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How learning works in the Greek and Latin classroom, part 5

This month’s column is the fifth part in a series I’m posting every other month about how we can apply and see in action the 7 principles of research-based pedagogy described in the excellent book How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose, et al.  Last time was prior knowledge.  Before that came practice and feedback, motivation, and knowledge organization.  This month’s topic: mastery, ch. 4 of the book.

When faced with a practice sentence from the last chapter of an elementary Greek or Latin textbook, an expert classicist is generally able to comprehend or translate it with ease — for the expert, a simple task.  But for the Greek or Latin learner, successful comprehension and translation requires a studied grasp of recently and long-ago introduced vocabulary, morphology, and syntax, all working in tandem.  As How Learning Works puts it, “tasks that seem simple and straightforward to instructors often involve a complex combination of skills,” and doing those tasks well involves the fluent integration of knowledge of facts, skills, procedures, and when to use them (p. 94).  That integration is mastery, the ultimate goal of most language education.

The automatic way in which experts process the component skills of complex tasks — seeing ψυχῆς in a sentence and immediately recognizing it as the genitive singular of the feminine noun meaning soul/breath/animating force, for instance – can present an obstacle to the instruction of novices.  Sprague & Stewart define the development of mastery as moving from unconscious incompetence (brand-new learners do not know what tasks are required for mastery or how to do them) to conscious incompetence (awareness of the skills needed without ability to do all of them) to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence, where the skills are so natural or ingrained that the components of a complex task may not all be readily apparent even during the task’s performance.  (“Known knowns,” anyone?)

As a result of this unconscious competence, instructors often suffer from “expert blind spots” about what students might have trouble with (for the concept, Ambrose et al. cite most recently Nathan & Petrosino [PDF]).  Such blind spots make it harder to break a complex skill down into component parts while leaving experts prone both to underestimating the time it will take students to complete a task and to overestimating students’ ability to recognize the relevance of skills they already have to the task at hand.  The basic solution to this problem is to get fresh sets of eyes — advanced undergraduates, grad student TAs, faculty from other disciplines — to help identify what in the instructional materials needs more explanation or breaking down.

A major challenge for novices in gaining mastery over complex tasks is “cognitive load.”  Human brains are not effective at multitasking, and each component of a task demands a portion of our processing capability.  The inclusion of too many demanding components will affect overall performance.  The practice sentences in the Bradley’s Arnold Latin prose composition textbook provide a perfect example of a high-cognitive-load task: the exercises do not focus only on the newly introduced material, but rather expect students also to have complete and automatized control over all material previously covered (and sometimes material not yet encountered).  The result is frequently that students translating these sentences make many mistakes, both on the subject matter of the current lesson and on material they previously had gotten a good handle on.  Experts do better in these situations not because they can handle a higher cognitive load but because their fluency in component skills means that the task itself carries a lower cognitive load on the whole.  But ask an expert classicist to perform a complex task from another discipline (such as solving a differential equation) and the task’s cognitive load will be overwhelming.

Two techniques can help us mitigate the problem of cognitive load for our students.  First, as Lovett [PDF] has shown, “even a small amount of focused practice on key component skills had a profound effect on overall performance.”  Drilling of components or of simple whole tasks is essential to develop the automaticity that lowers cognitive load and leads to mastery.  Even cutting-edge modern-language pedagogy still depends on drilling and memorizing verb conjugations and the like.  Focused practice of individual task components needs to be followed by progressive combination and integration into complex tasks, and for advanced learners the simple drilling in isolation can do more harm than good [PDF].  Second, students benefit from targeted and especially scaffolded practice (i.e., exercises focusing on one component task, with the other tasks removed or already completed for the students).

The final main difficulty in developing mastery is the “transfer problem”.  Ambrose et al. explain that learners can have trouble applying (and knowing when to apply) the skills they have to relevant tasks, whether because of “context dependence” (p. 109: they only associate the skill with the narrow setting/task type in which they learned it) or because they do not understand why it is relevant or appropriate to apply those skills in this situation.  The transfer problem is currently a matter of great concern in writing instruction in particular, and is an especially intractable one for all kinds of instruction.

Numerous tools both contextual and practical exist for addressing the transfer problem.  Students can conceptualize the need for transfer through structured comparisons that call for the same knowledge to be employed in different contexts, through analogy, through visual representations, and by generalizing from examples to underlying principles of application.  For instance, students working on the Latin sequence of tenses can study the rules as they play out in a variety of example sentences, make charts and creative versions of the rules, or decipher the patterns of subjunctive tense usage from excerpts of authentic Latin authors.

On the practical side of teaching for transfer, a wise starting point is diagnostic testing to find weak or missing component skills — in other words, to assess students’ prior knowledge — and isolated practice to strengthen and develop fluency/automaticity in those weak points.  (It is important also to explain why drilling is valuable, why automaticity is important to mastery.)  As students enter new contexts, prompts about what they already know can help them draw on relevant knowledge and skills.  Particularly beneficial is to practice application in diverse contexts, in concert with discussing the conditions of applicability (i.e., when certain knowledge and skills are relevant).  In the example of the sequence of tenses, students can be prompted when learning indirect question to think about subjunctive tense-usage patterns they have already learned in connection with purpose and result clauses, can discuss what tenses are likely to appear in relative clauses that use the subjunctive, or can explore situations where the sequence of tenses is not applicable.

As with some of the other elements of how learning works, when it comes to mastery many best practices match what we teachers of Greek and Latin already do.  But there is added value in knowing the principles that underlie these practices and in implementing them consciously and comprehensively.  For our students to develop mastery over the languages we teach, we should ourselves master the components of effective language pedagogy.

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad's picture

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Editor-in-Chief of the SCS Blog and Associate Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Satire and Plautus: Curculio. He can be contacted at

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