Can Mastery Reduce the Emotional Cost of Traditional Learning?

Updated: Sep 30, 2019



Nearly everyone I talk with has his or her own version of the same story. A workshop, class or even an entire semester that defeated them. A learning experience when victory was not to be had.


These memories often bring with them a sense of embarrassment, shame, disappointing others, lowered self-esteem and in some cases, isolation or feeling ostracized by the more successful students.


In a previous post, I shared the importance of designing learning experiences to promote mastery, not failure. It’s well-known that the increasing drop-out rates for high school and higher education students bear a significant economic impact on society. But what about the “emotional cost” to society as well? A cost that’s not easily conveyed in dollars and cents when determining its impact, but is seen in the headlines every day. What does it cost us individually and as a society when a student’s journey is forced into another direction by defeat?


In his TED talk a few years ago, “Let’s teach for mastery - not test scores”, Sal Khan, the entrepreneur that launched Khan Academy out of what began as YouTube videos to help his cousins understand math, shares his belief that students can become scholars if they are helped to master concepts at their own place. He talks about how the current education model helps to reveal gaps in learning, but nothing is actually done to close the gaps before moving onto the next round of content. Test scores reveal a student’s gap in learning and those test scores are simply accepted as part of the grading curve.


What does it cost us individually and as a society when a student’s journey is forced into another direction by defeat?


Kahn relates this process to that of building a house within artificial time constraints. If at each step of the building process, from the foundation up through each floor, the inspector accepts gaps in construction and let’s the building continue to meet the deadline, eventually, the entire structure will fall in on itself. And so is true of the student who is forced to carry learning gaps forward until they can no longer proceed.The gaps become too large to overcome.


Exceptional LX design focuses on the learner’s needs first and then promotes mastery by creating engaging experiences around those needs. Progress through the learning experience happens when mastery occurs. Learning is built upon learning.

Put yourself in a mastery scenario and imagine what that feels like. It’s easy to see how students, when given the opportunity to succeed, might find learning fun and more exciting.


How those experiences could encourage confidence and foster a desire for growth and lifelong learning.


Kahn said, “If we let people tap into their potential, by mastering concepts, by exercising agency over their learning, they will get there.”


Now, let’s imagine the emotional benefit of that on our society.