spiral vs mastery

Spiral vs Mastery: The 1 Essential Difference You Need to Know


Spiral vs Mastery. 

Saxon Math vs Horizons vs Singapore vs Math-U-See…

And so many more! If you have homeschooled or even considered it you’ve probably heard various people talking about any or all of the various math styles and curriculums. 

But knowing a brand has a good reputation and understanding what to expect throughout a homeschool year or career are two very different things!! I’ve heard a lot of questions about this lately, so let’s spend a little time on getting this figured out.

Most of what you need to know hinges on what method the curriculum teaches. There are two basic schools of thought in math curricula.

Understanding what people mean when they say Spiral vs Mastery

Today we’ll look at the differences and why they matter by taking a look at:

spiral vs mastery

DEFINING TERMS: Spiral vs Mastery

A Note: It’s important to note that BOTH concepts aim for general mastery of all covered math concepts. Just because people use the term “mastery” and phrase it as “spiral VS mastery” does not mean your kid won’t “master” math concepts if they use a spiral curriculum!  The spiral method is not going to leave your kid hanging!

Now, the definitions.

Spiral Method: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

The spiral method focuses on the introduction of concepts in small, bite-size chunks. This is followed by continual review of the skills. Meanwhile, new information is introduced in similarly small pieces.  Picture a penny in one of those science museum centripetal force exhibits. It starts slow and wide and gets faster and faster as it hits the sides of the container until it’s going very fast at the bottom.

With a spiral method your child gains math momentum as they hit concepts over and over and deepen their knowledge.  

Mastery Method: “Keep at it till you’ve got it.”

The mastery method approaches concepts in a more sequential way. A student may work on one concept exclusively for days or weeks before proceeding. They’ll work on many similar problems and take tests to see if they have “mastered” the concept, then move on to the next.

Spiral vs Mastery: What are Some Common Traits of the Spiral Method?

  • Incremental skill development
  • Lots of practice
  • Wide variety of questions
  • Practical results
  • Continual review
  • Development of skill and knowledge happens over time
  • Students may find new concepts less frustrating
  • Information may be retained longer-term
  • Focus on memorizing facts, learning concepts and techniques as well as “doing” math

Spiral vs Mastery: What are Some Common Traits of the Mastery Method?

  • Focus is on mastery of a single concept before moving on
  • Mastery may sometimes be called sequential or skills-based
  • Topics are explored deeply and more exclusively. Lots of theory and concepts.
  • Pre-tests and post-tests are utilized to make sure mastery has been gained.
  • Mastery of concepts may mean your child enters a program at different levels than “grades”
  • Mastery may take time; students move on when a certain proficiency is reached
  • Less repetition
  • Less review
  • Gaps can occur if not caught and fixed early on

Spiral vs Mastery: How to Know Which Might be a Good Choice for your Child

Spiral vs Mastery continues to be a debate because there are good curriculums under each category. Obviously, I believe strongly in Saxon math, a spiral curriculum. One of the main reasons is that I believe the spiral method builds a strong foundation that isn’t easily forgotten. When concepts are repeatedly re-visited over the course of a year or years, it becomes deeply ingrained in the brain. It also minimizes gaps in learning.

However, those who find a lot of problems to be time-consuming or frustrating may balk at the number of problems that must be done to ensure repeated exposure.

Mastery method learning, however, is often popular with those who feel that constant repetition will be boring over time. Those who like to consider a concept completed (like checking a box) will like mastery-method math.

However, there are some who may not take to the frequent tests that help gauge mastery.

As with so many things in homeschooling, what’s right will be a combination of what helps your child learn, what a parent can handle teaching, and what supports a family’s lifestyle and their academic goals for their kids. Perhaps that’s a spiral method, with its deep foundation and slowly-over-time style. Or perhaps its mastery, with long periods of time devoted to one concept. You’ll figure it out, and hopefully, this Spiral vs Mastery primer will help.

Have more questions about spiral vs mastery? Drop them in the comments below!

Talk to you soon,

Nicole the Math Lady

Like the idea of spiral method math, such as Saxon? See what it’s like to get the help of an on-demand teacher and online grading with a seven-day FREE trial. Check it out now at https://nicolethemathlady.com/free-trial/


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  1. Thank you! This is a wonderful explanation that I wish I would have understood years ago after putting my children, myself, and my wallet through quite a lot. I have homeschooled my kiddos for 9 years now. I saw the word “mastery” and decided that mastering math was what I wanted my children to do, to obtain… My children began to struggle with retention, they had forgotten the things they learned or at least done in previous lessons. We switched to Saxon last year (20-21) after seeing “ Nicole the Math Lady” at The virtual homeschool convention. I am so very happy! My children are doing well. I love the spiral approach. My children love “Corny Brain Breaks.” Despite my 3, youngest has not started Saxon yet, having very different learning styles, they are doing well and I feel like they have a solid foundation as they move forward with frequent checks to make sure that their footing is strong. Thank you so very much for all that your do!!!!

