Mastery – if we remember nothing, we have learned nothing

[by John Smith]

If we remember nothing, we have learned nothing.  Jo Facer, here.

How many times have you sat at a Parents Evening and uttered words to the effect of “Jimmy gets it in class, he just can’t produce the goods in exams”. Even OFSTED now concede that performance in one lesson is very different to long-term robust retention of information.  Cognitive Science can tell us more than ever before about the differences between short and long-term memory. Furthermore, researchers can tell us which specific techniques we can use as teachers and managers to enable students to shift information from short to long-term memory.

Like Auden’s expensive, delicate ship, the profession sailed calmly on despite something amazing having appeared – in this case, not a boy falling from the sky, but useful research findings   [reference here ]

Mastery is a term that encompasses this area of research – one that I believe is the most credibly tested and verified in the sphere of education.

Willingham et al have usefully summarised practical steps to encourage Mastery Teaching.

For Heads of Department and Managers

  • Distributed or ‘spaced’ learning: designing schemes of work so topics are reviewed and interleaved. The rough ‘rule of 3’ says that if a student is made to recall a fact or technique 3 times, they are significantly more likely to add it to their long term memory.
  • Overlearning: on the same theme – allow for more practice after a concept is learned. The idea, once again, is to move the information from short to long term memory.
  • Frequent Tests: one way to ensure students recall information enough times, in a robust way, is frequent, low-stakes testing.

For all of us

  • Background Knowledge – unless students have a contextual setting for new information, they are unlikely to make links and connections to strengthen new concepts.
  • Concrete Examples – show students exemplars and spend time reviewing ideal responses when giving feedback from homework.
  • Extended Practice – no pain, no gain!

On our Maths Department website, we have written about how research on memory has affected out Departmental systems and practices.

Further Reading

In this post, What is Mastery? , Jo Facer – a former Assistant Principal for Curriculum Design – gives a useful overview of what is known about ‘Mastery’ learning to date. Her full Mastery Handbook can be read here.

Spaced Repetition in the Guardian

Why Mastery Learning may prove to be a bad idea – David Didau (for balance!)

“Constant small successes are the key” – on the blog Horatio Speaks

Mastery Assessment – Joe Kirby

The IES Practice Guide – produced for the US Department of Education

Organizing Instruction and Study – BelmontTeach




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