Overview of the PSY100 Mastery Learning Course  (written by  Dr. Karl Minke, edited by Dr. Dale Fryxell)

 1.         Philosophy of PSY100

In traditional classes, students attend lectures and take two or three major tests across the term.  Performance on these tests are the primary determinants of the students’ course grades.  Grade distributions in classes such as these tend to be “normally distributed”—a few students earn very high grades, a few earn very low grades, and most students fall somewhere in the middle.  This is viewed as an expected outcome by most educators, who argue that the bell-shaped distribution of test scores reflect the underlying differences in academic ability among a class of students.  In other words, some students are more academically adept than others, and this is (and should be) reflected in classroom performance and grade distributions.


As a psychologist, I cannot accept this conventional “wisdom.”  After working with thousands of students across the years, I am convinced that, in general, students differ with respect to rate of learning, not learning capacity.  Given enough opportunity, every student can perform at an A level.  The unit mastery course upon which you are about to embark is based upon this fundamental assumption.


A second element of the philosophy underlying this course has to do with the goal of a university education.  In general, the university does not prepare the student for specific careers once they have finished school.  With the exception of the professions, future employers are not overly concerned with the specific knowledge that students may have acquired in individual courses.  When they require a college degree for job applicants, they are really concerned with the general skills which the student has learned, the skills that allowed the student to be successful in the academic world and which will be necessary to succeed in the real world after graduation.  Two of the most important skills of this sort are the ability to engage in independent study and the ability to learn from the written page.  Both skills are essential for life-long learning, a critical feature of adult life, regardless of the specific career path along which the individual decides to embark.  Unit mastery instruction is explicitly designed to develop these skills in students.


Third, it is assumed that students should be responsible for their academic performance, but in a way in which they are not penalized for needing more time to master the subject matter than some of their classmates.  Students will find that they are provided tremendous freedom with regard to learning the material in a unit mastery course.  They are in charge of the learning process. 



2.                  What is unit mastery instruction?


Unit mastery is a system of instruction based upon well-validated psychological principles of learning.  It was first developed by a psychologist, Fred Keller, in the mid-1960’s and modified for use with large classes by myself and John Carlson here at the University of Hawaii in the early 1970’s.  The method has been used at a number of colleges and universities around the country during this period, with a variety of subject matters.  A large body of research literature has demonstrated the effectiveness of this method.


Students enrolled in the PSY 100 unit mastery course do not attend regular lectures as such.   Instead, they study the text on their own time, chapter by chapter.  They are helped in this task by a web-based program called MyPsychLab, which provides simulations, elaborations, practice assessments, and individualized study plans based upon the students’ areas of weakness and strength.  When they feel they have mastered the material in the chapter they go to the Quiz Center associated with the course and take a 10-item quiz over that unit.   THEY MUST MAKE AN “A” ON THAT QUIZ.  So what happens if they do not?  Nothing, really, except that they need to go back, restudy, then take another quiz on the chapter.  This quiz will have different questions, but will be based upon the same material.  They do this until they finally attain “A” performance, demonstrating mastery of that unit.  Then and only then are they allowed to move on to the next chapter in the text.  Their grade at the end of the semester is not dependent upon their performance on any given quiz.  Rather, it depends upon the number of chapters successfully mastered by the end of the term.  Research has shown that students who cover a textbook in this manner perform much better on content-based traditional examinations than students enrolled in standard lecture classes.


What is missing, of course, in the description above, is an experiential component to the learning experience and individualized interaction with the instructional staff when problems are encountered.  Both of these issues are addressed in PSY 100 unit mastery.  First, each student is also enrolled in an Active Learning Laboratory, that meets once a week, and in which he or she engages in various exercises and activities designed to involve the student directly with the subject matter of psychology.  Although the activities employed in these laboratories have been developed by the instructors of the course, they are implemented by advanced undergraduate students, who will actually conduct the individual lab sections.  Second, there are other advanced students available at the Quiz Center to help students with specific problems with regard to understanding course content and to counsel students with respect to more sophisticated study skills if needed.  For students experiencing difficulty with specific text material, there is also a Tutor Center available through toll-free phone, e-mail, fax, and/or interactive web, where students may interact with text experts on the mainland.  And, of course, the T.A.s and course instructor are available through e-mail and/or regularly scheduled office hours.


Both formal research and the individual experience of literally thousands of students who have successfully navigated the PSY 100 unit mastery course across the years attest to the fact that unit mastery instruction is an excellent way to learn the basic principles and concepts of psychology and to prepare the student for a lifetime of independent learning.


3.         Advantages of Unit Mastery Instruction


There are a number of advantages for the student in this system of instruction:


Students are given clear statements of the criteria used for evaluating their performance.—Grading policies, critical dates, course policies, etc. are all contained in the course syllabus.  The syllabus is posted on this website and will also be posted within MyPsychLab.  Be sure to read the syllabus carefully. Do not rely upon information provided by students who have taken the course in the past.  Things may not be quite the same this term compared to past offerings. Certain features of the course, requirements, policies, and deadlines are likely to change semester to semester.


