Tag Archives: metacognitive thinking

Metacognition II: Six Ways for Faculty to Reflect on Teaching

Steve Volk, November 13, 2017
Contact at svolk@oberlin.edu

Last week, the “Article of the Week” focused on ways to help students be more aware of how they think – to engage in metacognitive practices – in order to develop self-aware approaches that help them transfer what they learn from one course to the next, from one discipline to another, and from school to life. This week I’ll focus on six ways that we, as teachers, can reflect on our own practice so as to improve our teaching and student learning outcomes.


All images from “The Comical Hotch Potch, or The Alphabet turn’d Posture-Master” (1782)

t the start of the semester I surveyed Oberlin’s faculty on a variety of teaching issues, asking questions such as what aspects they derived the most pleasure from or what gave them the greatest heartburn. Among the questions I asked was one concerning what faculty considered “the best way/s to get help or feedback that could address the issues you face in the classroom?” Of the many possibilities, ranging from attending workshops to talking to deans or department chairs, the winner was “on-the-fly” conversations, those quickie chats squeezed in after you’ve discussed the plot lines that will emerge in Season 3 of “Stranger Things.” These most often unfold in the hallway, parking lot, around the copier, or when walking to or from a faculty meeting. “On-the-fly conversations” was almost always listed among respondents’ top three preferences.

As someone who organizes teaching and learning workshops and “brown-bag” discussions, I would have preferred a different answer, but I get it. Most of us want, or even crave, time to talk about what just went down in our classes, but we don’t have time for the 2-hour workshop or even a 45-minute chat over lunch or tots in the Feve. So “on-the-fly,” Keurig-centered conversations (often much to the annoyance of our AA’s) fill a real need.

Granted that some of these fall into the “can you believe what a student just said” mode; but many more arise from our desire to talk about something that just happened in class so that we can figure out what just happened and learn from it. These incidents could be troubling – a moment when the class seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control – or wonderful, when the semi-magical happens and the class digs down to a deeper level of understanding, a more cohesive way of interacting. The point is that as teachers, we reflect continually on what we’re doing in class, most often in the internal conversations we carry on inside our heads. But these reflections less often take place in ways that can be captured, considered, and fed back into our practice. It’s often not until the train derails at precisely the same place the next semester that we remember and wonder why we didn’t do something about it?

Reflection and Change

Lynne McAlpine and Cynthia Weston, from McGill University’s teaching and learning center, suggested that there are at least five different ways to conceptualize the role of reflection as it pertain to our teaching:

An academic orientation focuses on the organization of subject matter, a social efficiency orientation on how well practice matches what research says, a developmental orientation places priority on understanding students’ thinking, a social reconstructionist orientation sees reflection as a political act, and finally the generic orientation is one in which any reflection is good because teachers can then be more intentional and deliberate in their thinking about teaching.

The lest-costly, generic model is good for me, seeing the point of reflection as relating more to praxis than to philosophy; reflection as a way of thinking about what is off-kilter and what can be done to fix it.

As I was thinking about this kind of reflection, I remembered an essay by Atul Gawande that appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago. In “Personal Best,” Gawande considered his own practice as a surgeon. He describes how, after many years, thousands of surgeries, and results that always improved (measured by a decreasing rate of complications following operations), he leveled off. His performance rate was quite good, but it didn’t get any better. He began to wonder what professionals in other fields did to get off the plateau and keep improving. What about those who everyone would consider at the top of their game, top-ranked tennis players or singers, for example. Are they still coached or mentored in order to continually improve? Surgeons weren’t; teachers aren’t.

ondering if a violinist of the caliber of Itzhak Perlman was still getting coaching, he called him up. (“So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.” Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Pick up the phone and call Itzhak!) Anyway, it turns out the answer is yes. Perlman’s coach for the past 40 years has been his wife, Toby, herself a concert-level violinist whom he met at Juilliard.

“The great challenge in performing is listening to yourself,” he said. “Your physicality, the sensation that you have as you play the violin, interferes with your accuracy of listening.” What violinists perceive is often quite different from what audiences perceive. “My wife always says that I don’t really know how I play,” he told me. “She is an extra ear.” […] Her ear provided external judgment.”

