Getting Better: Strive for Mastery of Each Skill

In the books I’ve been reading about developing skills, one idea comes up over and over again. That is to drill on the basics until they are perfect. It is just too hard to build on imperfect or half-learned basics. Math professors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird, authors of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking state that most math professors say that students have trouble in calculus “because they don’t know the basic mathematics they saw in eighth or ninth grade.” You have to master the prerequisite skills before you can hope to do well in one that builds upon them. Burger and Starbird recommend, “In any class, when preparing for you next exam, make sure you can earn a 100% on all the previous exams–if you can’t, then you’re not ready for the test looming in your future.”

Professional athletes and musicians know this. More than once, I’ve read about tennis players, when in slumps, going back to the beginning and practicing and re-mastering the basics. Musicians, I am told, often return to basic chords to perfect them once again. 

Then why are we as students so willing to move on with only partially-learned material under our belts? While 70 percent may be considered passing, it also means that there is 30 percent of the material that you don’t know. And you’re entering the next phase of your course on a less-than-solid foundation. 

Let me give you an example: In my French class, even though I made an A, I was aware that I wasn’t taking the time to learn the gender of each noun. But I was still passing tests, and I just looked up each word when I needed to know the gender on written assignments. Now I’m doing an online program in French, and I have realized that I’m not going to get the adjectives right if I don’t know the noun’s gender. So I’m crashing through the floor of my shaky French foundation. 

Certainly we can never be perfect, and there is nothing wrong in celebrating an A, B, or even C grade if you worked hard to earn it. But to really ensure that you learned the topic, you need to evaluate your the assignment:

  • Work the problems you’ve missed until you have mastered them.
  • Analyze problems in essays. Are you having trouble paraphrasing? Making logical arguments? Are you making the same grammar errors over and over? Then fill in those gaps before the next assignment. 

Think of it as mental athletics if that helps. You got to know the fundamentals before you can win.



One thought on “Getting Better: Strive for Mastery of Each Skill

  1. Long experience has taught me that French-speaking people KNOW that English-speaking people never get the gender of nouns right. And unless your accent is fantabulous, they will know you are an English-speaking person. It may be true that everything worth doing is worth doing well, but not everything is worth doing perfectly.

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