One of the three key tenets of metacognitive engagement in the classroom is teaching students heuristic strategies specific to the subject matter (Pintrich, 2002; Bembenutty, 2009). The other two are teaching students when to use the strategies and how to self-assess the successful use of those strategies. When considering critical thinking classes, this might involve teaching specific problem solving strategies, like the difference between permutations and combinations, as well as when each should be applied. However, other types of strategies could be beneficial, such as templates for assignments, video instructions, and detailed rubrics for self-assessment.
Nearly a year ago I noticed that many adult students in two of my online courses were having serious trouble interpreting the assignments. It is not that the curriculum developers did a poor job; it was due to a scheduling issue—students who were accustomed to taking one course at a time were enrolled in two courses. Compound doubling up with having full-time jobs and families and it was a recipe for poor performance. The challenge was to create strategies that would allow students to focus on the content and specifics of the assignment by minimizing distractions and promoting a better learning experience in the process. Specifically, I incorporated templates, videos, and detailed rubrics to help guide students in their assignments. Learning goals and course requirements did not change—students still had to complete the same activities and assignments—but how I supported their learning was the difference maker.
Before detailing each, I can attest that the number of students who successfully complete each assignment has gone up dramatically, as have the amount of kudos for offering much clearer directions and student comments about being better able to apply the learning objectives in their daily lives. They were more successful in mastering the learning objectives without as much time spent trying to decipher the instructions.
As each of the assignments contains several unalterable components, I developed properly formatted paper templates. These had APA-style cover pages, section headings, and references pages. They also had additional details about where to find the information and what points to cover. This helped ensure that they would address all required parts in a multi-part assignment. Yes, there are times when open-ended assignments are better, where personal exploration is encouraged, but not with these assignments. Students routinely commented that the organization helped considerably.
After creating the templates, I added video instructions in which I walk students through the process of finding the template and discuss options on how to address each component. These videos also contain examples of the kind of content the papers should have as well as explanations of the purpose and learning objectives of each assignment. Each video is between 10 and 15 minutes. I discovered that students who could not find an hour to watch a longer recording covering the learning objectives were amenable to watching the shorter one covering the objectives in a way that emphasized application.
While detailed rubrics actually appeared as my first attempt to better support my overwhelmed students, I found they were the least effective. Initially, the intention was for students to use the detailed rubrics to self-assess before submitting their papers. These are still quite useful as students can see exactly the value of each component in the final grade. When students used them, they found they were more likely to cover all the assigned components. Using generic topical rubrics seemed to be more confusing and more work as students could not see specifically where they went astray. Detailed rubrics are still beneficial when students are shown how to use them. When there are time constraints, unfortunately, there is less likelihood students will use the rubric to evaluate their work before submitting it.
As stated, when students used the tools, they demonstrated more competency on the learning objectives in the assignment. I also found that the students who ignored the tools were often the ones who failed to grasp the effort required in order to succeed in an academic environment. Without making the templates mandatory, there will always be some who refuse to use them.
Last, there is one downside to using such detailed tools for supporting student success: grading bias. When so much is provided, there is an expectation that the templates will be used and that the specifics of the assignment will be met. It is difficult to be more open-minded when objectives and tools are ignored, but the gaps in understanding the objectives are more obvious.
Bembenutty, H. (2009). Three essential components of college teaching: Achievement calibration, self-efficacy, and self-regulation. College Student Journal 43, 2, 562-570.
Pintrich, P. (2002). The role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory into Practice 41, 4, 219-225.
Steve Wyre teaches full time at Independence University.