Now, none of us, I’m fairly certain, is a teacher with Perlmanesque talents, but his statement about “listening to yourself” sounded so familiar that I could change “performing” to “teaching” without doing damage to his argument. One of the great challenges in teaching is that we have a hard time judging our own performance. Carrying out internal conversations about how that class just went is not likely to get us where we need to be. We need a deeper mode of reflection.

Which takes us back to Dewey. John Dewey argued that real learning comes from reflection on experience more than from the experience itself. And reflection, as Carol Rogers usefully summarized, is a “meaning-making process” that can move the learner – us, in this case – from one experience to the next “with deeper understandings of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas.” Serious reflection relies on a systematic, rigorous, and disciplined way of thinking. It requires attitudes that value the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and of others. And, above all, it needs to happen “in community, in interaction with others.”

So, here are some suggestions for helping us think more reflectively about our teaching, ways to take the conversations out of our heads by putting them on paper or, better still, by reflecting in community  with others.

  1. Quick Notes:

When you return from a class, quickly jot down some notes on those aspects of the course that you think went well or poorly. Be brief, or you’ll find that it takes up too much time and you’ll soon stop doing it. Note the issue and, if a solution is easily available, add that: The students couldn’t figure a way into the reading: give them better prep questions next time. The energy drained from the room halfway through: break up the session with some activity. Amazing discussion, all initiated by Sam’s statement […]: try prompting the discussion next time with Sam’s observation.

I usually write notes on a copy of the syllabus I keep on my computer for just this purpose. It makes it much easier to locate them when I’m preparing the next iteration of the class. I can add comments the next time through to see if something made a difference.

  1. Self-questions to promote faculty metacognition about teaching.

ancy Joseph, an English professor at Oakland University, over 15 years ago began helping students think metacognitively about their writing projects, urging them to note their thoughts at every step of the writing process: when they wrote a first draft, received peer review comments, and read her comments.  But, she observed, “most responses were void of meaningful reflection, and… I detected no changes in their writing behaviors.” She thought about on what was happening and decided to teach by example, stressing the importance of reflecting on the pre-writing (planning) stage as well as the writing process:

I distributed pages of my own writing from a professional article that had proceeded in fits and starts over the previous half year…I candidly shared my thoughts as the author of this work in progress, indicating what I had been thinking when I added explanations, reorganized paragraphs, and rewrote passages. I wanted to expose my students to the decision-making strategies that writers use to address the needs of their readers. This method enabled me to understand that helping students develop metacognitive awareness requires direct instruction and demonstration, a step-by-step journey into the cognitive process of writing.

Kimberly D. Tanner, author of the article on “Promoting Student Metacognition” that I drew from last week, suggests the following ways to think about your own classes in a form that can increase their potential for metacognitive approaches to teaching.

Activity Planning Monitoring Evaluating
Class session *What are my goals for this class session?

*How did I arrive at these goals?

*What do I think students already know about this topic?

*How could I make this material personally relevant for my student? Why do I think this?

*What mistakes did I make last time I taught this and how can I not repeat these?

*What do I notice about how students are behaving during this class session? Why do I think this is happening?

*What language or active-learning strategies am I using that appear to be facilitating learning? Impeding learning?

*How is the pace of the class going? What could I do right now to improve the class session?

*How do I think today’s class session went? What evidence do I have for thinking this?

*How did the ideas of today’s class session relate to previous class sessions? To what extent do I think students saw those connections?

*How will what I think about how today’s class session went influence my preparations for next time?

Overall course *Why do I think it’s important for students pursuing a variety of careers to learn the ideas in my course? What are my assumptions?

* How does success in this course relate to my students’ career goals?

*What do I want students to be able to do by the end of this course? 5 years later?

*In what ways am I effectively reaching my goals for students through my teaching? How could I expand on these successful strategies?

*In what ways is my approach to teaching in this course not helping students learn? How could I change my teaching strategies to address this?

