4 Key Elements for Achieving Content Knowledge Mastery

This week, we wrap up our third month of the Summit Sparks podcast. We reflect on this month’s guest interviews and share out the common themes and patterns around Content Knowledge, including four key elements for helping all students achieve content knowledge mastery.

1. Student Ownership of Learning

To truly master content, kids need to have the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning, a lesson that Chris Ivens — the parent of Autumn Ivens, a student who used the Summit Learning approach for the first time in 7th grade — learned earlier than some parents:

“Looking back big picture, her motivation for learning went from being external — relying on my wife and I [sic] or the teacher or telling her to do certain things or whatever — to internal. She took responsibility…. You don’t have to wait until college to give away the motivation for your kid to really get educated and really take responsibility for what they’re learning. You can do that now. And it’s amazing.”

Students who don’t achieve a goal in a key focus area might fall short, and that’s okay. What we’re learning from scientists, and something that good educators have known for years, is that learning is a cyclical process, and that every failure is an opportunity to go back, rethink your strategy for learning, set a new goal, and try again. 

2. Social Scaffolds and Support

Learning new content is not a solitary process. Some of us grow up and master crafts that lend themselves to solitary work, but the majority of work done in this world rests on exchange of ideas and collaboration, and the path towards mastery is one built on social intelligence.

We learn new content the same way we’ve done since we were very young, says Stanford’s Dan Schwartz — by observing, by asking good questions, and by teaching others:

“Take the case of peer tutoring where an older kid tutors a younger kid. This is really successful. The reason is, it’s a confluence of all these great social features. The kid is getting immediate feedback. He is having a chance to explain his or her reasoning to a peer. The peer is an older student, so they look up to them and kind of want to be around the older student. There’s all these things that are conspiring for very effective interaction…”

Peer tutoring is one of several socially-based learning strategies that teacher Tammy Penney uses during Personalized Learning Time in her 7th grade English and history classrooms.

3. Ongoing and Targeted Feedback

Immediate feedback is the best way to refine and reach mastery. The ability for teachers and students to now use technologies — like Google Docs for content creation and collaboration, Khan Academy videos for processing and practicing difficult concepts, and the Summit Learning Platform for taking content assessments and receiving real-time feedback — augments teachers’ abilities to reach a diverse set of learners. Rather than using a one-size-fits-most approach for teaching content, teachers have more time for targeted feedback for individual students. 

Eighth grade Teacher Sarah White told us how having organized access to students’ assessment data via the Platform, combined with daily observations and weekly mentoring sessions, helps her address individual or small group learning gaps:

“Lots of students think that by looking at notes on a screen or …on paper, that’s studying. But we really get to have a conversation about how it involves so much more than just looking at something; that you really have to be an active learner and you have to do something with the notes you’ve taken.”

Designing and implementing targeted study groups and small-group workshops is one best practice used by many educators who have adapted the Summit Learning approach for their grade-level or classroom community.

4. Voice and Choice

As a strategic learning tool, technology can provide a certain amount of freedom in how students choose to access content and how quickly they learn. It’s certainly not a means to an end, just one important tool that educators and learners have in their toolbox.

The flexibility to learn at an individual pace and to have some control over how we access content feeds into a larger, more important theme — that learner voice and choice is at the heart of a personalized learning experience.

Dr. Matt Doyle, assistant superintendent of innovation for California’s Vista Unified School District, worked for over a decade in the classroom, primarily with English learners, and found that voice and choice are essential for engaging students in the curriculum:

“What we’ve found is that by creating space for students to feel like they have more voice and that there’s more opportunity for co-creation, student to teacher, that the student level of engagement goes up. There’s a direct correlation between student’s level engagement and the student’s level of academic achievement.”

And setting students up so that they feel compelled to invest in their own learning is, arguably, the key to them mastering the key content standards and focus areas that we, as a society, find so valuable.

Want to learn more about Content Knowledge and the other three Summit Learning student outcomes? Download our white paper, The Science of Summit, or the condensed guide, for a deeper dive. 

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About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.