A Synopsis of “How Learning Works” (Part 4 of 7): To Develop Mastery, Students Must Acquire Component Skills, Practice Integrating Them, and Know When to Apply What They Have Learned


by Cory Budischak
Energy Management Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Welcome to part four of seven of my synopsis of How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. If you’ve missed out on the first few posts, you can catch up here. Today, I’ll take a look at the fourth principle proposed in the book: To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned. As in previous posts, I’ll start by summarizing the authors’ analysis of this principle based on three questions. After that, I’ll address a fourth question of my own: How do I plan to incorporate this into my own instruction?

1. What are examples of learning issues that this principle can address?

These are the two examples from the book:

“I worked in industry for over twenty years before coming to academia, and I know how critical teamwork is, so in my Industrial Management course, I assign a number of group projects in addition to individual projects. Students generally do well on their individual projects, and since the group assignments and individual assignments require more or less the same content knowledge, you would think that students would do even better on the group projects: after all, there are more people to share the work and generate ideas. Instead, it is just the reverse. Not only do my student groups fail to meet deadlines, but their analyses are also superficial and their projects lack internal coherence. I am not sure what the problem is, but at this point I am tempted to scrap the group projects and go only with individual projects. I just wish someone could explain to me why these groups are less, not more, than a sum of their parts.”

“I just came from the second meeting of my acting class, and I have never felt so frustrated. This is an upper-level course, so by the time students get to my course they have already taken a number of courses in speech, voice, and movement. In other words, they should have a solid grounding in the fundamentals. Yet they make the most elementary mistakes! To give an example, I assigned students an easy scene from a Tennessee Williams play, something they should be able to handle with ease. And yet, a good proportion of the class mangled the Southern accents, dropped props, or mumbled their lines. Not only that, but they completely disregarded two things I know their instructors have emphasized over and over again in the introductory classes: the importance of doing vocal warm-ups and phonetically transcribing all their lines. How can they not know this stuff by now? I know they have learned it, because I have sat in on some of the first- and second-year classes and have been impressed by their skills. So why do they seem to have forgotten everything when they get to my course?”

2. What does research say about this principle?

Let’s start by looking at two figures that the book uses to discuss this research, 4.1 and 4.2:

Figures 4.1 and 4.2

Click to enlarge

Figure 4.1 looks similar to Bloom’s Taxonomy to me and thus felt familiar. Figure 4.2 intrigued me, so I’ll give some more information about this figure. It shows the progression of stages of mastery. The book gives an example of driving. Imagine a new driver first starting out. They not only do not know how to drive, but they don’t even know what knowledge and skills they need to be a successful driver. This is called unconscious incompetence. Conscious incompetence is the next stage. This is where the driver has gained enough experience to know what they still need to learn in order to develop mastery. The next stage of mastery is conscious competence. This stage is where the driver is able to drive considerably well, but must act deliberately and consciously. Lastly, unconscious competence is the stage in mastery in which the skill becomes second nature. All seasoned drivers know the feeling of unconscious competence when driving on a highway with little traffic.

For an instructor, the real power in Figure 4.2 is realizing that you are probably at the fourth stage, unconscious competence, and your students are probably not. If instructors do not realize this, they may have what the book calls an expert blind spot. More on how to avoid this blind spot in the next section.

3. How can instructors teach with this principle in mind?

These are the strategies the book recommends to help students develop mastery and avoid the expert blind spot. The suggestions are headings in the book.

Strategies to Expose and Reinforce Component Skills

  • Push past your own expert blind spot
  • Talk to your colleagues
  • Enlist the help of someone outside your discipline
  • Explore available education materials
  • Focus students’ attention on key aspects of the task
  • Diagnose weak or missing component skills
  • Provide isolated practice of weak or missing skills

Strategies to Build Fluency and Facilitate Integration

  • Give students practice to increase fluency
  • Temporarily constrain the scope of the task
  • Explicitly include integration in your performance criteria

Strategies to Facilitate Transfer

  • Discuss conditions of applicability
  • Give students opportunities to apply skills or knowledge in diverse contexts
  • Ask students to generalize to larger principles
  • Use comparisons to help students identify deep features
  • Specify context and ask students to identify relevant skills
  • Specify skills or knowledge and ask students to identify contexts in which they apply
  • Provide prompts to relevant knowledge

4. How do I plan to incorporate this into my instruction?

This chapter was full of so many useful tidbits of information that I hope to incorporate into my classroom. I think being cognizant of my expert blind spot in all my courses is something that I really took away from this chapter, and I know that speaking to others outside my discipline will help me be aware of this. I also hope to diagnose weak or missing skills early in the semester and provide practice of these skills. In my courses, many of these skills are math-based and I hope to accomplish this goal by incorporating Khan Academy into my classroom.

What about you? How do you help students develop mastery in your courses? Let me know by commenting on this post below.

Join me next time when I examine principle #5: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.

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