*How is my approach to teaching this course different from the last time I taught it? Why?

What evidence do I have that students in my course learned what I think they learned?

*What advice would I give to students next year about how to learn the most in this course?

*If I were to teach this course again, how would I change it? Why? What might keep me from making these changes?

*How is my thinking about teaching changing?

 

  1. Seeking Feedback: Once and done

Arrange for a formative observation of your course. Ask a colleague or, better yet, someone from CTIE, to visit a class, take notes, and talk to you about what went on. CTIE has developed a specific protocol (pre-observation, observation, post-observation conversation) to guide the process. As you would expect, the process works best if you have a few things that you would like the observer to pay attention to.

on’t mistake a “formative” observation – one where you invite someone to observe a class and give you feedback – with a summative observation, where you are being evaluated by a member of your department, the chair, or someone else whose job it is to make a formal assessment of your teaching. Formative observations stay with the instructor and aren’t reported to anyone else (unless you choose to include the observation in a personnel file, but that’s your choice alone). Their whole purpose is to help the instructor reflect on what is happening and, if needed, address those issues. It’s all about the fact that we can’t “hear ourselves” when we teach.

  1. Seeking Feedback: A few times is better

Teaching pairs, triangles, squares. No, not an exercise for geometry teachers. These are arrangements in which you invite a colleague (from your department or any other) into your class for a few observations and return the favor by observing their classes. It can be done, as the names imply, with 2, 3, or 4 colleagues. A central aspect of the process is that these are always formative observations that are entered into voluntarily and eagerly. They usually take place between 2-4 times a semester, and feedback is generally offered in a social setting: over lunch, coffee, a drink, or dinner. They groupings can be of “equals” (e.g., all junior faculty); mixed (pairing that bring together junior and senior faculty); colleagues from the same or different disciplines, etc. People in the arrangements can agree on how they would like to see the process develop: an initial meeting; note-taking or not; written observations or not. In short, whatever makes the process more likely to happen and more enjoyable for everyone.

How to get started? Talk to the people you want in the group now in order to begin in the spring semester. If you want some help forming a group, talk to CTIE.

  1. Seeking Feedback: All semester is best

Yes! This gives me another opportunity to talk about the Faculty-Student Partnership.  (I sent around a “recruiting” note earlier this week for those interested in joining the program in the spring; here it is again in this new context.)

One of the faculty participants in the program recently said that, “Reflection is the biggest piece [of the FSP program]. The conversations make you stop and think about what went well and what didn’t.” The research on this is utterly convincing. McAlpine & Weston stress:

“[…] Multiple, repeated observations and interactions … may be necessary [but it is] the analysis of these multiple experiences through reflection which enables one to detect patterns that then lead to knowledge.”

We don’t get that kind of feedback, or the opportunity to reflect on our practice, from the student evaluations collected at the end of the semester. But this kind of extended process of interaction is available through the Faculty-Student Partnership program. The FSP program pairs a student with a faculty partner over the course of an entire semester. The student participants cannot be enrolled in any courses taught by their faculty partners (although they may have taken courses with them in previous semesters). The students attend their partners’ designated classes once a week over the course of the semester, taking detailed observation notes of the class sessions, and meeting weekly with their faculty partners to discuss the class, often focusing on specific issues issues suggested by the faculty partner. Students also meet biweekly with the program’s coordinators to encourage the students to discuss their experiences collectively, and as an opportunity for more training and reflection. Students receive training in ethnographic note taking at the start of the semester, and discuss ways to make discussions with their faculty partners most productive. Program coordinators also meet monthly with the faculty partners to get their feedback on the progress of the partnerships. (Faculty and students engaged in the program last fall discussed it in an article in the Oberlin Review.)

The emphasis of the FSP program is on dialog, stressing the concept that teachers and students mutually benefit from seeking out one another’s perspectives and discussing how these might inform teaching and learning contexts. The goal of partnership work is not change for change’s sake but precisely to open the kind of reflection that is central to a metacognitive approach to teaching.

