Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Helping Students Develop Mastery

submitted by Peg Balachowski, Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning at EvCC

Do you believe in coincidences? In the space of 1 week, the same idea appeared in three different places. The first place was on a whiteboard in a classroom that I was visiting. The second place was in a chapter of “How Learning Works” that we were reading for a faculty group meeting, and the third place was in an article from Faculty Focus, one of my favorite blogs.

How do we move students from not knowing what they don’t know to mastery? We know that an activity based classroom where students are practicing skills leads to mastery, but does that alone work? There is lots of disagreement on how much activity is necessary – in general most (certainly not all) people agree that an 80% - 20% activity/lecture model is best for moving students towards mastery. But we don’t just make mastery happen with classroom activities.

Let’s look at the visual in How Learning Works. What are some of the ideas in between the stages listed below?

One important suggestion from the authors of How Learning Works is to help students begin seeing patterns. The authors tell us “…because experts immediately recognize meaningful patterns and configurations based on their previous experiences, they are able to employ shortcuts and skip steps that novices cannot.” Something that I suggest that my math students use is to ask, “Where have I seen that before?” This will help students build their knowledge base AND potentially transfer their skills across disciplines.

An important warning that these authors have for us is to beware the “expert blind spot.” I myself have fallen prey to this, both inside the classroom and out! A great example the authors provide is how a chef might teach a novice to cook; yep, that was me trying to teach my son how to roll out pie dough! Test the consistency (what is that, mom?) Use a little ice water (how much, mom?) In a math class I often assumed knowledge that students didn’t have. “Add these 2 equations” (what’s an equation?) or “If a train leaves the station going…” (Why is this important/relevant to me??)

It’s tough to get to the middle of a term and find that students are struggling with the material in your class because they didn’t have the background knowledge or the necessary skills to build the current knowledge. One tip you might find useful is to use a short first day assessment to determine where students are in terms of the skills necessary for your class. This may help you determine where students are on the mastery scale.

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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