To reach the Mastery level of anything, you go through four stages:
1st stage: unconscious incompetence
2nd stage: conscious incompetence
3rd stage: conscious competence
4th stage: unconscious competence
(1)

Let’s think about learning how to drive. At first, you don’t know how to drive and you do not know what you need to know to be able to drive. This is the first stage. Then you move to the 2nd stage: you still cannot drive, but you know what you need to know. Then by practicing each component skill, you get to the 3rd stage: conscious competence. You can drive, but you still need to think about it: you are conscious about what you are doing, and it is very tiring since it takes up a lot of space in your limited working memory! Then finally, you move to the 4th and final stage: unconscious competence: You can drive without thinking about it. It doesn’t take up much of your limited working memory so that you can do other things while you are driving such as listening to music or talking to your passengers. 

How can you help students to move from the first unconscious incompetence stage to the unconscious competence stage? Here are 5 things instructors can do to help students to get there.

  1. Make the goal very clear

Instructors need to make sure that the students know the goal very clearly. You want to be explicit about the level of fluency. Without an explicitly articulated goal or set of goals, it is hard for students to get there. Therefore, learning objectives, explicit guidelines, criteria, and rubrics are very important for students’ learning.

  1. Deconstruct skills

In his TED Talk, The first 20 hours — how to learn anything, Josh Kaufman said, “most of the things that we think of as skills are actually a big bundle of skills that require all sorts of different things (2).” So the first thing that needs to be done is to deconstruct skills into small component skills. For example, to be able to drive, you need to know the traffic rules, how to accelerate, how to change lanes, etc. However, it is hard for novice drivers to deconstruct driving skills since they do not know what they do not know. So instructors need to help deconstruct the skill you are asking your students to master into smaller component skills. But remember, you are at an unconscious and competent stage. You usually do not think about it. It is actually hard for you to deconstruct the skill too! It is called an expert blind spot (3). If that is the case, you might ask your students who have just finished the course or TAs to help you deconstruct the skills you are trying to teach. That way you won’t miss any component skills that are necessary.

  1. Help them to be aware of what they do not know.

To move from the first unconscious incompetence stage to the 2nd conscious incompetence stage, students need to become aware of what they do not know and what they need to know. Instructors can give them a diagnostic test or assignment early on and find out weak or missing components. There are a lot of ways to do that: you can give students low-/no-stakes retrieval practices by calling information to mind or ask them to create a concept map to see where their knowledge gaps are. This allows not only the instructors, but also the students to become aware of the missing component skills to reach the goal.

  1. Provide students with deliberate practice opportunities

Let’s use the driving analogy again. When you first learned how to drive, did you go to a highway right away? Maybe you practiced at a parking lot. You did that so you could focus on the main component skills without worrying about other cars, road conditions, etc, which are not the main skills. Like practicing in a parking lot, instructors might need to temporarily constrain the scope of the task to reduce the cognitive load for students. Students first need to be able to perform component skills fluently and automatically so that each component skill does not take up too much space in the limited working memory.  

Students need to get engaged with targeted practice and feedback at an appropriate level, which is reasonable but challenging. The practice can neither be too difficult so that they give up, nor too easy so that they get bored. Instructors need to constantly assess students’ progress and provide students with practice opportunities to incorporate the feedback to improve their performance. Ericson and Pool call this targeted practices and feedback deliberate practice and they say that it is the gold standard for mastery (4).

In the early stages, instructors are the ones who evaluate students’ progress and give appropriate feedback and practice, but eventually, the students themselves need to be able to evaluate their own progress. Metacognition — knowing what they know, what they do not know, and how to adjust their learning path — is a proven strategy to increase students’ learning (5).

  1. Facilitate Transfer

Going back to the driving example, being able to drive in the parking lot does not mean you have mastered driving. You cannot go anywhere! So what did you do after you mastered the main component skills? You practiced driving on real roads. You tried driving on various roads and conditions and gradually your driving skill became independent from the original condition or context.  Instructors cannot expect students to be able to transfer their skills and knowledge automatically. For the transfer of learning to happen, students need sufficient opportunities to practice those skills in various conditions and contexts. There are a lot of ways to do this including quizzes and projects. More to come for this topic in future blog articles.  A sufficient quantity of high quality practice is the key to mastery.

To sum up, these are the five things instructors can do to help students reach mastery.
1) Make the goal very clear
2) Deconstruct skills
3) Help them to be aware of what they do not know
4) Provide students with deliberate practice opportunities
5) Facilitate transfer

References

  1. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 91-152.
  2. Kaufman, Josh “The first 20 hours — how to learn anything” TED, Mar 14, 2013,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MgBikgcWnY
  3. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 91-152.
  4. Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016). PEAK: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 84-114.
  5. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 188-216.

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