(My pitch, one more time: If you are interested in applying to the program in the spring 2018 semester, please contact CTIE by filling out this form.

  1. Faculty Learning Communities

aculty Learning Communities (or Faculty-Staff Learning Communities) are another way to develop a collaborative reflective practice. While there are different models for building a learning communities, the most straightforward is for 6-8 faculty (or faculty and staff) to get together over the course of a semester or year to discuss a topic of interest and concern to the group. Some are funded by the dean’s office to provide reading materials, food, or other things that can support the group. Some require the group to produce some work at the conclusion of the process that can be shared with the larger community. As Martha C. Petrone and Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens write,

FLCs provide a collaborative arena in which colleagues have the time and opportunity to reflect on their teaching, their discipline, their institution, and themselves. By creating a safe environment for the honest engagement of ideas and feelings, the FLC facilitator helps to move the faculty outside of their disciplinary comfort zones and into the realm of intellectual and interpersonal connections. Through this process, teaching and learning are meaningfully enhanced and often transformed. [Martha C. Petrone, Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens, “Facilitating Faculty Learning Communities: A Compact Guide to Creating Change and Inspiring Community,” in Milton D. Cox and Laurie Richlin, eds., New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Building Faculty Learning Communities (Spring 2004), Volume 2004, Issue 97, Pages 1–157.]

The best way to initiate a Faculty (or Faculty-Staff) Learning Community around teaching and pedagogy is the most straightforward: talk to a colleague, define a theme, find others who would be interested in joining and talk to them. CTIE would be delighted to help either identify faculty or staff who would be interested or to provide a bibliography that can inform and orient your inquiry.

Conclusion

It has been said many times, but is probably worth saying it again: College and university faculty are among the very few professionals who aren’t actually trained in what we spend most of our time doing: teaching. We are experts in our particular domains and subfields, but few of us have read extensively in the literature on pedagogy, theories of learning, or child and adolescent development. That’s how it has always been. And while there are many developments that can help instructors think about their classroom practices, often coming from teaching and learning centers such as CTIE, we learn most from our own experiences. We can get the most out of that by reflecting on our experiences, by ourselves, but especially in community with others.

 

“What Am I Doing? Is It Getting Me Anywhere?” Scaffolding Student Metacognition

Steve Volk
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Illustration from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Principles of Light and Color (1878)

Hands up those of you who have had students come to your office hours anguishing over the poor grades they received on an exam. I’m not talking about the student who thinks his grade should be higher, rather the student who can’t figure out why she got such a low grade since she worked really hard preparing for the exam:

I studied all Saturday night and Sunday; I re-read all the assigned textbook readings and went over my notes. I even took the time to memorize all the words bolded in the text. I worked really hard, but still got a C-. I don’t know what to do!

So, what’s your advice, dear reader? Tell the student: “It looks like you’re not studying hard enough. You need to work harder; you need to figure out how to apply yourself better”?

Or what about the student who has done well on all the quizzes and exams you have given but seems to struggle when asked in class to explain the reasoning behind her proofs or the concept from which the equation is drawn?

Or what about the student who took the entry-level physics class, and did very well, but doesn’t appear to have carried over what he learned in that class to the next level?

It’s not surprising that the great majority of our students have learned to be good at school – they know how to take tests, draw between the lines, memorize what they are told to memorize, and give us what we seem to be asking for. They probably wouldn’t have been admitted if they weren’t good at school. But that doesn’t mean that they have learned how to be good at learning, that they know how to make learning their own, or have gained some insight on how they learn, not just what they learn, and can transfer what they have learned in one domain (say the close attention to detail that helps them excel in art history) to other domains (perhaps psychology, or a close and critical reading of texts). And, ultimately that would be a shame because the latter are the students who will better apply what they have learned in school to help them succeed in many fields after they graduate.

The historian Brook Adams, writing in the Atlantic in 1879, observed: “Knowing that you cannot teach a child everything, it is best to teach a child how to learn.” Adams charged that the Boston school system, on whose board he served, was failing miserably at this. Francis W. Parker, the superintendent of the Quincy, Massachusetts system around the same time, wanted all students to, as he put it, make their learning their own, to gain from their schooling a resource they could rely on throughout their lives. Le plus ça change?

