1-5 Mastery Learning

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I started to try to take physics in my Senior year of high school, but I was flunking so badly, they finally took me out of the class. There's all sorts of evidence of how, once you begin practicing in some area, your brain starts to develop the new neural architecture that supports your learning. But he'd spent several years studying for the London taxi driver's examination, which is a very intense test where thousands of different routes must be internalized.

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I started to try to take physics in my Senior year of high school, but I was flunking so badly, they finally took me out of the class. I stayed away from science and math as much as I possibly could. Why would I punish myself by trying to study subjects I obviously had no talent for? Of course, the fact that I’m now a professor of engineering tells you I was dead wrong about what I could develop a talent for. Some people do find some subjects easier to learn than others. But say, if your brother seems naturally smarter than you at math, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn the subject yourself. In fact, you may actually sometimes be even more creative than your brother with math, because you’re using a different set of neural circuits than he is. When we go through school, we tend to focus on areas that we’re thought to be good at. If we happen to find math easy and English more difficult, for example, we’ll tend to take more math courses, if we can, and take fewer English courses. After all, taking English could hurt our grade point average. And if we’re better at English, and not so good at math, we’ll focus on English courses and skip the math. This means we tend to get more practice at what we’re already kind of good at, so we get even better at it. But the flip side is, we don’t get as much practice in other areas and so we tend to lag behind in them. And if we do go to college, where we have to pick a major, this tendency is sharpened even further. All this relates to a concept called mastery learning. In old-fashioned instruction, the kind you’ve probably experienced in school, all the students in a class are given the same amount of instruction time to learn the material. In mastery learning, on the other hand, it’s understood that different students may need different amounts of instruction time and different amounts of practice in order to master the material, even though they all eventually do master the material. In fact, research is showing the value of mastery learning, where you can retake quiz variants over and over again, until you feel comfortable with the material. You can re-watch lectures if you need to, or even get different explanations of the material. This approach, as researchers are discovering, is one of the best methods for helping people to gain expertise, even with material they never thought they could learn before. There’s all sorts of evidence of how, once you begin practicing in some area, your brain starts to develop the new neural architecture that supports your learning. I once met a taxi driver in London who’d been a complete failure in high school. But he’d spent several years studying for the London taxi driver’s examination, which is a very intense test where thousands of different routes must be internalized. After he passed, he began realizing that his brain seemed different. He could focus and concentrate more effectively. And indeed, research has shown that by studying for the London taxi driver test and then actually practicing his spatial abilities as a driver, this fellow was able to fundamentally change his brain, increasing the size of his hippocampus, an important area in learning. What’s great is that these new forms of online learning, such as MOOCs like this one, allow for mastery learning. In fact, you can actually even flunk classes completely and still turn out to be a successful learner. Pat Bowden, for example, is a retired bank officer from Queensland, Australia. Her husband mentioned MOOC-taking as a hobby for her retirement. Pat saw it as a chance to learn about and master subjects she hadn’t been able to study when she was younger.

I’ve always been interested in astronomy, so I decided to do an astronomy MOOC. Soon we were into forces, gravity, and sending rockets to Mars. By week two, I was lost. I hadn’t done any physics for 40 years and failed the course. But it didn’t stop me. Instead of complex calculations, I let the heavy physics flow right past as I chose which videos to watch purely for interest. It was enlightening to realize I didn’t have to pass the course. I could still learn something from it. Later I tried another astronomy course, and then another, and yes, finally I passed. Sometimes, I take a MOOC more than once to consolidate my knowledge. Completing a course is very fulfilling, but no one else needs to know if you give up on one. Taking notes really helps me understand and get more out of a course. So far, I’ve completed 71 MOOCs, and failed or not finished about 15 more.

And Do Edmond Sanou is a third-year statistics student from Burkina Faso.

Online classes are both interesting and relaxing. I choose when I want to take classes. I can also replay videos until I understand the key ideas. I can’t do that with my teachers in a regular class. Online is the best way I found to learn new skills.

Overall, then, it helps to remember that any kind of learning is a little bit like learning to drive a car. You may not have the abilities of Ayrton Senna, the brilliant Brazilian race car driver who, after a lot of practice, became one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time. But that certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t learn to drive if you have the opportunity. Some people may take longer to learn to drive than others. But most people, including me, can learn to drive. And you can use those driving skills to drive to some wonderful places. Learning is for everyone, and online learning makes some of the best approaches to learning, like mastery learning, much easier.

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