What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

by | Feb 25, 2014 | Effective Practice

One of the problems with a conception of learning that is focused on ‘understanding’ is that it concentrates the notion of learning in the mind. From an empirical point of view, the mind of the learner is to some extent a ‘black box’. We can only infer what is going on in the mind from what we observe – what learners tell us, or what they do.  ‘Fluency of understanding’ or ‘mastery of concepts’ cannot be directly observed. Any useful conception of mastery needs to be based on what is observable and measurable.

Violin closeup

When we look at what students do, instead of what we think they understand, or what we think they ‘can’ or ‘can’t’ do, we find that we can in fact measure learning across a number of dimensions:

The mode students need to respond to (see, hear, touch)

The mode students need to respond in (say, do, write)

The accuracy of responses (e.g as a percentage)

The fluency of responses (as a rate per minute)

The endurance of responses (how long does the student continue to perform the action?)

The retention of responses (how accurately and fluently can the action be recalled over time?)

Runners - female

Those researchers who have persevered with this empirical approach have made remarkable discoveries about learning – discoveries which, unfortunately,  have been largely ignored by ‘mainstream’ education. The reasons for this educational cold shoulder would require a book, not a blog post, and will not be explored here. The point of this post is to highlight some useful findings. For example, Binder, Haughton and Bateman (2002) set out widely accepted fluency ranges for mastery, such as:


To recall basic maths facts including multiplication, and to combine this knowledge with other skills successfully, students need to write or say aloud 70 – 100 answers per minute.


Reading fluently is essential to comprehension. A Year 6 student needs a rate of reading aloud at 150 words per minute. This seems very fast but is entirely achievable. Repeated reading can be used to build fluency in this way.


For fast, accurate handwriting, the range for mastery is between 80 – 120 characters per minute.

Such criteria provide benchmarks for ‘powerful’ learning – learning which will enable students to progress much more rapidly because ‘tool skills’ have been built to a useful level of fluency (Binder and Watkins, 1990).

Painting Fritillaries in a Copper Vase - Van Gogh

Incorporating this knowledge into daily teaching requires a fundamental change in the way teachers see learning. The challenge lies more in teachers’ beliefs than in changing practice: it has been demonstrated that only a small amount of daily time devoted to building fluency can make an enormous difference to students’ learning trajectories. Researchers have discovered and confirmed over decades that many ‘learning disabilities’ can be eliminated by incorporating fluency aims and practice into the daily curriculum, with minimal cost in time or materials. When students become fluent, many of these so-called ‘disabilities’ disappear.

When we consider the billions the government is spending on Pupil Premium Funding, it is alarming that there is no requirement for schools to ensure that students have reached well-established performance criteria by specific stages of the curriculum. Doing so would eliminate the need for many of the interventions currently prevalent in UK education.



Binder C, Haughton E, & Bateman B (2002) Fluency: Achieving True Mastery In The Learning Process. Curry School of Education: University of Virginia. Retrieved from http://binde1.verio.com/wb_fluency.org/Publications/BinderHaughtonBateman2002.pdf

Binder, C, and Watkins, C L (1990) Precision Teaching and Direct Instruction: Measurably superior instructional technology in schools. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 3 (4), 74-96. Retrieved from http://www.behavior.org/resources/295.pdf

You may also be interested in:

A Matter of Sensitivity

The Case for Design in Curriculum

Can’t Read, Won’t Read


Join Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to keep up to date with our upcoming events

Invalid email address
We promise not to spam you. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Related Posts