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Mastery Instruction

One question I see a lot is: If my students are behind, should I teach to their level or teach to the curriculum? 


Truthfully, I think we have to answer this question with a lot of nuance. Teaching to student levels in theory makes the most sense. However, there are some practical limitations to this idea. For starters, we know that our expectations for students actually have a reciprocal effect on learning. When we believe in students, we are both more likely to provide high quality instruction and our students are more likely to challenge themselves. Inversely, if we assume our students are far behind, we run the risk of lowering our expectations and academic achievement in turn. This concept is encapsulated by Emile’s Durkheim’s theory of labeling theory. A meta-analysis on the correlation between teacher expectations and student achievement, by Robert Hodge, showed a mean pearson effect size of .62, on teachers. John Hattie has theorized that this research indicates that believing in students is likely to increase results. 


Inversely, we have research showing that low expectations, have in particular harmed racialized students, when their teachers did not believe in them. Rosenthal and Jacobson have in particular done a lot of research confirming this phenomenon. In the 1960s they did a series of studies that all showed a benefit to teachers holding high expectations and beliefs for their students. In the most famous of these experiments, they administered IQ tests to students and then gave randomized fake results back to their teachers. The students who received the fake positive IQ tests went on to outperform the other students in their class.  In one experiment Rosenthal and Jacobson even replicated their results on rats. They pooled groups of researchers together, to train rats. They told one set of researchers that the rats they were working with had below-average intelligence, and another group of researchers that the rats they were working with had above-average intelligence. The rats in the second group out-performed the rats in the first group. Researchers since Rosenthal and Jackson have observed that “high-achieving students received teacher actions and opportunities that supported their achievement (e.g., teachers asked them more challenging questions and stayed with them by providing clues when they initially responded incorrectly). In contrast, low-achieving students received less stimulation


Over the last 60 years, research into expectations has been inextricably linked to race. As scholars and activists have pointed out, the subconscious bias and racism could negatively impact the expectations teachers have for racialized students and consequently the results of those students. Black students, for example, are significantly more likely to be labeled as having a learning disability than a white student (Gold, 2). “For example, in 2002-2003, African-American students were three times more likely to be labeled intellectually disabled.  and 2.3 times more likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed than all other racial-ethnic groups combined” (Ibid). Considering that there is no biological determining factor that could explain these differences, these differences have to be the direct result of racism, likely both institutional and sociological. 


In my personal experience I feel I have seen this phenomenon first hand. In the middle of my teaching career, I had the fortunate privilege of working in a remote indigenous Canadian school. In many ways this was a formative experience for me. I feel truly blessed to have been able to serve in this community. However, the school had its difficulties. Many students, families were affected by inter-generational trauma caused by the residential schools system. Most teachers were young teachers fresh out of college, looking for professional experience. There was a high turnover rate of staff and we were often short on qualified teachers. On top of this, many of the wealthiest students' families paid to send their students to the next town over. These factors among other socio-economic factors contributed to a very obvious achievement gap.

When teachers are confronted with challenges like these, the response is often to lower academic expectations. However, lowering our expectations can create a negative self-fulfilling prophecy where students don’t feel challenged and don’t try. Moreover, in my personal experience, students tend to undershoot our expectations. This can create a negative feedback loop, where students don’t try because our expectations are too low and teachers in turn respond by trying to lower the expectations further. In my personal opinion and experience this can be one of the leading contributions to institutionalized racism, within academic settings. 


Personally, this is why I would rather increase the support for students than decrease the expectations when they are struggling. To use a sports metaphor, I would rather give my students a boost than to lower the net. For me this means greater scaffolding, more explicit instruction, and more chances for students to demonstrate success. In John Hattie’s book visible learning he talks about the power of believing all students are capable of higher levels of success. I read this book for the first time, while teaching in this indegnous school and I found this one concept transformative to my own instruction. It was a major inspiration for my pursuit of evidence based teaching practices. Believing all of my students were capable of success meant that I was personally responsible for my students' success and failures. This meant that when my students struggled, rather than dismissing their struggles as a product of external factors beyond my control I had to take steps to ensure their success. 


I adopted an RTI framework and tracked my students' learning. At the time, I was teaching via a very constructivist friendly approach. I had a very hands off approach and believed in the power of inquiry based learning, for all contexts. However, I found my students continuously failed to meet my expectations. Rather than blame my failures on my students, I started to research evidence-based practices. I began to introduce more direct instruction into my practice, and slowly but surely, my students started to achieve more. The fundamental principle that changed though, was not my instruction, but rather my beliefs. By believing in my students, I forced myself to take responsibility for my practices as a teacher. 


