Information Age Education
   Issue Number 135
April, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the fourth in a series of IAE Newsletters focusing on possible futures of education. The unifying theme is the exploration of changes to our current system that have a good chance of substantially improving the education that our students are obtaining.

Education for Students’ Futures:
Part 4: Mastery Learning and Authentic Assessment 

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor
University of Oregon

Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. (Peter Senge; American scientist and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management; 1947–.)

I have enjoyed the writings of Grant Wiggins for many years. This IAE Newsletter draws heavily from Wiggins’ recent article, “Getting Students to Mastery: How Good Is Good Enough?” (Wiggins, December 2013/January 2014). His discussion of mastery learning includes a strong emphasis on using authentic assessment to determine a learner’s level of mastery.

Wiggins begins his article on mastery learning by using the following definition from the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary:

MASTERY: An action demonstrating or involving great skill or power…to perform a notable deed or wonderful feat. Consummate skill, ability, or accomplishment.

According to this definition, the key idea is performing notable actions that demonstrate and/or involve great skill or power. This emphasis on performance is similar to a key aspect of project-based learning (PBL). A PBL project leads to a product, performance, or presentation (Moursund, n.d.).


Recently I watched the Winter Olympics. I marveled at the performances of athletes who exhibit a very high level of mastery in their particular events. They have achieved this level of mastery through perhaps 10,000 or more hours of practice under the tutelage of well-qualified coaches, and they have a high level of natural ability.

I was particularly taken by the world-class ice skaters. Not only had they mastered a number of different skating elements, they had also mastered stringing a long sequence of elements into a graceful, artistic, emotion-laden performance set to music.

However, when we talk about mastery learning, we certainly do not expect young students to perform at a world-class level. This leaves us as educators with the challenge of defining what constitutes mastery in a manner that is appropriate over a huge range of performance areas and for learners with different levels of physical and mental development. It also leaves us with the issue of natural ability. To what extent should a definition of mastery take into consideration a student’s physical and mental natural abilities?

Historically, the idea of mastery learning goes back at least a hundred years (Dewey, 1916; Bloom, 1968, 1971). But these early writers did not provide solid definitions and measures of mastery. Thus, individual states, school districts, schools, and teachers were left to create and implement their own definitions and measures.

Mastery Learning Today

Over the years, mastery has come to mean a specified level of performance on exams. Quoting again from Wiggins (December, 2013/January, 2014):

Numerous writers on and practitioners of mastery learning, for example, propose that mastery be set locally as a percentage score on any test. Thus, if you achieved 85 percent or 90 percent on any test of content, you would be deemed to have demonstrated mastery—no matter how picayune or low-level the test questions.

And that's where it stands today. Many schools that call themselves mastery-based (or proficiency-based or competency-based) are using invalid and unjustified schemes for giving scores and accolades. Rather than designing backward by establishing complex, worthy, and valid tasks on which students must demonstrate high-level ability (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), schools too often reduce mastery to a high grade on a simplistic and nonvalidated assessment.

Wiggins attributes major flaws in our current educational system to the lack of a suitable definition of mastery learning. He notes:

Perhaps as a result of the lack of an overall vision for what constitutes mastery, education has a long-standing practice of turning worthy learning goals into lists of bits. One might even say that this practice is the original sin in curriculum design: Take a complex whole, divide it into small pieces, string those together in a rigid sequence of instruction and testing, and call completion of this sequence "mastery." Although well intentioned, this practice leads to needlessly fractured, boring, and ultimately ineffective learning that never prepares students to be fluent and skilled in authentic work.

I consider this to be one of Wiggins’ most powerful observations. In our efforts to improve education, we have broken the curriculum into innumerable small pieces that we teach and then test students for mastery. Some students are able to put the pieces together in a comprehensive and authentic, useful whole—but the majority cannot. Many in the latter group of students may well pass all of the tests at a designated “mastery level” (such as a B grade) but be utterly unprepared to deal with the related authentic challenges they will face in higher education and outside of school.

Where Wiggins Would Like Education to be Headed

Wiggins and McTighe (2005) have proposed a definition of mastery they believe will promote discussion and help improve authentic, mastery learning.

Mastery is effective transfer of learning in authentic and worthy performance. Students have mastered a subject when they are fluent, even creative, in using their knowledge, skills, and understanding in key performance challenges and contexts at the heart of that subject, as measured against valid and high standards.

