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Dr Sheri Wilkins: Mastery learning and it’s importance to effective teaching

In this interview Dr Sheri Wilkins, Director of Professional Development at Good to Great Schools Australia, explains what mastery learning is and how it helps teachers ensure they aren’t leaving any students behind.

What is effective teaching?

Effective teaching is about paying close attention to what students are learning. It is explicit and direct, and learning is not left up to chance. When we talk about effective teaching, we are talking about all students learning, not just those who love to learn or those who find learning simple and easy. It’s about ensuring that all students are becoming confident learners, which means we must focus on mastery.

How can we ensure students are learning?

One way that we can ensure that students are learning is to place them in instruction that is right at their instructional level, which is sometimes referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD. This is that area in which what is taught is neither too easy, nor too difficult. The teaching is within proximity to what students already know, but not beyond what they can learn to do confidently.

In order to achieve mastery, students will need to be directly taught the content or skill and given lots of practice with a variety of examples. When they make mistakes, those mistakes will need to be corrected to make sure that students don’t become confused or learn a mis-rule.

Through effective teaching, students learn what they are taught completely and thoroughly. They will need to first fully learn simpler, foundational skills so that they can move on to more difficult and complex ideas.

What is mastery learning?

Zig Englemann, in his book “Successful and Confident Students with Direct Instruction” says that a mastery learning program is like a stairway that transports learners to higher and more complex performance levels one step at a time. As students progress through the material they become more confident learners.

In Direct Instruction programs, for example, only about 10 – 15% of each lesson is new content. The rest of the lesson is a review of content that students have already learnt. This systematic introduction of small amounts of new learning with review of previously learned concepts ensures that students are confident and successful. Students learn how to use and apply what they have learnt previously, and they understand that everything they learn will be revisited.

Why is it important to review prior learning?

Unfortunately, many children learn things partially or become confused when they are first introduced to a new concept. If teachers teach a new concept, provide very limited practice, then move on to a new concept, students may experience misunderstandings that can lead to confusion when they are asked to apply their learning later. Through effective teaching that provides direct, explicit instruction with careful, strategic review, these misconceptions can be identified and clarified quickly. Through applying earlier learning, students are less likely to mix up the different things they are learning.

How can we be sure that no children are falling behind?

Whenever we are teaching a new idea, skill or concept, we need to check to make sure that students are learning what is being taught. Teachers can do this through group choral responses, responses using whiteboards or through calling on students to answer individually. In order for individual responses to be a true measure of level of mastery, the teacher needs to pick a student to call upon, not simply call upon those students who raise their hands indicating they know the answer. It is important that all students know the answer and are able to respond when asked. In addition, regular checks of mastery should be administered and any skills that are not learned with 85 – 90% accuracy need to be re-taught and re-checked for mastery. In this way we are able to make sure that no-one is falling behind, and all students are progressing through the curriculum.

What have been your most rewarding experiences with effective teaching?

I’ve had some amazing opportunities to work with students who have struggled with learning for years. These students start to believe that they are the ones with the problem; that perhaps they will never learn to read or do maths. However, when they are taught in a systematic and effective way, they begin to make progress. Sometimes they can’t believe that they are actually learning and mastering skills that they thought were beyond their reach.

One year I worked with an 18-year old young man who had been convinced by his teachers to come back to school for one more year in order to participate in Corrective Reading. After 13 weeks of instruction, this young man was reading. As he moved from the level A program to the level B1 program, he scanned the stories at the end of the book. He looked at me and said, “So, I’m going to be able to read these stories? By myself? I never thought this would happen.” It’s experiences like these that reinforce for me the importance of effective teaching for all students.

Learn more about effective teaching training with Sheri and other experts in evidence-based teaching pedagogy.

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