If the tension between being helping students be good at school and helping them be good at learning is an old one, it’s probably also one that each of us continues to confront in our classes. We are trained as scholars and creative artists in specific fields, analytic philosophy or printmaking, hydrogeology or contemporary Hebrew poetry. We probably wouldn’t have made it as far as we have if we hadn’t become experts not just in the content of our subjects of study, but also in understanding – explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously –how we best could approach our own learning. And yet, probably for most of us – and I’d certainly include myself here –we couldn’t, or can’t, articulate just what it was that we did to achieve this. Nor did we have many (any?) grad school professors who stopped us along the way to ask: do you know what you did to get over that roadblock, to make learning your own?

Phrenological chart, public domain.

As instructors, we are hired to teach students the content that we have become expert in. And, except for some in psychology or those in the field of education, we don’t necessarily think about whether we should make our students aware of how they can also master learning, and not just history or music theory. And even if we did, would we know how to go about this?

We’re now in the realm of metacognition and helping our students think about their own metacognitive strategies. In this week’s article, the first of two on the topic, I’ll discuss some approaches to how we can help our students become better learners by focusing on metacognitive strategies in class sessions, on exams and papers, and after they have finished a course. The research literature on metacognition is rich and quite deep, and I’ll include a short bibliography at the end for those interested in  pursuing it further (and I am sure that our colleagues in Psychology can be of much greater help than I in this regard). This essay draws from a number of research publications, but it is primarily indebted to Kimberly D. Tanner, “Promoting Student Metacognition,” which appeared in Life Sciences Education (American Society of Cell Biology) in 2012.

Next week I’ll focus on how we, as teachers, can use megacognitive strategies to improve as instructors.

Metacognition

Without getting too deep in the definitional weeds, we could use some working concept of metacognition. In its simplest sense, metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” But we can also push it a bit further. Any process that helps us think about how we got to an answer, rather than the answer itself, can probably be thought of as a metacognitive process. The Socratic method would qualify as a metacognitive one in the sense that it focuses on a guided set of questions that can produce an answer. Math problems that require the student to record step-by-step reasoning rather than just writing the answer are in the metacognitive mode, at least in a broad sense. My go-to guy, John Dewey, who argued that students would learn more from reflecting on their experiences than from the actual experiences themselves, introduces a metacognitive approach – and we’ll return to him shortly.

Metacognition, according to John Flavell, the psychologist credited with the developing the term, “refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes…the learning-relevant properties of information or data.” Flavell divided metacognitive processes into three categories, summarized here.  The divisions are useful as we think of methods that can support our students’ metacognitive understandings.

  • “Knowledge of person variables” concern general knowledge about how we process information and our own awareness of this, i.e. “learning about learning.” The first example I gave, that of the frustrated student who can’t figure out why she’s doing poorly on exams, probably has a fairly low awareness of how she learns the best. Perhaps she’s studying while listening to music, checking her text messages frequently, or trying to study when she’s just too tired.
  • “Knowledge of task variables” refer to our deeper understanding about the task that we are given. Students who leave as much time to read a short story as they do for a 40-page article by Judith Butler or a chapter in a physics text could easily be in trouble because they haven’t properly assessed the task at hand.
  • “Knowledge about strategy variables” include understanding cognitive and metacognitive strategies as well as conditional knowledge about when and where it is appropriate to employ such strategies. “Knowledge,” Jennifer Livingston writes, “is considered to be metacognitive if it is actively used in a strategic manner to ensure that a goal is met. For example, a student may use knowledge in planning how to approach a math exam: ‘I know that I (person variable) have difficulty with word problems (task variable), so I will answer the computational problems first and save the word problems for last (strategy variable).’”

