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The What, Why, and How of Metacognitive Teaching

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The recent publication of two books on metacognitive teaching suggests that metacognitive pedagogies are going mainstream in higher eduction. College teaching specialist Linda Nilson’s (2013) Creating Self-Regulated Learners provides general strategies for easy classroom implementation while the collection Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning (2013) explores metacognitive teaching in a range of disciplines.

Metacognition is not a new concept. In the early 20th century the educational theorist John Dewey pointed to the important role reflection plays in learning. Developmental psychologists Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and John Flavell later investigated metacognition and cognitive development. Today, many of the popular guides on college teaching identify metacognition as critical to creating successful learning experiences. For example, it’s listed as one of the “seven researched-based principles for smart teaching” in How Learning Works (Ambrose et al., 2010).

What I mean when I say metacognition

Image of woman in front of large reflective bean

In Front of the Bean” by Felix Morgner (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The terms metacognition, reflection, and self-regulated learning are sometimes used interchangeably. Likewise, opinions vary as to what makes these concepts distinct and how they relate to one another. Personally, I like the straight-forward definition offered by Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues (2003) at the Stanford University School of education:

Simply put, metacognition means “thinking about one’s own thinking.” There are two aspects of metacognition: 1) reflection—thinking about what we know; and 2) self-regulation—managing how we go about learning.

In other words, metacognition as a broad category that includes two processes: reflection and self-regulation. Asking a student to identify what they already know or articulate what they learned would be examples of teaching for reflection. Promoting self-regulated learning in the classroom might include supporting students as they set goals for themselves and monitor their progress.

Why metacognitive instruction?

There are two important reasons to promote reflection and self-regulated learning in the classroom:

1. Transfer. You may have experienced the frustration of covering content in class that students seem to forget the next quarter, or the disappointment of providing students with detailed feedback on one assignment and then seeing the same exact issues in their next assignment. In order for learning to “stick,” it’s helpful for students to step back and reflect on their learning experiences. Knowing what they know (and be able to articulate what they know) helps students to transfer what they learned in one context to a new context.
2. Learning how to learn.  Learning how to learn is just as important as knowing what you know. When students regulate their own learning by setting goals, implementing a plan to reach those goals, and evaluating their own work, they develop learning strategies that will help them succeed in future courses and in life after graduation.

Classroom strategies

One way that I promote metacognition when teaching writing is by assigning students to compose a series of structured reflections at the beginning, middle, and end of the term. The assignment sequence follows these three steps:

  1. During the first week of classes, students identify the course learning outcomes on the syllabus that are most important to them, add to these their own personal goals, and develop a plan for accomplishing those goals.
  2. At midterm, students evaluate their progress towards their goals and the class goals.
  3. At the end of the term, students return to the goals and evaluate their performance in the course as a whole, pointing to examples of their work as evidence.

But you don’t need a series of writing assignments to incorporate metacognition into your teaching. The Teaching Common’s resource page on activities for metacognition provides a list of active learning exercises. Some activities, like having students write down on an index card the most important concept they learned that day, only take five minutes of class time. Others, like generative knowledge interviewing or facilitating a fish bowl discussion, can take half an hour or more.

Looking for more on metacognition?

All three resources mentioned above contain practical ideas for metacognitive teaching:

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  1. Addressing Student Stress | DePaul Office for Teaching, Learning and Assessment - October 24, 2014

    […] If you are interested in learning more about ways to incorporate reflection into your course check out Jen O’Brien’s blog post titled “The What, Why, and How of Metacognitive Teaching.” […]

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