June 25, 2014 by

Assessing To Mastery

By Laura Greenstein

In a dream, you walk into a hushed testing room, sit down, and have four hours to answer questions unlike any you’ve seen before. For many students, this is their worst nightmare, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Through the routine use of formative assessments, students can make progress towards mastery of all standards. It is in the classroom that teachers can support skill building and nurture growth.

Greenstein quote

When Benjamin Bloom coined the phrase “learning for mastery” in 1968, his intent was to build mastery through feedback and corrective measures. With the right conditions, learners would grow towards proficiency.

This idea supports the common belief that formative assessment is fundamental to success. It is the teacher’s response to evidence of learning that leads to mastery. In the classroom, this can range from fine-grained, minute-by-minute measurements to frequent check-ins on authentic learning to mock-ups of summative tests.

Graphic organizers can help students make connections or recall prior learning that teachers can measure with a pre-assessment at the start of learning. This serves to identify the starting point of mastery.

During learning, planned formative checkins can display student progress or bumps in the road. Filling in empty outlines or adding to graphic organizers helps the teacher and students see growth and gaps. Quick reviews, such as a grab bag match of new vocabulary or posting on Padlet, can illuminate individual and group progress.

After learning, for example, students can take turns explaining it to a martian, use evidence to defend their ideas, or provide a humpty-dumpty summary where they reassemble the steps of a math problem or the parts of a story. (Many of these ideas are in What Teachers Really Need to Know About Formative Assessment.)

As teachers gather evidence of learning, they also select strategies for responding to gaps and misunderstandings. Differentiation may be necessary, scaffolds can support learning, and flexible grouping can target specific needs. Here are a few additional suggestions for guiding students towards mastery.

1. Focusing precisely on specific errors.

When Ms. Em realizes that the majority of her students’ math skills are not sophisticated enough for the addition and subtraction of fractions, she briefly reteaches the whole class and then checks comprehension with a quick, self-graded quiz using Google Forms or Socrative. During learning, students confer to check for understanding, submit “I get/don’t get” slips, and receive targeted feedback, redirection, and support as needed.

2. Adjust pacing and content

Unlike cogs on an assembly line, students bring varied levels of prior knowledge and experience. Starting where they are is essential for success. This means that during some learning segments, a class may move more quickly at some points and slow down at other points. Sequences and depth of content can also be adjusted from simple to complex, understood using acquisition or application, or supported with web-based tutorials such as Visual Math.

3. Select alternative approaches to assessing

An assessment matrix guides students towards assessments that match their needs. Some students need more practice at the knowing level while others are ready to move on to more challenging problems. Assessments can be given in multiple modalities, including audio, video, and visual. Paula Dillon shares many strategies for digital formative assessments at Sophia.

4. Provide Feedback

The effectiveness of feeding up (where are we headed?), feeding back (how are we doing?), and feeding forward (what are the next steps?) is well documented (Hattie, 2008; Hattie and Timperley, 2007). The most effective feedback focuses on the performance, process, and direction of learning and is given in a timely manner that helps students reflect on learning and identify their own next steps.

Purposeful formative assessment supports all standards, guides instructional decision, and informs targeted responses. It provides insights into learning and gives clarity to students’ strengths. It uncovers misunderstandings and guides responses so that gaps are reduced and all learners make progress. It is an essential component of mastery.

More on mastery


Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. UCLAEvaluation Comment, 1(2), 1–12.

Hattie, John. (2008). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. England: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81–112.