Students are provided frequent feedback regarding their performance and will have frequent personal contact with the teaching staff.—Students can expect to take many quizzes across the semester.  These quizzes are graded immediately, and students have an opportunity to review their performance immediately thereafter.  The testing program allows students to access the specific pages in the text from which each question has been taken to determine why their answer was marked wrong and why the keyed answer was correct.  MyPsychLab will keep a running count of points earned in the course and can be accessed at any time.  Additional feedback is provided by interaction with the Quiz Center tutors and the Active Learning Lab instructors.  The frequent testing and immediate feedback creates a reward schedule that contributes to a sense of success, confidence, and self-efficacy (the belief that one can perform adequately in a particular situation).


Progress through the course is heavily self-paced.—In a unit mastery course, the student’s grade is determined by the number of chapters mastered, not by his or her performance on any one quiz.  Thus, the primary limitation on the student is the semester time limits.  Students largely are free to establish their own schedule for meeting the course requirements.  However, this tremendous freedom carries with it exceptional responsibility.  The development of this sense of responsibility regarding one’s own academic performance, expected of students at a major university, may well be one of the most important things learned in a unit mastery course.


4.                  Cautions


The biggest enemy of students in a unit mastery course is procrastination.  Although the course is self-paced, it is designed to require a full semester’s worth of effort for its successful completion.  Students who go for weeks or months without doing anything in this class cannot expect to pass, just as they cannot expect to pass a traditional course under the same set of circumstances.  The typical student earning an A in this class can expect to devote approximately 6-9 hours per week on the course.  The average student takes 3-4 quizzes a week throughout the entire semester.


Most students are not accustomed to performing at an A level.  Particularly in the beginning, students can expect to take multiple quizzes before meeting mastery criterion.  This can be disheartening for some, but it must be recognized that making mistakes is NOT failure—it is really part of the learning process.  By finding out what sections of the text are not well understood and utilizing the immediate feedback provided at the time of testing, the student can efficiently focus his or her study on those concepts providing particular difficulty.


Sometimes students become discouraged after finding out that classmates are proceeding through the course more rapidly than they are.  It is probably best not to try to compete with classmates.  Students differ in their rates of learning, and they probably are most successful if they set a pace comfortable to them.


Students who are having extraordinary difficulty in meeting mastery criteria will be contacted by their Active Learning Lab leaders and asked to seek help from one of the Senior Tutors in the course who will be trained to help students develop more efficient and effective study habits for this class.  Students should take advantage of this important feature of the course.  If difficulties continue, the student should contact the course instructor directly.  The teaching staff are dedicated to helping students who are working steadily in the class in every way possible to be successful.  Unfortunately, not much can be done for students who are serious procrastinators.


5.                  The Quiz Center


Quizzes are taken through MyPsychLab but can only be accessed in the Quiz Center, located in Webster 101.  Quiz Center hours and days will be found in the course syllabus.  To gain entry into the Quiz Center the student must bring his or her student picture I.D.  On the first visit a sticker will be affixed to the I.D.  On subsequent visits the I.D. with sticker attached must be shown before the student will be allowed to sign in. 


The program that administers the quizzes allows students to go back and change answers before the quiz is permanently submitted, but care must be taken to assure that answers for every question are marked before finalizing the quizzing session.  Depending upon how one navigates back and forth among questions, sometimes an answer is not retained when moving around in a non-sequential fashion through the quiz.  If anything unexpected happens during a quiz session, be sure to contact one of the tutors on duty before proceeding.


The quizzes are closed book.    No books, sheets of paper, or writing materials are permitted to be open during quiz taking.  No cell phones, iPods, or other electronic gear are allowed.  The Quiz Center is not to be used for studying or accessing other features of MyPsychLab except for the unit mastery quizzing and multiple windows are not to be opened.  As described in the syllabus, this course has a zero tolerance policy with respect to cheating.  At a minimum, any observed instance of cheating will result in an automatic F in the class.


6.                  How to Study


By far the most effective and efficient way to study for this course is to make use of the MyPsychLab website.  All students must register for this site.  Access to MyPsychLab is provided free with the purchase of a new text at the bookstore.  Others may purchase stand-alone access to MyPsychLab.  To do so, log into http://www.pearsoncustom.com/hi/uhm_psych and follow the instructions. 

MyPsychLab has a number of features to help students truly master the content of Psychology & Life: individualized study plans, pre- and post-tests, supplementary information, demonstrations, film clips, etc.  Experiment with the various features.  Students typically find that at a minimum the practice quizzes are quite useful as they prepare for unit exams.  Some students have difficulty in accessing some of the special features of MyPsychLab.  In our experience, the most common reason is that they have pop-up blockers installed that interfere with access to some of the links.  If you cannot determine why you are having difficulty with certain features of MyPsychLab, contact the Support Service linked to the website.


Some students seem to think they can make it through the course by just focusing on the quiz questions rather than reading the chapters thoroughly.  There are thousands of questions.  Such a strategy is incredibly inefficient, and it is probably impossible to progress through the course by simply focusing on the questions to which one is exposed as a function of taking a quiz.  A student cannot necessarily expect to pass a later quiz by simply reviewing the questions missed on an earlier one.




7.                  Course Details


Specific details regarding this semester’s requirements, policies, etc., will be found in the course syllabus, as mentioned earlier.  BE SURE TO READ THIS CAREFULLY.  E-mails to the teaching staff regarding information contained in the syllabus will be answered simply by referring the student back to the syllabus again.


Finally, relax and have fun.  Most students find they enjoy this system of instruction once they overcome their initial frustration and they discover that  psychology can be an exciting area of study.