We all learn differently, and by embracing different learning styles, students can go far. While there are several existing schools of thought regarding learning styles, most students can be lumped into one of three categories: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Some may even cross over, responding to multiple learning styles. 

Additionally, it can take some students more time to catch on than others, and those students are likely to fall behind if they’re required to keep up with their peers. Science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) environments are particularly notable in this regard, as the subjects can be challenging. STEM environments lose a huge amount of engaged, active participants who are afraid of not being “smart enough.” 

To bridge the gaps, educators should be prepared to deviate from the norm by allowing students to develop at their own pace, and learn for the sake of learning. Although it may seem trivial, changing up your learning model to one that encourages a mastery mindset may greatly benefit those students who are frustrated or discouraged by traditional classroom learning. Mastery learning may keep students excited about school and the learning process overall, especially STEM subjects. Let’s take a look at the mastery mindset and its potential impact on STEM learning outcomes into the future. 

Breathe in, Breathe Out: Defining a Mastery Mindset

If the word “master” conjures up the image of The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi in your mind, you’re not too far off base in terms of an appropriate teaching model. In the 1984 hit, Mr. Miyagi (played by Pat Morita, who garnered an Oscar nom for the performance) takes somewhat of a Zen approach to life and leads his pupil Daniel on a quest towards karate mastery. 

Although he may have been unaware of it, Mr. Miyagi was utilizing a form of mastery learning. Put simply, the mastery mindset learning model allows students to develop skills at their own pace, keeping a particular goal in mind. In this way, students focus on their individual target goal rather than a specific learning outcome, like high grades or what they haven’t yet learned.

While Daniel wanted to enter a karate tournament and show up his rivals, he was also driven from within to master the art of karate. What’s more, Mr. Miyagi also stressed the importance of patience and doing things on your own time, which are both key components of the mastery mindset. 

Interestingly, teachers can even utilize Mr. Miyagi himself as a relevant example of successful mastery at work. Many proponents of mastery learning believe that students learn by example, and that failure and feedback are crucial to a student’s future success. By sharing the philosophy of a mastery mindset with your students, educators across disciplines can help foster a healthy relationship between children, STEM learning, and even overall literacy

Teaching a Mastery Mindset and Reducing Education Anxiety

For students who don’t feel “as smart as” or “as good as” their peers, the school day can be a huge source of anxiety. Unfortunately, however, school is far from the only source of stress among young people. According to Wake Forest University, anxiety cases in children are on the rise around the world, and the condition often coexists with depression and/or behavior problems. About 7% of U.S. residents between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety at some point in their life. 

Many of the popular treatments of anxiety in children revolve around personalization. Medical professionals who work with anxious children, such as social workers, will do their best to understand the source of anxiety and find solutions. Some children with anxiety, for example, respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy, especially when used in tandem with medication. Teachers can take the same individualized approach, using a mastery mindset to better connect with students who may have education anxiety and improve learning outcomes. 

School-related anxiety is somewhat of a motivation killer and can have a long-term effect on various aspects of a student’s life, from attention span to long-term memory and overall cognition. Anxiety can also cause an increase in self-defeating thoughts, which in turn increases stress levels, creating a vicious cycle of sorts. Unfortunately, STEM subjects are a common source of childhood anxiety, but you may be able to combat the issue with a simple switch to the mastery mindset. 

How to Encourage Lifelong Learners

It’s important to note that true mastery requires direct effort from all parties involved. If your students have lost all interest in a particular subject, or the learning process itself, it can be difficult to re-ignite that passion. Conversely, when children believe that they are capable of learning and growing their knowledge base, they’re more likely to bounce back from any setbacks or challenges that arise. 

The learning process itself is essentially the heart of mastery. People with a passion for learning don’t have set classroom hours, and even everyday situations can be an important teaching moment. Because learning isn’t confined to the classroom, teachers may thus want to assign homework to their mastery students, with the simple goal of completion rather than accuracy. 

Interestingly, the topic of homework has seen its fair share of controversy over the years, and many kids and parents alike believe that the school day is arduous enough without homework. However, a mastery mindset paired with meaningful homework assignments allows students Some people have even argued in favor of banning homework, and claim that it’s not helpful for students, yet there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. 

Researchers have found a strong link between math homework and academic performance, for example. There are cognitive and emotional benefits of homework as well: When they are required to perform a task, project, or assignment outside of school hours, students are directly responsible for their own success. A simple STEM homework assignment can bring about increased engagement and confidence in the classroom. 

Final Thoughts

The learning process isn’t one size fits all, and teaching opportunities span well beyond physical classroom walls. To boost engagement and creativity in STEM learning and beyond, teachers should consider the benefits of a mastery mindset. Every student is “smart enough” for STEM, and true masters learn at their own pace, for the sake of knowledge itself. 

Read this article from our friends at Porch.com for more tips on how parents can utilize the STEAM program from the comfort of their home:

Activities and Ideas on the STEAM Program: Advice from Experts

About Indiana Lee

Indiana Lee is a writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest with a passion for covering workplace issues, social justice, environmental conservation, and more. You can follow her work on Contently (https://indianaleewrites.contently.com/), or on twitter @indianalee3.

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  • Activities and Ideas on the STEAM Program: Advice from Experts

    This article offers tips from experts on how parents can utilize the STEAM program from the comfort of their home by, for example, setting up a dedicated space where kids can do various STEAM challenges!


About the Founder & CEO

Dr. Koshi Dhingra has dedicated her career to STEM education and is passionate about having every child live up to their potential. Seeing a lack of girls and other underrepresented youth in STEM programs, she founded talkSTEM in 2015 to address the imbalance. She has a doctorate in science education from Teachers College, Columbia University, has years of experience teaching in graduate and undergraduate programs, and has held leadership roles in universities. She advises and collaborates with a broad range of educational institutions globally. Dr. Dhingra began her career teaching science in middle and high school in New York. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, three children, and two dogs.

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