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ATD Blog

Better Science for Better Learning: Mastery Modeling

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Which do you think promotes behavior change?

A. A highly qualified expert clearly lecturing how to work through a complex process.
B. A peer explaining what she is thinking as she feels her way through the process.

Hold your answer in mind as we explore the concept of mastery modeling.

Mastery Modeling Is Commonly Misunderstood

Everyone understands the concept of mastery modeling, right? Nope!

No doubt, mastery modeling is a great way to change learner behavior, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the term misused to describe lectures by specialists: “We’ll have a subject matter expert describe how it’s done. That’s mastery modeling!” The folks who offer statements like this believe that having a talking head explain something will delight learners—even though we know most learners hate talking heads.

Mastery Modeling Emerged From a Study of Children’s Behavior

So, if an expert giving a lecture isn’t mastery modeling, what is? The answer begins with a story.

In 1961, Albert Bandura and his colleagues at Stanford were testing the social learning hypothesis that people learn by observing other people’s behavior. They set up a Bobo doll, which is a toy that bounces upright when tipped over. One by one, they brought children into a room with Bobo and had them watch an adult (a “model”) beat up the doll while shouting aggressive phrases like “Sock him!” and “Knock him down!” Meanwhile, a control group of children was not exposed to this behavior. Then they left each child alone with Bobo and filmed the hair-raising mayhem that followed.

Bandura found that children who watched the aggressive model were more likely to hit Bobo violently when left alone. Subsequent experiments revealed that this effect was greater when the model was the same gender as the child. From this research emerged mastery modeling, the premise that showing people a model performing an activity can influence their behavior in diverse areas, ranging from quitting smoking to job performance.


Master Modeling Works by Building Self-Efficacy

Research strongly suggests that mastery modeling works because, when you observe someone perform an activity, you experience an increase in what’s called self-efficacy. As L&D professionals know, that’s a type of confidence that takes the form: “If they can do this, so can I.” Self-efficacy makes people more willing to try something they’ve seen or been taught. Bingo! Behavior change.

Use These Best Practices When You Apply Mastery Modeling to Learning

Over the years two tasty ingredients—cognitive modeling and identification—have been dropped from the recipe for mastery modeling in learning. By adding back these ingredients, you’ll heighten the resulting self-efficacy.

The first ingredient is cognitive modeling. In the original experiment, the model shouted her thoughts out loud while banging on Bobo. She didn’t explain aggression to the child; she shared her thoughts while performing her actions. To hear the difference—I’ll exaggerate a bit—imagine hearing, “You can hit Bobo with a hammer. Hold it in one hand, then strike the doll.” Now imagine, “How can I beat up Bobo? When I push it, it just bounces back. I know, I’ll smash it with a hammer! POW! That sent it right to the floor!” The first sentence is lecture, the second is cognitive modeling. Both can teach, but the social sharing of inner thoughts is even more likely to change behavior.

To apply this to corporate learning, don’t write: “If variable B rises above 500, invoke the reduction functions one by one until the variable drops back into range.” That’s lecture. Instead, introduce a human model, then have your learners read or hear: “Variable B just passed 500. That’s too high! What now? I heard that reduction functions help. I’ll start with this function. No, it didn’t work. I’ll try that one…and it worked! The variable dropped back where it belongs.” In the second instance, the model shares what she’s thinking as she works through the problem.

The other missing ingredient is identification. Gender, age, race, professional, or economic status—the more closely a learner identifies with the model, the more the model influences the learner. Yes, you can have a distinguished scientist or business celebrity perform the modeling; corporate leaders often love this. But if your model closely resembles your audience demographic, learners will identify more strongly and experience greater self-efficacy for the task at hand.


This suggests, by the way, that you should deal carefully with the high-level executive who wants to shine on employees by demonstrating a new process. People won’t identify with someone that far ahead of them on the corporate ladder. Instead, invite the executive to briefly validate how the process will benefit the enterprise. Then segue to a more appropriate model who can talk through using it.

Now . . . a Bit of Mastery Modeling

I remember a phone conversation with an IBM Watson Artificial Intelligence expert who wanted to explain to other experts his new approach to machine learning. First, he talked through a technical description of the process. He was proud of the process but not sure his colleagues would use it. So, I asked what he was thinking as he developed the process: What worked well? What did he need to adjust?

You know where I’m going with this. I edited together his technical descriptions and cognitive remarks to create an influential piece of mastery modeling.

Whether you work in video, audio, or text, you can do this too. Include all the ingredients in mastery modeling and you’ll whip up learning that can change your learners’ behavior. (By the way, as you know by now, I often prefer answer B in my opening question. I won’t knock the value of learners hearing from an executive. But having them listen to a model—that can inspire learners to try your lesson for themselves.)

Two weeks from now, come back for a discussion on the concept of salience! I promise you a dog story, and we’ll consider what happens when we ask learners questions with surprising answers. In the meantime, please add your comments on mastery modeling. Have you tried it? Did it help?

For more about mastery modeling in adult learning, check out some research performed on medical students detailed in the Journal of Education and Training Studies article, “The Effect of Mastery Learning Model with Reflective Thinking Activities on Medical Students’ Academic Achievement: An Experimental Study.” And to explore additional best practices, read what happens when you add positive and negative reinforcement to the recipe in Albert Bandura’s article, "Influence of Models' Reinforcement Contingencies on the Acquisition of Imitative Responses,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

About the Author

Douglas Lieberman offers short-term consulting and targeted problem solving for difficult challenges in skill building and behavior change. For more than a decade he was a member of IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning, where he led the award-winning, patent pending Adaptive Learner approach to innovative thinking, and he created the instructional standards for IBM Watson employees’ required online training in artificial intelligence. Now he works with IBM’s P-Tech initiative, bringing technical training to underserved populations around the world.

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