How Can Students Develop Mastery In Learning?

Achieving mastery is more like a journey rather than a destimation

How Can Students Develop Mastery In Learning?

One key difficulty in bringing students to a level of mastery is, ironically, the fact that the teacher is already a master of the content. Having fully internalized the knowledge of what they are teaching, they can easily forget the challenges of learning new concepts. In particular, they can fall into the trap of having a simplistic and binary view of learning where people fall into one of two extremes: ignorance and knowledge. In this view, teachers have knowledge, and they simply provide it to students, who then have to gain it themselves.

When one is already a master of a topic, this is an easy fallacy to fall into. One forgets that mastery only came through a journey and that their own journey might have been slow and difficult. In fields where a teacher has a natural aptitude, they might have picked up a skill or concept rapidly and lack an understanding of the effort it takes for the average student to achieve the same degree of understanding.

To help a student achieve mastery, it's important to conceptualize learning as a journey through several distinct stages. Sprague and Stewart (2000) identify four key parts of this journey.

The Four Steps to Mastery

1. Unconscious ignorance

First, there is ignorance of one's own ignorance (such as a student who is not aware of the mathematical concept of multiplication). Literally, you do not know what you do not know.

2. Conscious ignorance

Then, a student moves to being aware of a gap in their knowledge (a student learns what multiplication is, but is unclear on how to do it). The student knows the problems, but struggles to solve them.

3. Conscious competence

The third step is "conscious competence" when a student is able to do the skill, but it requires concentration (a student who can do multiplication if they focus on the process). A student can solve the problem reliably, but only with practice.

4. Unconscious competence

The last step is true mastery--"unconscious competence." A student can often see the answer without thinking about how they got it. This is when the student can do the skill or make use of a concept without necessarily being aware of it (such as a student who is able to apply multiplication to solve a larger problem, not even being aware that they are multiplying).

A teacher has, presumably, already reached this final stage, and understanding how to lead a student through this process successfully is not something that automatically comes with mastery. Being a world-class concert pianist does not necessarily make one a good piano teacher, particularly if playing the piano came easily or quickly. As the folks at Education Speaks ask, "Does somebody being an expert mean they are going to be a great teacher?" The answer is "no." A teacher must understand not only the topic, but also have the ability to lead others step by step to mastery.

To do this, it is crucial for a teacher to understand how to structure the journey from ignorance to mastery in a way that pushes students without overwhelming them.

Getting Students to Make the Journey to Mastery

1. Break Content into Components

Perhaps the most crucial of these steps is to break down a skill or complex concept into small "chunks" of knowledge, or components. They allow a student to gain a grasp of the overall skill and, through repetition, build upon them.

It is this point that often gives people with mastery (i.e. teachers) particular difficulty in working with students. Masters often overestimate the amount of material that can be included in a single lesson or "component." The result is asking a student to do too much too soon, leading to frustration for everybody involved. When in doubt, teachers should always break things down as much as possible.

2. Integration

Once individual skills become learned, students can integrate them--putting them together to create more complex behaviors. For example moving from solving one or two formulas to combining them in a multi-step problem. Through repetition, these discrete skills become linked together as one behavior, which in turn becomes a component of yet larger skills.

For example, someone learning to play chess might learn the component skills of identifying the pieces, knowing where they are placed at the beginning of a game, and how each move, and then integrate these into making a legal move to begin a game. This, in turn, becomes a component skill of learning the basic tactics of chess openings.

At this stage, teachers should be open about how the component skills fit together. It is wise to prompt students to reflect on how the component skills they've learned can be combined and why. The goal is for students not only to know what they now know, but to see the underlying purpose of it and how it relates to the journey to mastery. And the student must be comfortable with the prior steps before moving on.

3. Application

The final stage--the one that shows true mastery--is when students can apply skills and ideas they've learned to new situations in a creative way. For example, a student who has learned how to use a spreadsheet application on a computer will not simply be able to use it to solve problems provided by an instructor, but will see ways to apply spreadsheets to solve new problems of their own from the real world.

Again, this is a step that can be overlooked by one who is already a master and does this without thinking about it. Jump to a real world application too soon and the students will become lost. But if you do not connect what they have learned to new situations, they will never understand the value of what they are studying or make use of their skills.

So students need to be given practice in applying their newly-learned skills. This can be accomplished through problem-based learning, in which the instructor poses a question for students to solve that not only requires a student to apply the skill being taught, but asks students to be able to figure out how and why that skill is relevant to the question being asked. For example, a student learning basic statistics might be asked to figure out how to use this knowledge to come up with a strategy for winning a card game.

Mastery is NOT a Destination

Mastery is not sufficient to lead others to mastery. It's important to see the process as a journey--one where the job of the teacher is not simply to give students something but to prompt them to discover it for themselves.


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