This free Information Age Education Newsletter
is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online.
In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are
available: Understanding and
Mastering Complexity; Consciousness
and Morality: Recent
an Appropriate 21st Century Education;
and Common Core State
Standards for Education in
This is the fourth in a series of IAE Newsletters focusing on possible
futures of education. The unifying theme is the exploration of changes
to our current system that have a good chance of
substantially improving the education that our students are obtaining.
Education for Students’ Futures:
Part 4: Mastery Learning and Authentic Assessment
University of Oregon
Through learning we become able to do something we
never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and
our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to
create, to be part of the generative process of life. (Peter Senge;
American scientist and director of the Center for Organizational
Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management; 1947–.)
I have enjoyed the writings of Grant Wiggins for many years. This IAE
Newsletter draws heavily from Wiggins’ recent article, “Getting
Students to Mastery: How Good Is Good Enough?” (Wiggins, December
2013/January 2014). His discussion of mastery learning includes a
strong emphasis on using authentic assessment to determine a learner’s
level of mastery.
Wiggins begins his article on mastery learning by using the following
definition from the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary:
MASTERY: An action demonstrating or involving great
skill or power…to
perform a notable deed or wonderful feat. Consummate skill, ability, or
According to this definition, the key idea is performing notable
actions that demonstrate and/or involve great skill or power. This
emphasis on performance is similar to a key aspect of project-based
learning (PBL). A PBL project leads to a product, performance, or
presentation (Moursund, n.d.).
Recently I watched the Winter Olympics. I marveled at the
performances of athletes who exhibit a very high level of mastery in
their particular events. They have achieved this level of mastery
through perhaps 10,000 or more hours of practice under the tutelage of
well-qualified coaches, and they have a high level of natural ability.
I was particularly taken by the world-class ice skaters. Not only had
they mastered a number of different skating elements, they had also
mastered stringing a long sequence of elements into a graceful,
artistic, emotion-laden performance set to music.
However, when we talk about mastery learning, we certainly do not
expect young students to perform at a world-class level. This leaves us
as educators with the challenge of defining what constitutes mastery in
a manner that is appropriate over a huge range of performance areas and
for learners with different levels of physical and mental development.
It also leaves us with the issue of natural ability. To what extent should a definition of mastery take into consideration a student’s physical and mental natural abilities?
Historically, the idea of mastery learning goes back at least a hundred
years (Dewey, 1916; Bloom, 1968, 1971). But these early writers did not
provide solid definitions and measures of mastery. Thus, individual
states, school districts, schools, and teachers were left to create and
implement their own definitions and measures.
Mastery Learning Today
Over the years, mastery has come to mean a specified level of
performance on exams. Quoting again from Wiggins (December,
Numerous writers on and practitioners of mastery learning, for example,
propose that mastery be set locally as a percentage score on any test.
Thus, if you achieved 85 percent or 90 percent on any test of content,
you would be deemed to have demonstrated mastery—no matter how picayune
or low-level the test questions.
And that's where it stands today. Many schools that call themselves
mastery-based (or proficiency-based or competency-based) are using
invalid and unjustified schemes for giving scores and accolades. Rather
than designing backward by establishing complex, worthy, and valid
tasks on which students must demonstrate high-level ability (Wiggins
& McTighe, 2005), schools too often reduce mastery to a high grade
on a simplistic and nonvalidated assessment.
Wiggins attributes major flaws in our current educational system to the
lack of a suitable definition of mastery learning. He notes:
Perhaps as a result of the lack of an overall vision for what
constitutes mastery, education has a long-standing practice of turning
worthy learning goals into lists of bits. One might even say that this
practice is the original sin in curriculum design: Take a complex
whole, divide it into small pieces, string those together in a rigid
sequence of instruction and testing, and call completion of this
sequence "mastery." Although well intentioned, this practice leads to
needlessly fractured, boring, and ultimately ineffective learning that
never prepares students to be fluent and skilled in authentic work.
I consider this to be one of Wiggins’ most powerful observations. In
our efforts to improve education, we have broken the curriculum into
innumerable small pieces that we teach and then test students for
mastery. Some students are able to put the pieces together in a
comprehensive and authentic, useful whole—but the majority cannot. Many
in the latter group of students may well pass all of the tests at a
designated “mastery level” (such as a B grade) but be utterly
unprepared to deal with the related authentic challenges they will face
in higher education and outside of school.
