How can you tell when a student has mastered a skill?

How can you tell whether someone has truly mastered a skill? What is the measurable indicator that a person really knows how to do something? These questions should be at the heart of every teaching decision . . . and every evaluation we make about the success of an educational program. Yet for many educators, and certainly for most parents, answers to these questions are anything but clear. Most of us have grown up in a “percentage correct world” where 100% correct is the best anyone can do. But is perfect accuracy the definition of mastery? . . . In fact, we see many children and adults who can perform skills and demonstrate knowledge accurately enough – given unlimited time to do so. But the real difference that we see in expert performers is that they behave fluently – both accurately and quickly, without hesitation.

We all know fluency when we see it in a foreign language speaker. . . . It’s not just about saying the correct words. It’s also about achieving a useful pace or speed of performance. We have little difficulty recognizing a masterful athletic or musical performance. [Great athletes and musicians] have at least one thing in common: performances that are undeniably fluent. They all make the right moves without hesitation. . . . Even in people who are less well known . . . , we recognize fluency as the hallmark of competence. Skilled computer users, mental mathematicians, or expressive readers share that combination of getting it right with ease and fluidity that characterizes all genuinely accomplished people.

Fluency goes beyond mere accuracy to include the pace, or speed of performance. On a continuum from a total lack of measurable performance to mastery, 100% correct is only part of the way there.

Can you demonstrate how it looks to perform at 75% correct? Can you visualize a 90% correct performance? The answer is “No.”. That is because with a percentage correct score, we . . . can’t tell how much time was required to complete the work (was it 10 seconds, 1 minute, 10 minutes?). Therefore, we cannot possibly demonstrate or imitate the performance because a percentage correct score lacks the time-based information that would allow us to duplicate it.

This lack of essential information built into percentage correct evaluation is at the heart of many educational failures. Since most educational assessment uses accuracy-only, it cannot show any difference between accurate but struggling performance, and fluent performance.

Fluency: Achieving True Mastery in the Learning Process by Carl Binder, Elizabeth Houghton, and Barbara Bateman 2002 

Mastery means fluency.