When looking for a homeschool math curriculum, you’ve likely seen recommendations for spiral review in math or a mastery learning approach. Homeschool families often discuss and compare these two topics to each other as if they’re mutually exclusive. However, mastery learning describes how a teacher chooses to teach and at what pace they progress through the material. Spiral review describes how to review material previously covered. Before searching for programs that use one method, look at what each of these concepts mean and how they work.
What is spiral review in math?
In math, spiral review is returning to review an earlier concept later to practice it. This approach keeps math concepts fresh in students’ minds. It gives them regular opportunities to use math so they develop automaticity (the ability to answer familiar math questions automatically).
Spiral review vs. spiral learning
Spiral review reviews concepts often throughout a math program. A spiral learning approach introduces a topic early and builds on it over time. For instance, students use spiral learning when building on addition as they progress from adding whole numbers to fractions with different denominators or negative numbers. A first-grade student who is still developing number sense is usually ready to learn addition with whole numbers, but they are not often ready to add fractions with different denominators, a skill that requires multiplication and addition. A spiral review math program would offer consistent opportunities to practice addition until the student is ready. When they begin learning the new skill, they should be familiar and confident with all the previous skills they need.
What is the mastery learning approach in mathematics?
Mastery learning, or teaching for mastery, means the educator covers one concept at a time until students can demonstrate mastery. You would not move on from a topic until students have grasped how to use and apply what they have learned. Of course, a 6-year-old learning addition can’t truly master the concept because he or she isn’t developmentally ready to learn multiplication (a building block on addition). So, your child would “master” addition when the process becomes automatic.
If you’re interested in the mastery approach for your students, be mindful of your students’ abilities, mental and emotional. When using a mastery approach, you may want to cover every aspect of a topic or concept fully before progressing. However, younger students may not be ready for more difficult concepts—like division in math, or the full details of a war in history.
Mastery Learning Vs. Spiral Learning
A mastery learning approach depends on how the teacher schedules time for learning and introducing new topics. A spiral learning approach covers topics in increasing difficulty over time.
Since mastery learning and spiral learning aren’t mutually exclusive, they cannot be pitted against each other, especially in math. We often compare one against the other because of a misunderstanding about the approaches. It’s easy to think that mastery means covering a topic once and never touching it again and that spiral means covering topics so briefly that a student never fully grasps it.
Can you use mastery and spiral learning together?
Absolutely. Increasing instructional time (mastery approach) helps students learn, and repetition (spiral review approach) aids learning. Some students may need more of one than the other, but both are beneficial. Some parents decide they want an approach that promises to cover each topic incrementally and thoroughly. Others want a program that promises repetition.
Is spiral curriculum or mastery learning better for math?
Math often relies on building one idea on another over time. A curriculum that doesn’t use this approach to teaching math is likely not laying a proper foundation for deep understanding of a topic. Similarly, an educator who does not give students enough time to learn and understand concepts in math is also not preparing them to use math and to understand it at a higher level. You need both time and repetition to encourage learning in math.
Mastery Learning and Spiral Math Curriculum for Homeschool
Searching for a curriculum that promises to use either a spiral learning approach or a mastery learning approach in mathematics can be helpful to your children. But it’s important to recognize that a curriculum can’t always make such promises. A curriculum can’t teach for mastery because teaching for mastery depends on giving students time to learn and practice. A curriculum can direct you, the parent, to take it slow and move with your students’ understanding. On the other hand, it won’t be able to predict when every student will get it or how much practice they’ll need.
A curriculum can design a program to build on information over time, show connections to previous concepts, and reteach in greater detail as the student develops—what is often described as a spiral curriculum. This is the approach that BJU Press math curriculum uses to cover topics with increasing complexity. We apply a spiral review approach to make sure new learning remains top-of-mind. It will be up to you, the parent and teacher, to determine how much time and additional practice your students need to master concepts.