Focusing on Mastery

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One of the distinguishing factors of a student-centered deeper learning approach is a seismic shift in the purpose of assessment away from accountability measures designed to rank and sort students and toward performance assessments that diagnose student learning needs, promote skill acquisition, and move students toward mastery. You can look there to check this learning tasks. These productive learning tasks enhance the learning process so that students can gauge their progress, providing vital feedback that helps orient teachers and students. 

A key to this approach is a focus on mastery, which shifts the purpose of instruction from task completion to deeper learning. For example, at Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch, California, teachers use assessments to gauge students’ progress in meeting academic standards, with an eye toward reaching a mastery level. A school staff member explains: 

We look for opportunities for students to re-learn and redo. Are the students learning and mastering the concepts that we want them to? If not, how can we give them the opportunities to learn? It is about meeting the standards or trying again. Not everyone learns at the same pace. 

This perspective is diametrically opposed to schools with pacing guides or a focus on getting through the curriculum rather than making sure students learn the curriculum. 

Such approaches make failure almost inevitable for students who start with less prior knowledge or learn at a slower pace, and thus never have the chance to fully grasp the introductory material that undergirds the more advanced concepts they encounter later on. In contrast, a focus on mastery, which emphasizes practice and revision of work, is fundamentally student-centered, for it ensures that students acquire the essential skills they will need in order to acquire more complex skills and abilities. 



Schools that teach for deeper learning gauge mastery through assessments that reflect the kinds of literacy, mathematics, and analytical tasks found in higher education and the work world. Assessments such as Socratic seminars, exhibitions, and projects result in tangible products and encourage learners to draw on multiple kinds of knowledge in order to demonstrate higher order and integrated learning. Often these schools require students to gather their work in portfolios designed to display their best work in a cumulative fashion and illustrate the range of skills they have mastered. 

Many schools use exhibitions as a way for students to demonstrate their learning, often across disciplines, and practice their communication skills. At City Arts and Technology Academy in San Francisco, students do at least one exhibition every year. Tenth-grade students prepare an exhibition on Animal Farm, in which they conduct a literary analysis in English class, study the Russian Revolution in history class, and create a poster of the novel’s symbols in art class. They present this work to an audience that includes parents and community members, who vote on the best citizen and leader in the novel. Exhibitions enable students to see the connections between their courses and understand how the knowledge acquired in one domain (history) can be relevant to what they learn in another (literature and art).

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