Thus, effective transfer of learning, done with creativity, polish, and grace, is the essence of mastery. Mastery is not just technical knowledge. … You haven't mastered a subject if you only possess skills and facts in isolation and can only produce them on demand in response to prompts. Mastery must be tested using authentic tasks and scenarios at the heart of "doing" the subject. And instruction for mastery must be designed backward from these corner stone tasks. [Bold added for emphasis.]

The emphasis is on performance in authentic, worthy tasks. Quoting Wiggins from “The Case for Authentic Assessment” (1990):

Assessment is authentic when we directly examine student performance on worthy intellectual tasks. Traditional assessment, by contract, relies on indirect or proxy 'items'—efficient, simplistic substitutes from which we think valid inferences can be made about the student's performance at those valued challenges.

Do we want to evaluate student problem-posing and problem-solving in mathematics? experimental research in science? speaking, listening, and facilitating a discussion? doing document-based historical inquiry? thoroughly revising a piece of imaginative writing until it "works" for the reader? Then let our assessment be built out of such exemplary intellectual challenges.

In his 2013/2014 article, Wiggins uses the Common Core writing standards as an example of where schools should be headed. The Common Core anchor standards in writing (National Governors Association Center for Best Practice & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) specify that students should:
  • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Notice four things:
  1. These are writing performance activities that require higher-order analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

  2. Both the teaching of writing at this level and the assessment of writing at this level require very well-qualified teachers and individualized feedback.

  3. It takes many years of study and practice to develop the needed level of mastery of the various elements of writing and to combine them to meet the high standards that are being proposed. Indeed, I suspect that many college or university graduates might have difficulty in meeting these proposed standards.

  4. There are a great many jobs and other adult-level tasks that do not require such a high level of writing skill.
Final Remarks: How Do Computers Fit into This?

Here is a definition of lower-order that I use when trying to emphasize the changes being wrought by Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

If a computer or computerized machinery can solve a type of problem or accomplish a type of task, then the problem or task is lower-order.

My point is that lower-order and higher-order need to be defined within an environment that includes the mind tools that humans have developed. ICT (including artificially intelligent computers and robots) has changed the world. Many problems and tasks that once were physically and mentally challenging are no longer so. Using voice input or a keyboard to tell a warehouse robot to get a particular item and deliver it to a shipping station requires neither higher-order thinking nor a high level of education.

In this warehouse setting, an employer wants to hire an honest, reliable worker who can consistently and accurately perform the order-processing task throughout a work shift. An authentic measure of the education of such a person would focus on things such as being able to learn to do a new lower-order job, work ethic, reliability, ability to get along with people (such as fellow employees), reading, keyboarding and/or using a voice input system, and so on. Notice that none of these activities require having learned high school algebra and geometry, or being able to write at the level of the writing standards discussed earlier.

This situation reminds me of my youth in Oregon, when physically fit young men could get a relatively well-paying job working in the lumber industry. Employers were looking for a combination of brawn and brains that bore little relationship to what these young men were experiencing in school.

Most of these lumber industry jobs have disappeared, but there still exist a large number of entry-level low-paying jobs in other areas. Many employers include “high school graduate” in their requirements and screening processes. They are looking for the habits of mind, reliability, punctuality, and stick-to-itiveness associated with successfully completing high school, rather than any specific knowledge and skills learned in the process.

My conclusion is that these characteristics are an important area of authentic mastery learning that need greater emphasis in our informal and formal educational systems.


Bloom, B. (1968). “Learning for mastery.” Evaluation comment 1(2). Published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation and Instructional Programs.

Bloom, B. (1971). “Mastery learning.” In J. Block, ed. Mastery learning: Theory and practice. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: MacMillan.

Moursund, D. (2013). “Education for increasing expertise.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/23/2014 from

Moursund, D. (n.d.). “Project-based learning.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 3/16/2014 from

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). College and career readiness anchor standards for writing. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G. (1990). “The case for authentic assessment.” Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation. Retrieved March 17, 2014 from

Wiggins, G. (December, 2013/January, 2014). “Getting students to mastery: How good is good enough?” ASCD Educational Leadership. Retrieved 2/16/2014 from

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Expanded ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See

In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See Email:

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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.