Feed on

With the recent move to online teaching and news about student grades, the following article written by Judy Ableser might serve as a useful reminder of one of our foundational goals for teaching – Mastery Learning.

Mistakes are Opportunities to Learn: Mastery Learning


Almost forty years ago when I began teaching special education students, we used a model called FIE (Feuerstein’s Instructional Enrichment) (1980; 2004) which focused on helping students see their learning mistakes and guiding them through prompts to relearn or correct the concepts and skills. Years later while observing a student teacher in a classroom, I saw the following poster repeated all along the wall of the classroom: “Mistakes are opportunities to learn”.

Our goal as professors is to ensure that our students master the content and skills (or learning outcomes). Why is it then that we focus more on the grade and not the mastery of the content? Mastery learning ensures that a student has “mastered” a certain level of success prior to moving on to a next level. Feedback, scaffolding and opportunities to relearn and revise are central to the process (Guskey, 2009).

If a student gets a low grade in an assignment or a test but then demonstrates that they have analyzed where went wrong, how to correct their mistake, relearn the material, revise their work, and master the concepts prior to the end of the semester, shouldn’t we acknowledge that with an improved grade? Intensive writing courses frequently use this approach as part of the writing process by having students submit drafts, receive feedback and then revise their work. Graduate students always get feedback on each chapter and revise their work before their dissertation is approved. How can we apply this into other disciplines including STEM courses? Not only will students feel successful because they will earn a higher grade, but we as instructors can feel successful, knowing that by the time the student has completed the course, they have mastered the concepts and skills necessary to move on to the next level.

Suggested Practice

  1. Create a culture and learning environment that values and rewards students for mastery learning and learning from their mistakes. Post signs such as “Mistakes are opportunities to learn”.
  2. Share personal experiences that highlight times that you as an instructor were not initially successful but that you persisted, analyzed what you did wrong and learned from your mistakes. Have students share similar experiences.
  3. Provide assignments and assessments that allow for feedback, analysis of mistakes and revision.
  4. If you give tests, take them up in class and review common patterns of mistakes that students tend to make. Discuss what the mistake was and how this can be corrected.
  5. In smaller classes, work individually with students to diagnose how and why mistakes were made and guide students on how to correct the problems.
  6. Give students an opportunity to retake a different test or assignment that covers the same concepts or skills.


Feuerstein, R., Feuerstein, S., Falik, L & Rand, Y. (1979; 2002). Dynamic assessments of cognitive modifiability. ICELP Press, Jerusalem: Israel

Feuerstein, R. Rand, Y., Hoffman, M.B., & Miller, R. (1980; 2004). Instrumental enrichment: An intervention program for cognitive modifiability. Baltimore, MD. University Park Press. 48

Guskey, T.R.(2009). Mastery Learning in 21st Century education: A reference handbook, vol 1 ed. T.L. Good. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Developed and Written by:

Judy Ableser

Director, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Oakland University

Submitted by:

Carson Running

Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

University of Notre Dame

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