Mastery vs Spiral-Based Learning: What Works Best?

Education is constantly evolving, and the methods used to impart knowledge are ever-changing. One of the most widely discussed topics in the educational realm is the debate between Mastery vs Spiral-Based Learning. Mastery-Based Learning focuses on students mastering a concept before moving on, while Spiral Learning encourages students to review concepts multiple times over time. This article will examine both teaching styles, looking at their advantages, drawbacks, and practical applications in the classroom.

Rebbecca Devitt

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What is the difference between spiral-based learning and mastery-based learning? Find out in this article.

Mastery vs Spiral-Based Learning: What Works Best?

The debate over the best way to learn a skill has been going on for decades. Mastery and spiral-based learning are two popular approaches that are widely used in educational systems around the world.

So, what works best?

To answer this question, it is important to understand the key differences between these two methods of learning.

Mastery-based learning focuses on building knowledge by breaking down a subject into its smallest components and mastering each one individually before moving onto more complex concepts.

In contrast, spiral-based learning emphasizes understanding the big picture of a concept first, then gradually revisiting and expanding upon those ideas with more advanced content as time goes on.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages which should be weighed carefully when deciding how to teach any given subject.

So, let’s take a closer look at these two learning styles below.

What is Mastery-Based Learning?

Mastery-based learning is an instructional approach where students must demonstrate mastery of specific skills before moving on to the next lesson.

It is an educational system where students learn concepts through repetition and practice, as opposed to traditional education systems focusing mainly on memorization and tests.

Mastery-based learning allows students to work at their own pace, focusing more on understanding concepts rather than rushing through them to complete a course within a set amount of time.

The process begins with mastery objectives that teachers create for each lesson. These objectives will outline what the student needs to accomplish to be considered proficient in the subject matter.

Once these are accomplished, the student can then advance to more challenging material related to that subject area.

What is an Example of Mastery-Based Learning?

When teaching math, a teacher might provide students with worksheets based on their current level of understanding. Each student would progress through increasingly tricky sheets until they master all levels, thus demonstrating mastery over the subject matter.

In an informal setting such as homeschooling or tutoring sessions, individual instruction can be tailored around a student’s knowledge and skill level; allowing them to take as much time as needed to reach full comprehension and proficiency.

What Curriculum is Mastery-Based?

A mastery-based math curriculum is, for example, Beast Academy.

What Are the Advantages of Mastery-Based Learning?

Firstly, mastery-based learning allows a student to progress at their own pace.

Students can move on when they have mastered a concept and spend as much time as necessary on complex topics without being held back by the rest of the class.

Furthermore, this approach encourages critical thinking skills as it requires students to practice problem-solving to fully comprehend what they are studying.

As a result, students become more actively engaged in the material, which leads them to develop deeper insights into their studies.

What are the Disadvantages of Mastery-Based Learning?

The primary disadvantage of mastery-based learning is that it can be time-consuming for both teachers and students alike.

The focus on mastering one topic at a time means fewer opportunities for collaboration among students or creative applications of knowledge in more complex scenarios.

Additionally, this method requires more detailed grading from teachers as they must ensure each student has achieved mastery over a certain concept or skill before allowing them to move forward with their studies.

Finally, although the goal of such an approach is to provide all students with a strong foundation in their studies, this may not be feasible for class sizes larger than 25-30 students due to capacity issues.

What is the difference between spiral-based learning and mastery-based learning? Find out in this article. What is Spiral-Based Learning?

Spiral-based learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that emphasizes the cyclical nature of knowledge acquisition.

This type of learning, sometimes called spiral curriculum, allows students to revisit and deepen their understanding of key concepts, skills and topics throughout their educational journey.

This can include revisiting topics they first encountered in elementary school in greater depth during high school or college.

The main idea behind spiral-based learning is that the more students work with a concept, the better they understand it.

Rather than just introducing students to one topic at a time and expecting them to remember all of it later on, this approach gives students opportunities to experience multiple iterations of the same material as their knowledge grows and deepens over time.

Each iteration builds on what came before it, eventually giving each student an opportunity for mastery over each concept or skill set they encounter.

What is an Example of Spiral-Based Learning?

One example of spiral-based learning involves math education in the elementary school classroom.

Teachers may begin by introducing basic addition and subtraction problems to their students.

With every lesson, they may add increasingly complex arithmetic problems incorporating multiplication and division skills as well as fractions and decimals.

This allows students to incrementally learn more advanced mathematics while reviewing previously learned material, such as addition and subtraction, each step of the way.

What Curriculum is Spiral-Based?

A mastery-based math curriculum is, for example, Saxon Math.

What Are the Advantages of Spiral-Based Learning?

The big advantage of spiral-based learning is that it promotes greater student engagement with the material by providing multiple opportunities for learners to interact with the same content differently.

Through this method, students gain a stronger sense of ownership over the material as they are able to apply what they have learned in new contexts.

This encourages them to think more critically about their studies and actively participate in their own learning process.

What are the Disadvantages of Spiral-Based Learning?

One disadvantage of spiral-based learning is that the repeated nature of the instruction can become monotonous for students as they continue to revisit the same material over and over again.

This can lead to boredom in class and difficulty keeping students engaged in their learning.

Additionally, some research suggests that when certain concepts or topics are revisited too frequently, it may not allow enough time for students to process new information before moving on.

Another potential issue with spiral-based learning is its emphasis on memorization rather than a deep understanding of the material; it relies heavily on repetition for its effectiveness which may lead to rote memorization instead of a thorough comprehension of core concepts.

So, What Works Best: Mastery vs Spiral-Based Learning?

It’s difficult to say which method works best and that’s because children are not all the same. Some work better with the mastery-based approach and others with the spiral approach.

Still others like a different approach in the homeschool environment compared to the school environment. For example, it would be easier to carry out the mastery-based approach appropriately in the homeschool environment than in the school environment.

Also, a child who is gifted, or a child who may need to work more slowly than normal may prefer a self-paced curriculum that is more challenging or less stressful.

So, it all depends, and in the end, the better you know the child, the better you’ll know what will work for them.


In conclusion, mastery-based learning and spiral learning are two methods of instruction that can effectively engage students in the classroom. Teachers must consider their individual teaching styles, student needs, and curricular goals when deciding which approach to take. Although both methods share similarities, they each have distinct differences that must be considered when deciding which to use. Ultimately, educators must carefully evaluate their options to determine which model will best serve the needs of their students.

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Rebecca Devitt

Most adults don't particularly want to relive their schooling experience on a daily basis. They would gladly move on to a new life devoid of homework and teachers. Very, very few adults will passionately blog about their schooling some 15 years after graduating. This makes Rebecca Devitt somewhat unique. As it happens, she was homeschooled. And she loved it. Still does. And she wishes every kid could get a taste of homeschooling at its very best. Her website How Do I Homeschool, is a springboard for parents to see what a life of homeschooling could be for both them & their children. When she's not blogging Rebecca is still homeschooling her-adult-self by learning Latin, growing weird vegetables and most importantly looking after her two children Luke & Penny. She has a husband Tristan and is a participant at Wollongong Baptist Church. She's also written a book about why parents should homeschool called 'Why on Earth Homeschool'.

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