We hope that what we teach our children sticks with them, and that they build on that knowledge for the rest of their lives. But traditional approaches to education often fail to help children retain the material. Short units that focus on good test performance succeed in short-term retention, but do not result in learning that sticks with students long after they’ve finished the unit. However, different approaches that emphasize mastery of concepts help students retain material longer. Two dominant approaches for learning that sticks, specifically in math, are mastery and spiral learning. These learning strategies are tools you can use to choose and adapt curriculum to best support your children.
Mastery learning is studying one concept at a time in-depth, mastering it before moving on. This approach focuses on giving children as much time as they need to understand the material. Most traditional approaches have students working in time-constrained units where they move to the next unit even if they haven’t mastered the material. That approach can impede students’ learning. For example, children who don’t understand the concepts necessary for Pre-Algebra will eventually hit a wall because they have too many gaps in their knowledge. They may think, “I just can’t do math!” However, they likely just never mastered the foundational material. In a mastery learning approach, there are no restrictive time frames for learning the material. Students won’t feel rushed to understand all the material. They can move at their own pace to master the concepts.
Spiral learning is repeating a set of topics throughout the year, adding more depth to the material each time. For example, each unit may contain addition and subtraction but each treatment of those topics adds a new skill, like increasing the amount of numbers in the equations. If students don’t master the material the first time, they will have many opportunities to practice that material throughout the year. There is no pressure for a child to learn the material the first, second, or even third time.
Frequent practice and review increases a child’s ability to retain information. Spiral learning also encourages flexible thinking and critical-thinking skills because students will have to decide what concept to use to solve a problem. Learning multiple concepts at the same time also encourages them to see relationships between concepts.
While we generally use spiral learning for all courses, at BJU Press, we use both of these learning strategies in our math materials. Our approach promotes mastery as students are continually reviewing skills and uses the spiral approach to cover the same concepts in greater detail each time. Our materials emphasize understanding and application beyond memorization. They provide strategies for helping students master the material and practice real-world application.
Both of these approaches have advantages, and the wonderful thing about homeschooling is that you can match your curriculum to your children’s needs. Perhaps a mastery approach works best right now, but maybe in a different season a spiral approach is better. Remember that there is no timeline for when your child needs to achieve mastery. However long learning takes is the best timeline, and whatever way your children learn is the best approach for you.