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a student writing mathematical formulas on a glass board
Illustration of a brain lifting weights
Illustration of a brain lifting weights


The brain’s ability to perform complex memory tasks improves during adolescence.

Source: Alliance for Excellent Education

Many aspects of learning are cumulative. That is, certain types of learning build on other learning in predictable ways. For example: you have to understand fractions and ratios in order to do algebra. And you have to be able to read fluently in order to absorb the information in a complex essay question.

Teenagers learn better when they’re challenged with successively more sophisticated ways of thinking.

Not all cognitive progressions are linear, though, so for optimal learning to take place, students need to practice multiple types of thinking. They need to develop foundational skills, and they also need to test and stretch those skills with demanding content in order to move to higher levels of learning. The repetition of these two steps throughout a young person’s learning journey is the most effective way to engage their brains.

Too often, students who get to high school without the foundational skills they need are assigned to classes that are not truly engaging. Instead, they need curriculum that fascinates and challenges them, that connects with their interests as adolescents. And they need instruction and social contexts—even when they’re learning remotely—that help them stay motivated, encourage them to work hard, and purposefully enable them to develop the skills they need for successively more demanding work.

“Learn math the way you’d learn anything, like riding a bicycle. Stay on that bicycle. Fall off that bicycle. Do it as long as necessary, until you have mastery.”

– Salman Khan—Founder, Khan Academy

Dive Deep

  1. a student soldering electronics
    Making Mastery Work

    The Nellie Mae Education Foundation explains what mastery learning is, how it works in 11 schools, and how you can incorporate it into your school design.

  2. a student holding a model of a molecule
    How People Learn

    In this 2018 update to its classic report, the National Academy of Sciences considers the latest research on how learning environments and social relationships shape learning.

  3. student working on a project
    The Science of Learning

    This concise guide summarizes what we know about student learning from the field of cognitive science, offering practical insights for teaching.

  4. teacher smiling
    Khan’s Case for Mastery

    Would you build a house on an unfinished foundation? In a provocative TED Talk, Sal Khan argues that we should help students master concepts at their own pace rather than ignoring gaps in their learning.

Download the Competency-Based Learning Worksheet