Teach for Subject Mastery

Too often courses are taught in a way to have students go for the grade instead of mastering a particular subject. As teachers, we need to teach for subject mastery for each course’s particular subject before building on that mastery to understand further aspects of the chosen subject. For example, in computer science it is important for students the general purpose for telling a computer what to do before learning the basic syntax of any computer programming language. After learning the basic syntax of a particular language, students can then progress to learn progressively more complex constructs.

To teach a student how to master a subject, the teacher needs to master each concept before it is taught. Students are intelligent, they know when a teacher is spewing untruths or exaggerations. Middle school students are usually more honest and will say something to the teacher. Just because a student does not say anything does not mean they do not notice.

Teaching How to Learn

Teaching students how to learn is just as important as teaching the material. If students know how to learn, it makes teaching so much easier. The only downside is that some subjects learn quickly, so teachers need to at least keep up with the student. When one student masters a topic that needs to be taught, if they would like to do so, I sometime let them coteach that particular topic. It gives that student confidence and provides another person from whom the students are able to learn.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy is a good way to help students achieve a higher level of learning. Vanderbilt University has a good history of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The taxonomy can be considered a pyramid with remembering the facts as the first step and going up to the Create stage. The diagrams from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching is:

The higher we can get ourselves up this pyramid, the more opportunities we have to help our students progress as far. In an ideal world, out students will progress far beyond what we teach them.

Knowing can Lead to Mastering

Salman “Sal” Amin Khan is an educator who started tutoring his nephew and posting these videos to YouTube. When he realized that more people than just his relatives were watching his videos, he created the Khan Academy where people can go for tutoring help on a growing number of topics. His concept of mastering material is a shift from the typical semester-based teaching which is done in most schools. Schools are limited by the calendar, so the key is to modify courses to help students master the subject in the given amount of time. The teacher cannot do all of the work of helping each student, so students need to be encouraged to help each other master the material. Sal Khan gave an informative TED Talk giving his ideas of how this might be accomplished.

Sal Khan TED Talk – Let’s Teach for Mastery

Communication and Personal Responsibility

We are each responsible for our own mastering of any topic. We must have passion for a topic and perseverance to teach it well. This sometimes referred to as “Grit.” Having passion for a topic makes helping students internalize the material so much easier. Another aspect to helping students to master a subject is to show you care. Remember: “things break, “Things Break, People Matter.” Helping student gain a love for the subject and gain mastery on their own helps the class and the instructor. When I have some students who know the material and are willing to help other students, this frees up my time to help those who may be struggling to understand what is being taught. Use all available resources wisely.


In each class, there are teacher responsibilities, student responsibilities, and mutual responsibilities. It is best to plot out these responsibilities. I used a column chart to do this. It could also be done in a Venn diagram. Creating a diagram like this does help us teach to subject mastery.


Assessments too often require memorization of facts that do not help the student learn for subject mastery. It is important to assess learning, but I do it through an additional assignment for each lesson that the student should be able to do on their own. Teaching for Subject Mastery should limit memorization for the purpose of “regurgitating facts without understanding what those facts mean and how to use them. Eric Mazur created a interesting video entitle “Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning.”


Much of the material in this article is based on what I have been recently learning. This knowledge has been supplemented by a class for teachers about Online Learning., taught at Front Range Community College in Colorado.

When we teach for subject mastery, students earn better grades in the current class. They will have the knowledge base to do well with future classes in the same or similar subject areas. Be patient but expect much. High expectations paired with good communication skills and transferring a deep understanding of the course material achieves wonderful results both for the teacher and the students.

This entry was posted in Bloom's Taxonomy, Communication, Mastery, Teaching, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.