Tag Archives: assignment design

How Do Students Develop Mastery?

Ambrose, Susan A. Bridges, Michael W. DiPietro, Michele Lovett, Marsha C. Norman, Marie K. Mayer, Richard E. (2010). How Learning Works Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chapter 4: How Do Students Develop Mastery?

We recently met with Michael Sweet from the CTL and he recommended this book as a tool to use with faculty when discussing best teaching practices.  Beyond the course transformation work that we’ve discussed previously, CTL is taking active steps to build community around teaching on campus, including the formation of a faculty mentoring initiative with learning communities structured around teaching topics. 

I wanted to take a look at one of the chapters from the book to help everyone around the table gain some familiarity with how the chapters are structured and what faculty might gain from reading it in pieces.  Plus, I figured I’d learn something to improve my teaching in the process.

Each chapter begins by presenting a few teaching scenarios that include problems with student learning problem, followed by a summary of the possible problems.  Then a discussion of the principle of learning that’s at work in these scenario is presented followed by a summary of the research on that principle.  The chapter that outlines teaching strategies suggested by the research, turning the research into practical help with examples.

The book contains a number of appendices that are referenced in the teaching strategies section and that are intended to guide broader teaching strategies, like building effective assessments into a course and using rubrics.

I think I learned more from these 30 pages than I have from almost anything I’ve read in the last year.  The authors do an amazing job of presenting a classroom problem and proposing solutions based on research in clear and convincing language aided by multiple examples.  The chapter is a quick read, but is full of ideas that I’d like to discuss during the RIOT rather than write about here.  I’ll outline a some basic ideas here, but I’d like us to talk about how some of these strategies apply to the one-shot and assignment design consultations.

-Faculty often become frustrated when student performance is disappointing and the faculty member feels like the students should have the skills and knowledge needed to perform well.  The problem is usually that students either lack key component skills, lack experience integrating the use of key component skills that they’ve learned individually, and/or are unable to transfer the key component skills to a new context.

-All of this points to a failure to develop mastery.  The principle of learning for this chapter is stated as:

“To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.”

Research is highlighted in four areas:

Expertise  –
moving along a continuum from
unconscious competence (not knowing what you don’t know)
conscious incompetence (knowing you don’t know and what you need to learn)
conscious competence (knowing a lot, but still having to think about integrating your knowledge — think about driver’s ed)
unconscious competence (knowledge and skills become instinctive and you no longer consciously consider what you know or do)

Component Skills


and Application

I’ll outline more of this research and the related strategies when we meet, but please begin thinking about our role in helping students develop mastery in information literacy and research skills.  Are we effectively teaching students to integrate key component skills?  What are those key component skills? How often are we functioning at the unconscious competence level of expertise and failing to really identify the key component skills that our non-expert students need to learn to complete an assignment?  And perhaps the problem most unique to our teaching situations:  when those necessary skills fall both in our domain and the faculty member’s, how do we build stronger bridges for collaborating on the integration of those skills in assignments and activities?