Tuesday, 28 March 2017

developing students' mastery

Our SoTL Teaching Circle met last week to discuss the fourth chapter of How Learning Works which asks the question: how do students attain mastery? Ambrose et al explain that there are three elements to developing mastery of a skill or body of knowledge:
  1. the component skills - this is knowledge of how to do something or how something works. In my mind this involves the rote portion of knowledge - learners simply need to know the language or the steps before being able to speak, think, or perform in the discipline;
  2. Those component skills then need to be integrated into our existing knowledge structure. This assumes a constructivist understanding of knowledge. Until our existing mental models are restructured to incorporate the new learning, what we have just learned will not stick - it will not make sense with the rest of our worldview;
  3. Finally, students need to understand in which contexts the newly learned skill may be applied. They need to know when and where our knowledge will be useful. When is it appropriate to use a hammer? When is it appropriate to use a screwdriver?
Our teaching circle discussion focused on how to develop these different aspects of mastery in our students. A common approach was to provide practice inside of our classrooms during which we as instructors can help students integrate their learning and understand when to apply their skills. Clearly, this requires aspects of active learning. And it seems that the best way to do this is to flip the classroom so that some of the component skills (rote learning) is done outside of class, before class, so that there is time inside of class to practice integrating and contextualizing the knowledge. 

But, knowing when to flip for an instructor. Sometimes students need help with the component skills (What is significant of that particular chemical structure? How is this word pronounced? What does this sentence mean?). Thus, depending upon the level of the particular course content (introductory, intermediate, advanced) will impact how much we can leave to students for the first contact with the course material and therefore how much time we have in class for nurturing students integration and contextualization of that course content.

Which means that as designers of learning experiences we need to be clear ourselves of what can be reasonably expected for students to truly learn. And I think this comes down to making choices about depth and breadth of what we teach our students. If the course has a great breadth of content, then maybe the course really needs to only expect students to develop the component skills. On the other hand, if the course objective is to have students learn the material in great depth, then maybe not as much content can be included in the course.

The difficulty I have in teaching is that I have found that learning for students does not stick very well if it is mostly breadth that they are learning. My experience suggests that when students learn something to a great depth, it has more impact on their understanding and thus the newly earned knowledge tends to stick. This seems to make sense. The pedagogical literature is clear that depth of learning produces better outcomes than superficial learning. Is that the same as breadth and depth of a course's content? I am not sure. But clearly, if we want our students' learning to be to a sufficient depth of understanding, then the course content cannot be too broad. Clearly, there is a balance between breadth and depth of content that needs to be carefully designed for each topic/discipline and the level of prior knowledge of students enrolling in the course.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How do students develop mastery? In How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (pp. 117–146). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.