October 31st, 2012

Teaching Metacognition to Improve Student Learning


Metacognition can be a word that gets in the way of students’ understanding that this “thinking about thinking” is really about their awareness of themselves as learners. Most students don’t spend much time thinking about learning generally or how they learn specifically. In order to become independent, self-directed learners, they need to be able to “orchestrate” their learning. That’s the metaphor the National Research Council uses to describe planning for learning, monitoring it as it occurs, and then evaluating both what has been learned and how it was learned.

Kimberly Tanner’s excellent article on “Promoting Student Metacognition” expands those three fundamental activities (planning, monitoring and evaluation) into a set of questions that students can use to begin to develop this awareness of themselves as learners. She proposes planning, monitoring and evaluation questions for three central learning activities; a class session, an active learning activity or homework assignment, and a quiz or exam, plus a set of questions about the course overall. [Find her article and a table of sample questions to promote student metacognition at: http://www.lifescied.org/content/11/2/113.full.pdf+htm]

I worry a bit about giving students all these questions at once. I can see them skimming through the list and quickly deciding there are too many questions to answer. Besides, these are not questions with easy, obvious answers, especially if you haven’t thought about them before. To get students started, you may want to try one of these approaches—credit goes to Tanner for some of these ideas.

How have I prepared for class today? Have this question on a PowerPoint slide as students arrive in class. Ask them to write the answer in their notes. Comments could include, “I did the reading.” “I know what we’re covering in class today and have some ideas about it.” “I was in class last period.” Then show this question: What’s the best way for me to prepare for a class like this one? You might solicit some suggestions and then challenge students to try coming to class better prepared or to use a different preparation method to see if it makes the material easier to understand.

What questions do I have? Ask students to write questions in their notes as the material is presented in class. Writing the questions shouldn’t prevent them from asking questions but lots of students have questions that they never ask or write down. At the end of the period, have students circle the questions in their notes that they still can’t answer. They could ask someone sitting next to them one of those questions or see if they can find answer in the text. You could begin the next session by asking for any questions that students still can’t answer and you might solicit a couple of examples of questions they can now answer.

Why did I miss those exam questions? As part of the exam debrief, have students circle or list three exam questions they missed and then have them share in writing (on the test or in a note to you) why they think they missed those questions. You’ll likely get comments like, “I wasn’t in class the day this material was covered.” “I didn’t think there’d be a question about this on the test.” “I didn’t understand the question.” “I couldn’t remember how to do the problem.” “I didn’t read the material carefully.” Then give them this follow-up question: What do I need to do to avoid missing questions like these on the next exam?

When you start asking questions about learning, I wouldn’t expect students to greet the activity with lots of enthusiasm. Many of them believe learning is a function of natural ability and not something they can do much about. Others just haven’t paid attention to how they learn. They think of themselves as students, not as learners. I also don’t think most students think of learning as a life-changing force. It’s something they do while they’re in school. As devotees to learning, we might we need to sing its praises more often and with a bit more gusto. It’s powerful to be able to figure things out for yourself, to see things happening and understand why, and to discover knowledge that gives life meaning and purpose.

Reference: Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 11 (Summer), 113-120.