Mastery learning: Alternative to test anxiety

It’s amazing to see the kind of impact the word “test” has on people. The word has mystical powers that even scientist cannot completely understand and explain – the kind that could take people for a ride of their lives – the feelings that accompany it is many and invariably negative. Along with emotional chaos like fear, insecurity, acute feeling of uncertainty and hopelessness, it brings with it a host of other physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, stomach aches, or headaches.


As a student, I witnessed many classmates experiencing despair during exams. Some so severe that they suffered from diarrhea, panic attacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, and other related conditions. The worst case scenario was when a student fainted and lost consciousness for a couple of minutes. This person needed immediate medical attention and was not allowed to sit for exams for the next couple of months.

What surprises me is that most students who experience severe forms of test anxiety are the ones who prepare way ahead of their tests and show average to above average performance in academic subjects. They are not under-performers as many would assume. Many who suffer from test anxiety eventually score low on tests because of the accompanying anxiety, and not necessarily because they don’t have the required intelligence or subject-specific aptitude.

Test anxiety affects everyone equally without differentiating students’ age, color, socio-economic status, or ability level. Often, students simply yield to its deadly grip by developing negative self-image about themselves as learners. They label themselves as “not smart” or “not good enough.” Repeated negative internal dialogues such as these soon dictate how individuals define themselves. This is a cycle that needs to be broken!

Wonder why?

More puzzling than the mystical, damaging powers of test anxiety is the needless persistence of our society to be exam-centric and perpetuate a tradition that has brought more harm than good (how many young students have ended their lives merely because they couldn’t meet their parents’ expectation for As?). It’s baffling to know that despite having numerous empirical evidences about the ill-effects of test-anxiety, schools still use tests to measure students’ learning.

A lot of research-based literatures have been published on dealing with test-anxiety. Unfortunately, they only serve as a partial solution to a full-grown, all-destructive problem related to students’ learning experiences. The fact remains despite learning and using different coping strategies, test-anxiety exists and its presence is deeply felt by students.

Sadly, it is only in the school system that a crisis, when detected, studied, and systematically understood, is not completely uprooted. Educators would rather come up with ways to reduce the impact of the problem. They tend to pacify the issue hoping that it will soon become assimilated into an already fractured system, without hurting anyone’s existence. Why should we entertain and utilize a system that hurts more than mends or cures?

There is another way!

The alternative to anxiety provoking tests is an educational approach called Mastery Learning. Mastery Learning is founded on the proposition that 90% of students can learn what is normally taught in schools at an “A” level if they are given enough time and appropriate instruction. Enough time here means the time that is required to demonstrate mastery of a set of instructional objectives set by teachers, whereas appropriate instruction means the following:

  1. Break course into units of instruction
  2. Identify objectives of units
  3. Require students to demonstrate mastery of objectives for unit before moving on to other units


A lesson on “writing formal letters” – the teacher could allow students to submit several drafts of the letter – progressively scaffolding mastery of formal letter writing by correcting every draft submitted and returning it with comments and feedback so that students could continue improving on it, until they could produce an almost perfect formal letter. By using Mastery Learning, the teacher has deliberately prevented students from failing or doing poorly on the lesson.

Anxiety-free test

When students are deliberately and systematically supported by teachers, they can and do learn much more effectively. Testing, using the mastery learning approach is exciting because it is determined by:

  1. Actual number of objectives mastered over time as opposed to random number of disconnected facts memorized and regurgitated in a test
  2. Number of units completed by an individual student as opposed to the number of units everyone was expected to complete whether they understood them or not
  3. Proficiency level reached on each unit as opposed to scores (that are highly dependent upon the construction of valid and reliable tests – which is a weakness of many teachers) obtained on a set of units deemed important to the teacher, hence highly teacher-directed rather than student-centered

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