Empowering Learners to Define Mastery

Technology has allowed everyone with internet to have access to high quality, often free, learning opportunities on almost any subject they are interested in. MOOC’s, OERs (open educational resources) and even YouTube make learning possible anywhere, anytime and on any device. But who decides what mastery in a subject looks like? Each institution has it’s own measures and accepts a variety of different forms of evidence to show that a student has completed the necessary work to have achieved mastery, but does that mean every student across the world who is learning about Ethics, Digital Education, Engineering or basket weaving has the same set of skills and understandings at the same level of mastery? As our students become more and more autonomous in the choices they can make about their education it’s imperative that they feel they are empowered to also make choices about how they reach their goals, how they measure their own success and how they participate with others in their learning and possibly how they measure their own mastery of a subject.

My initial trigger question related to the ISTE Standard of the student as an Empowered Learner (2016) was “How can we help students (at HS level especially) recognize what “competency” or “mastery” looks like and how to help them identify what evidence will demonstrate competency in their learning goals?”. My research lead me to a few articles on mastery which made it clear to me that even adults can’t agree on one particular definition or what evidence would look like so I turned to something closer to the classroom which was involving students in the process of creating project rubrics to evaluate their evidence.

When you read the ISTE standards, the first indicator, 1a, states that students can “articulate and set personal learning goals, develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve them and reflect on their learning process itself to improve learning outcomes.” There is a definite qualitative feel to that statement and they could be done quite differently, be defined quite differently and require very different evidence from classroom to classroom. It’s not realistic to expect all teachers to teach these standards in the same way but I believe that what is important is that we come to common agreements with our students in our classrooms about what they mean. One way to do that is to involve them in the process of defining what mastery means and what evidence would be acceptable to show their learning. Kivunja’s (2014) article on supporting autonomy in the classroom also points out that “cognitive autonomy support may have more long-lasting effects on engagement and motivation” and thinking about what mastery looks like is cognitive work worth doing with students.

The article “The Power of Student Built Rubrics” did a good job of introducing the idea of rubrics to students. The author, Liz Prather, explained how she realized why it was important to include students in the process and talked about how she went about teaching her students to build them. She included some very insightful responses from students after going through the process that reminded me that there will always be a lot of subjectivity to the evaluation of written work especially. A concept like ‘style’ in writing could mean slightly different things to different people. It’s the act of joining in a dialogue with her students about what quality work looks like that ultimately can help her students decide what competency or mastery will look like for themselves.


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