Of course, all of this is not to say that we should never teach students ability and skill level, but rather, we have to be thoughtful and conscientious in how we do so. As there is an inherent risk to just assuming our students cannot meet grade level expectations. Indeed, we actually have a large plethora of research showing that mastery instruction increases academic outcomes. Mastery instruction is the pedagogical idea that we should teach a skill until students master it before we move on. There have been 15 meta-analyses on the topic over the last 40 years. All of them except for one showed moderate to high effect sizes. The only meta-analysis that did not was by the late Dr. Robert Slavin. However, this study is now over 30 years old and only included 7 studies. 

Similarly, a 2016 meta-analysis by Steenbergen-Hu found the extremely large effect size of 2.35 for individualizing student instruction, according to their specific needs. This suggests that teaching to the individual student in our class has a far greater effect than teaching solely to the curriculum or the average (admittedly easier said than done). Central to this idea is the very concept of special education. Which has been shown across a vast multitude of studies to increase student achievement. For example, while phonics and phonemic awareness instruction for core instruction after grade three has typically shown lower research outcomes (see the NRP 2001 meta-analysis or the 2022 Rehfeld meta-analysis), these low effects have not held true for students who were behind in their reading development. My own meta-analysis of phonics programs found a mean effect size .51 for phonics instruction delivered in an intervention setting and .62 for students with dyslexia. These results held consistent, late into the intermediate grades suggesting that students who lack foundational skills strongly benefit from receiving those skills at a later date. Similarly a 2021 meta-analysis of math intervention studies by Myers, et al for students with learning disabilities also showed a mean effect size of .51 (cool coincidence by the way).

All of this is to say that we can absolutely improve student outcomes by teaching to their individual needs. Moreover, I would also argue that as teachers we have an ethical obligation to try to do so, especially for our most disadvantaged students. So if we need to teach to students our students' needs, but lowering our academic expectations can lower our academic outcomes, how do we as educators navigate this seemingly conundrum?


Personally, I would make four suggestions. Firstly, that we use objective screening and assessments, to base instructional decisions on and not try to estimate our students ability based on purely observation. Secondly, I would argue that we should try our best to provide students with additional instruction and accommodations, before we move to modifying our expectations. Thirdly, I would suggest that we try to avoid deviating from the curriculum for an entire class, but rather try to adapt the curriculum for the needs of individual students. Most classes likely have students who are behind and need extra instruction/support to catch up; however, it's probably more uncommon for every student in a class to require major curriculum modifications. Lastly, I would suggest that we maintain the mantra that all students are capable of success provided they receive their necessary support. And while I must admit that success might not always be defined the same for every single student, the goal should always be to bring every student to grade level or beyond. 

Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited: 2022-10-23



Good, Thomas L., et al. “Expectation Effects: Pygmalion and the Initial 20 Years of Research                1.” Educational Research and Evaluation, vol. 24, no. 3–5, Apr. 2018, pp. 99–123, doi:10.1080/13803611.2018.1548817.


Steenbergen-Hu, S. (2016). What One Hundred Years of Research Says About the Effects of Ability Grouping and Acceleration on K–12 Students’ Academic Achievement. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 849–899.


N, Hansford. (2022). Confirming the NRP Findings in 2022. Teaching by Science. Retrieved from <>. 


John, Hattie. (2022). Mastery Instruction. Visible Learning. Retried from <>. 


S, Skaggs. (2016). Labelling Theory. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Retrieved from <> .


Gold, M. E., & Richards, H. (2012). To Label or Not to Label: The Special Education Question for African Americans. Educational Foundations, 26(1/2), 143–156.


Robert, Hodge. (1989). Teacher-Based Judgments of Academic Achievement: A Review of Literature. American Educational Research Association. Retrieved from <>. 


-NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <>. 



Rehfeld DM, Kirkpatrick M, O'Guinn N, Renbarger R. A Meta-Analysis of Phonemic Awareness Instruction Provided to Children Suspected of Having a Reading Disability. Lang Speech Hear Serv Sch. 2022 Oct 6;53(4):1177-1201. doi: 10.1044/2022_LSHSS-21-00160. Epub 2022 Jul 13. PMID: 35858272.

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