Geoff Petty demonstrates he’s a master of mastery, although it’s possibly not the first time he’s encountered it. Geoff is the author of Teaching Today and Evidence-Based Teaching.
Have you noticed that ‘mastery learning’ is back in fashion? You know you’re old when it comes back for a third time. A recent study found that Singapore-style maths mastery boosted pupils’ progress in the UK. It’s thought it helped Singapore become the world’s No 1 in maths education. But that’s not all.
A review of research on the best revision techniques by Dunlosky et al. has found that self-testing in a mastery way is perhaps the best revision method.
Mastery goes back to Aristotle and it’s an embarrassingly obvious idea, but when you’re spinning all the other plates, it’s easy to drop this one. The basic idea is that every student can learn the important basics of a topic given enough practice.
So we need to diagnose the basics that students know, and don’t know, and then ensure they plug the gaps you’ve found. These improvements are done in the students’ own time and are checked with another test.
Mastery only works for discrete basic facts and simple skills (e.g. learning low on Bloom’s taxonomy.) The driving test is an example of mastery learning.
I remember one student saying ‘I thought I knew that until I tried to write it down’. So, teach students to prepare for mastery tests with the study-cover-recall-check-repeat approach described in my earlier piece ‘Help! They forget faster than I teach’. As I continued with mastery learning their revision improved.
The educational researcher and theorist John Biggs thought there was a danger that mastery learning might encourage learning without understanding. Arguably this could be overcome if other tasks and assessments require a deeper approach. It might help if your ‘must know’ questions include ‘why’, and not just ‘what’ questions.
There is a game students can play that is less rigorous than mastery testing, but much more fun. This version is for level 2 learners, but it can easily be adapted for more advanced learners. The first step is that you (or your students) create cards, each with a ‘must know’ question and its answer. Students work in pairs, preferably with question cards on every subtopic.
Alternatively, card-sets on subtopics can move from group to group. In their pairs, they take it in turns to ask each other a question. If the other student gets it right, they move their counter up one square on a game board with a mountain drawn on it. Ensure that there are at least as many question cards as there are squares to the top of the mountain – or they won’t get to the top!
If a student does not get their question right, they keep their ‘wrong card’ and can study the correct answer during the game. One square before the summit of the mountain is a ‘base camp’ where students must pass their ‘wrong cards’ over and make a second attempt at answering correctly.
The object of the game is not to race to the summit first, but for the team of two ‘climbers’ to both get to the top of the mountain. Another option is to ask students to create the cards. Appoint teams and give each team a subtopic from the past few weeks of teaching.
For their subtopic, each team writes three or four simple questions (low on Bloom’s taxonomy) with answers. You check these questions and answers, making sure they are on vital material, are very simple questions and have good answers. The questions and answers can be typed into a table. You can then print sets on thin card with a different colour for each sub-topic if necessary and cut them into question cards. Make sure you, or they, print off enough sets.
Don’t worry, this game is twice as much fun as it sounds yet it has a very serious purpose – checking and correcting students’ learning of vital material. Mastery games can be used to prepare for mastery tests. It would be great if some technological wizard could make an electronic version of this game which teachers could download.
This method can sometimes be used on a summative assignment, or for coursework in draft form.
This strategy, like most teaching strategies, can be overused. Students may find it too dispiriting if you ask them to correct all their work, and they may well not be able to keep up!
However, the method can also be underused. Students sometimes need to have another go at something if they are really to understand how to do it properly. If groups are supportive this can be greatly enjoyed.
This is the same as above – you ask students to redo parts of their work that are not up to scratch, for example:
This method is commonly used by teachers of languages. The teacher marks written work by writing codes in the margin to show that an error has been made on that line somewhere. However the exact point where the error occurred is not shown.
A typical code might be:
The student looks at the marking and then corrects their work using the code. Why is the student not told the details of their error and where it took place? Because the teacher hopes to develop in the student an understanding of what they did wrong, and this is best achieved by making the student hunt carefully for their error and think about what they have written. This will develop the ability to proof-read errors. Could you adapt this approach?
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