the stage for everything that follows....

  1. What do you want students to know or be able to do? (Define the learning objectives)
  2. What does it mean for a student to “master” a learning objective? (Define the mastery threshold for each learning objective, and create examples of mastery)
  3. How does a student demonstrate mastery? (This must be scalable—every student, every objective)
  4. How does a teacher assess mastery? (This must be scalable—every teacher, every student, every objective)
  5. How will the data about student learning progress be managed, displayed, and used? (Decide how you will address the data and technology infrastructure, as described above)

Final Thoughts

Mastery-based progression is coming. Over the next few years I predict that this will be the defining aspect of the transformation that blended learning is creating in American education. This will be a very exciting time, and it will lead to amazing improvements in teaching and learning that will benefit both teachers and students. But it is hard to bring it to life in classrooms—we are on the leading edge of innovation. We need more pioneers to help us all learn how to make it happen and develop the tools that will make it easier and scalable in classrooms across the country. Being clear about the key decisions to make as you start on the journey is a good first step! 

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Scott Ellis


Scott Ellis is the Founder of MasteryTrack. He has done extensive work on blended learning for many years and has decades of experience in applying analytics to support effective decision-making.