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My Journey from Traditional to Mastery

Cara Johnson
Anatomy and Physiology Teacher, Allen High School
Allen, TX

In the past five years, I have transitioned my anatomy and physiology course from a typical teacher-centered, lecture-based class to a student-centered, self-paced, mastery-based learning environment. After reflecting on this transition and the changes I’ve made, I’ve found that most teachers can relate to my progression—and struggles with progressing—from a traditional to mastery-style class. By sharing what worked for me, I hope to help other teachers and their students become successful with the mastery-based approach.


I teach at a high school that strongly supports the flipped classroom model and encourages teachers to try new strategies to enhance students’ learning. Allen High School is an extremely large school, and a considerable number of the 11th and 12th graders want to take anatomy and physiology as one of their science credits. Many of my students are future nurses, doctors, surgeons, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and dietitians, so they are extremely motivated to learn anatomy and physiology. There are also students who take anatomy and physiology because their friends are taking the course, they want to dissect the cat, or they want to learn about the reproductive system. Like most teachers, my biggest challenge is to teach a complex curriculum to a wide variety of students in a very short school year.  

In my first couple of years of teaching, I attempted to teach anatomy by standing in front of the classroom, talking, waking students up, and asking students to turn off their cell phones and pay attention. Some students learned, but many drowned in the medical terminology and long lists of anatomical structures and functions.  

Making the switch to flipped learning

In my third and fourth years of teaching anatomy, I began to video my lectures and assign them as homework. Within the flipped classroom, I regained my class time and implemented many hands-on activities and labs to enhance my students’ learning. I definitely reached more students during these years. However, I still had many struggles. As in a traditional classroom, some students chose not to do their homework. Also, I continued to have some students who truly struggled with anatomy, because—let’s face it—anatomy is tough!

These years were eye opening. In my flipped class, I had more time to incorporate innovative learning approaches, integrate technology into the daily lesson, and make the learning more about the students and less about the teacher. However, many students were still struggling and not learning. Students continued to be unprepared for my almost daily quizzes and refused to review their failing quizzes prior to tests because they saw no value in these assessments. As a result, many of my students would skim through anatomy, failing quizzes and tests but passing the course because they would turn in their daily work and labs.

So in my fifth year of teaching anatomy and physiology, I embraced the flipped-mastery classroom by simply setting a few guidelines:

  1. Students will work at their own pace through the anatomy curriculum.
  2. Students must pass all quizzes (now called mastery checks) prior to taking a test.
  3. Students will choose when to take mastery checks and tests.
  4. Students will prove that they actually watched the videos or reviewed the material by verbally answering a check for understanding question with their teacher.

By following these guidelines, students began to take ownership of their learning. They took mastery checks when they felt that they had mastered the content. Students began to see the value in the mastery check assessments and would use them to assess what they had and hadn’t learned. The students who were able to learn the content faster moved on to the next unit, and those who struggled spent more time in specific content areas. Asking questions to check for understanding meant that students were forced to actually listen and watch the videos. Checking for understanding also gave me the opportunity to differentiate each student’s learning. I could spend more time doing one-on-one tutoring with the struggling students and challenge my more advanced students.  

Reflections on my first year of flipping

As I approach the end of my first year teaching anatomy in a flipped-mastery format, I can see that I have grown as a teacher, and my students have grown to be better learners. I’ve learned that when I give up control of the pace of my students’ learning, the students begin to take control, and learning becomes valuable to them. When students value their learning, they simply learn more!

With flipped-mastery learning, this year’s students have challenged me more than any previous year because of their deeper understanding of anatomy concepts. A flipped-mastery classroom is beautifully organized chaos. Since many students are working on different activities and learning different concepts at the same time, a flipped-mastery classroom is chaotic, but as a whole, the students are more engaged and happy to be learning. Flipped-mastery classrooms allow students to truly learn the concepts in the curriculum and develop study skills that will help them become better learners for life.

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