 Supporting Student Metacognition: Student Self-Questioning

While there has been more research on the impact of metacognitive thinking on K-12 students than on college-age students, one clear conclusion from the research is that students with low metacognitive abilities generally can’t evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses appropriately. (Remind you of anyone?) They quite often overestimate their abilities and therefore are less likely to prepare well for assignments. James Lang, who writes frequently on teaching and learning for the Chronicle of Higher Education, some years ago referenced the cringe-worthy opening episodes of each season of “American Idol” calling them a mashup of lousy singing and dreadful metacognition: Don’t they know that they have no talent as singers? Returning to higher education: students who over-estimate their knowledge, skills, or level of preparation are unlikely to do well for the assigned task.

“Convolutions,” : Dr Alesha Sivartha, “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man,” 1898.

Paul Pintrich, on the other hand, has argued that “students who know about the different kinds of strategies for learning, thinking, and problem solving will be more likely to use them.” So how do we teach metacognitive strategies to our students and what can we do to help them?

Tanner’s article provides a wonderful place to begin, starting with prompting questions that students should ask themselves as they prepare for class, assignments, exams, or other tasks. For each type of activity (class session, active-learning task and/or homework assignment, quiz or exam, overall course), Tanner provides a set of questions-to-self that students can explore when planning an activity, monitoring their progress, or evaluating the outcome. (Here’s a great idea for an app to all you programmers out there: A metacognition app that prompts students, as in: “Siri: What do I already know about this topic?” “Alexa: What strategies should I use to study?”)

I’ll include a few of Tanner’s questions here. You can find the whole chart at the linked article.

Activity Planning Monitoring Evaluating
Class session *What are the goals of the class session going to be?

*What do I already know about this topic?

*Where should I sit and what should I do (or not do) to best support my learning during class?

*What insights am I having during this class session?

*What am I confused about?

*Can I distinguish important information from details? How will I figure this out?

*What was today’s class about?

*How can I get my remaining questions answered?

*How did the ideas of today’s class relate to previous classes?

Active-learning task and/or homework assignment *What is the instructor’s goal in having me do this task?

*What are all the things I need to do to be successful in this task?

*How much time will this take me?

*What strategies am I using that are working well or not working well to help me learn?

*What is most challenging for me about this task? Most confusing?

*To what extent did I successfully accomplish the goals of the task?

*When I do an assignment or task like this again, what do I want to remember to do differently? What worked well for me that I should use next time?

Quiz or exam *What strategies will I use to study? Study groups, problem sets, etc.

*How much time should I be studying? Over what period of time?

*What should I be spending more or less time on based on my current understanding?

*Am I taking advantage of all the learning supports available to me?

*Am I struggling with my motivation to study? Do I remember why I am taking this course?

*Which of my confusions do I have to get clarified? How will I do this?

*What about my exam preparation worked well that I should remember to do next time?

*What didn’t work so well so that I should not do next time or should change?

*What questions did I get wrong and what confusions do I have that still need to be clarified?

Overall course *Why is it important to learn the material in this course?

*How does success in this course relate to my larger goals?

*How am I going to actively monitor my learning in this course?

*In what ways is the teaching in this course supportive of my learning? How could I maximize this?

*How interested am I in this course? How confident am I in my learning? What could I do to increase my interest and confidence?

*What will I still remember 5 years from now that I learned in this course?

*What advice would I give a friend about how to learn the most in this course?

*What have I learned about how I learn in this course that I could use in my future courses?

Supporting Student Metacognition: Other Approaches

Providing significant formative feedback to students can also help them more accurately assess their knowledge about a topic. Many of these ideas will be familiar to loyal “Article of the Week” readers: minute papers, muddy point writing, clicker questions, etc. Here are a few others:

ConcepTests: Developed by the legendary Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, ConcepTests focus on a single concept; can’t be solved using equations; have good multiple-choice answers; are clearly worded; and are of intermediate difficulty. Stephen Chew, chair and professor of psychology at Stamford University (Birmingham, AL) describes how he uses them: After putting up a multiple-choice question, “Students select their answers individually, and I poll the class. They can then discuss their answer with other students, after which I poll the class again. Finally, we discuss the answers as a class. This gives me a sense of how well students understand the material. I can identify and address problem areas.” (Chew also offers a 6 short videos on metacognition and “how to get the most out of studying,” including a final one: “I Blew the Exam, Now What?”