Where Wiggins Would Like Education to be Headed
Wiggins and McTighe (2005) have proposed a definition of mastery they
believe will promote discussion and help improve authentic, mastery
Mastery is effective transfer of learning in authentic and worthy performance.
Students have mastered a subject when they are fluent, even creative,
in using their knowledge, skills, and understanding in key performance
challenges and contexts at the heart of that subject, as measured
against valid and high standards.
Thus, effective transfer of learning, done with creativity, polish, and grace, is the essence of mastery.
Mastery is not just technical knowledge. … You haven't mastered a
subject if you only possess skills and facts in isolation and can only
produce them on demand in response to prompts. Mastery must be tested
using authentic tasks and scenarios at the heart of "doing" the
subject. And instruction for mastery must be designed backward from
these corner stone tasks. [Bold added for emphasis.]
The emphasis is on performance in authentic, worthy tasks. Quoting Wiggins from “The Case for Authentic Assessment” (1990):
Assessment is authentic when we directly examine
student performance on worthy intellectual tasks. Traditional
assessment, by contract, relies on indirect or proxy 'items'—efficient,
simplistic substitutes from which we think valid inferences can be made
about the student's performance at those valued challenges.
Do we want to evaluate student problem-posing and problem-solving in
mathematics? experimental research in science? speaking, listening, and
facilitating a discussion? doing document-based historical inquiry?
thoroughly revising a piece of imaginative writing until it "works" for
the reader? Then let our assessment be built out of such exemplary
In his 2013/2014 article, Wiggins uses the Common Core writing
standards as an example of where schools should be headed. The Common
Core anchor standards in writing (National Governors Association Center
for Best Practice & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010)
specify that students should:
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive
topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient
Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex
ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective
selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or
events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and
well-structured event sequences.
Notice four things:
These are writing performance activities that require higher-order analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
Both the teaching of writing at this level and the assessment of
writing at this level require very well-qualified teachers and
It takes many years of study and practice to develop the needed
level of mastery of the various elements of writing and to combine them
to meet the high standards that are being proposed. Indeed, I suspect
that many college or university graduates might have difficulty in
meeting these proposed standards.
There are a great many jobs and other adult-level tasks that do not require such a high level of writing skill.
Final Remarks: How Do Computers Fit into This?
Here is a definition of lower-order that I use when trying
to emphasize the changes being wrought by Information and Communication
If a computer or computerized machinery can solve a
type of problem or accomplish a type of task, then the problem or task
My point is that lower-order and higher-order need to be defined within
an environment that includes the mind tools that humans have developed.
ICT (including artificially intelligent computers and robots) has
changed the world. Many problems and tasks that once were physically
and mentally challenging are no longer so. Using voice input or a
keyboard to tell a warehouse robot to get a particular item and deliver
it to a shipping station requires neither higher-order thinking nor a
high level of education.
In this warehouse setting, an employer wants to hire an honest,
reliable worker who can consistently and accurately perform the
order-processing task throughout a work shift. An authentic measure of
the education of such a person would focus on things such as being able
to learn to do a new lower-order job, work ethic, reliability, ability
to get along with people (such as fellow employees), reading,
keyboarding and/or using a voice input system, and so on. Notice that
none of these activities require having learned high school algebra and
geometry, or being able to write at the level of the writing standards
This situation reminds me of my youth in Oregon, when physically fit
young men could get a relatively well-paying job working in the lumber
industry. Employers were looking for a combination of brawn and brains
that bore little relationship to what these young men were experiencing
Most of these lumber industry jobs have disappeared, but there still
exist a large number of entry-level low-paying jobs in other areas.
Many employers include “high school graduate” in their requirements and
screening processes. They are looking for the habits of mind,
reliability, punctuality, and stick-to-itiveness associated with
successfully completing high school, rather than any specific knowledge
and skills learned in the process.
My conclusion is that these characteristics are an important area of
authentic mastery learning that need greater emphasis in our informal
and formal educational systems.
Bloom, B. (1968). “Learning for mastery.” Evaluation
comment 1(2). Published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation
and Instructional Programs.
Bloom, B. (1971). “Mastery learning.” In J. Block, ed. Mastery learning: Theory and practice. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: MacMillan.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). College and career readiness anchor standards for writing. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/W.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Expanded ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University
of Oregon. His professional career includes founding the International
Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s
executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship
publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iae-pedia.org/David_Moursund_Books.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in.
If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated
to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog
and the free newsletter you are now reading.