  2. We love you!
    I taught Saxon math years ago in a Christian school. I wouldn’t use any other curriculum for math. I love the spiral method. Math does take a lot of time but it’s so worth it for retention.
    Thank you for what you do for students (and parents;).

  3. Thank you! This is super helpful!
    People often give reasons to why they do not like Saxon and I like to understand the method better to be able to explain the why behind it!

    I am an area rep for our homeschool program and have recommended many people to your site. Thank you!

  4. Thanks for that explanation, Nicole. What I have found so far is that Saxon is a solid, good curriculum, and my engineer husband said he really liked how the concepts were explained (note: he hated math in school). My teacher mother-in-law likes that Saxon is so strong in the math facts. Most of my kids do Saxon (and all have done it up to 3rd grade) but my oldest really didn’t like it once she hit 4th grade (which has more independent learning), and when a friend of mine undertook to teach her using a mastery approach she did much better. She continues to do better with a mastery approach, and even if she doesn’t end up quite as strong in the retention area she now enjoys math–and that is worth it! The rest of the kids do well with Saxon (the spiral method works very well for them!) and they do enjoy your videos. Thank you so much for making them and for your obvious love of math–so helpful for us homeschooling parents!

    1. Anna – that’s a perfect example of each child is an individual and you have to tailor it to what is going to work for each child. To me, the awesome part of homeschooling is that we get to do that.

  5. Hi, I’ve been using Life of Fred for the last 3 yrs. Are you familiar with it and how would you classify it? We love it, it’s funny, has very little repetition and you can slow down and do more practice of something if it gets too abstract.

    Would love to hear your input.

    1. Hi Angie,

      I do not have direct experience with that curriculum so I really couldn’t give a proper comment. However, if you see that it is working for your child, then great. If you begin to see that your child is having any issues with retention, then that may be a good indicator to try a spiral approach. Good luck to you.

  6. We started our homeschool journey using a math curriculum that uses a mastery approach and my daughter HATED all of the repetition. We quickly switched to spiral and it has been much better for her. Recently, though, I read that the mastery approach is better for upper maths, like algebra. Do you have an opinion on that?

    1. Hi Jenny. I think both can be great options. They both can have a lot of repetition. A mastery course will provide a lot of repetition on the subject you are working on at the moment; while the spiral curriculum will provide more repetition of a variety of problems of things they have learned in the past. The idea is that since math is so connected, they will use those skills again in coming topics. The repetition will keep their skills sharp. I don’t think just because something is mastery or spiral, it automatically dictates how many problems it will have. I think that has more to do with the actual curriculum and what they provide. I hope that helps.

  7. We are currently using Math’U’-See. My daughter is doing very well with it. I am having issues with the fact that we are finishing up 2nd grade and have not covered many of the concepts as the spiral approach. I’m ready to “jump ship” to a spiral program. But I am worried about how far back that will set her. When is the least damaging time to switch from mastery to spiral? We are supposed to be starting Gamma (single & multiple digit multiplication) this upcoming school year. In addition, it seems like there are more independent apps, and supplements for the spiral approach.

    1. Hi Denise. Thanks for reaching out. My philosophy is that our job in the first few years is to develop a love of learning…hopefully one that will be lifelong. School should be fun and play-based. If you feel that you’ve accomplished that with your current program, great! I wouldn’t be super concerned that your student may be “falling behind.” She’s just getting started. However, once the student hits around 3rd grade, you are right to start evaluating the math skills they are developing. Students can do well with either kind of program: mastery or spiral. You can always bring elements of spiral into your current program if you like the way that it is working. If you don’t think you can or you think that will too much work, 3rd/4th grade is a time that I see many customers make a switch. I hope that helps.

  8. We have been using abeka. Now at abeka 3 and we switch to saxon 4/5 next year. The saxon description seems to follow what we are already doing. Are there ways to supplement saxon 4/5 so we don’t lose ground? My 3rd grader is easily learning abeka and I feel she needs a challenge (or rather, she doesnt need to repeat abeka 3), but we hybrid homeschool, so we have to follow the school’s curriculum.

    1. Without knowing Abeka 3 in detail, it’s hard to speak to the transition to Saxon 5/4. However, with Saxon, there is a significant switch in the formatting and expectations when a student goes from the Third Grade material to the Fourth Grade. In Saxon 5/4, there are several sets of problems each day for the student to complete (Warm Up, Lesson Practice, Mixed Practice and Facts Practice) which keep most kids engaged at that age. I am not sure if you plan to use our program, but if you do, we also have thousands of extra problems (by topic) you can access in the Mastery Bank.