Retrospective Post-assessments as a means of pushing students to be aware of conceptual change: Cognitive psychologists often define “learning” as “a student-centered activity in which students change their ideas about a topic” (Posner et al, 1982). Approached in this way, learning doesn’t happen until students examine how their understanding of a concept or idea has changed. This insight is reminiscent of Dewey’s argument that reflection on experience is more important than the experience itself. The learning happens in the reflection. Again, the question is how to help our students be reflective. One way is to engage students in a post-assessment exercise in which they are asked to discuss how they thought about the topic or concept before the assignment or other activity and to compare that with how they think about it after having completed the assignment.

Memo to Self: What did I learn? A relatively simple way to help students reflect on their learning is to have them write a letter or memo to their “future selves” after they have completed and been graded on an assignment. Encourage them to note what about their preparation for the exam or paper or other assignment worked well enough that it should be repeated the next time they take on a similar task. Did they work with a study group? Go to a peer instruction session? Attend office hours? Get two hours extra sleep the night before? Have a good breakfast? Similarly, they need to think about what didn’t work so well and shouldn’t be repeated?

Prompts to use in Class: Finally, again borrowing from Tanner’s excellent article, here are a list of questions you can ask students after standard classroom activities as a way of supporting their metacognitive thinking.

For “pairing-up” types of discussion after a ConcepTest, clicker question, or other multiple choice question posed to the class:

  • What did you think the question was asking?
  • What process did you use to arrive at your answer? Why did you choose “b,” for example?
  • What were the main reasons you didn’t chose “a” or “c”?
  • Compare your ideas with your discussion partner.
  • What most confused you about this question?
  • How confident are you in your answer? Why? What more would you need to increase your confidence?

For homework or active-learning tasks:

  • Pose three questions you had about the concepts you explored in this assignment that you still can’t answer.
  • Describe at least two ideas related to this assignment that you found confusing.
  • Do you agree that you “learned a lot” from the assignment? Why? Why not?
  • Think about how you approached completing this assignment and compare it with the way that you completed the last assignment.
  • What advice would you have for yourself based on what you know if you were just beginning the assignment?

Preparation for Quizzes and Exams:

  • How do you plan on preparing for the upcoming exam? Why?
  • What resources are available to support you? How will you make sure to use these?
  • Compare your exam preparation strategy with three others enrolled in the class – ask them how they are preparing.
  • What concepts have you found most confusing so far? What has been clearest? Given this, how could you best spend your time preparing for the exam?
  • Based on your performance on the first exam, write a memo to yourself with advice about preparing for the next exam.

Conclusion: It’s OK to be Confused

The final point, again from Tanner, is that we need to create an environment in the class where students know that they are both allowed and encourage to share their confusions as well as their brilliant insights. We can do this by recounting for students what happened when you taught the course before: “Students in previous semesters really seem to hit a speed bump when they got to this concept, so please share your questions and confusions; that way the whole class can benefit from the discussion.” In a previous article I suggested that, when addressing students who answer questions in class, it is as important to spell out why a particular answer was correct as why it was wrong. Pulling out the conceptual or procedural reasoning behind a question helps students as they think about their own thinking. Help your student not just to be good at school, but to be good at learning.

Next week: Modeling metacognition for students.


Some beginning resources on metacognition and teaching and learning:

“Odors and Flavors,” Dr Alesha Sivartha, “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man”

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., Lovett, M.C., DiPietro, M and Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (Short summary here.)

Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chew, S.  Five-part video series on learning.

Coutinho S.A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate 7, 39–47.

Kruger J, Dunning D (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how differences in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. J Personality Soc Psychol 77, 1121–1134.

National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Pintrich P. (2002). The role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory Pract 41, 219–226.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild N., Su T. T. (2009). Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions, Science, 323 (5910), 122-124.