Like many teachers, I strongly believe in the significant benefits of metacognition in the learning process. Not only can developing students’ metacognitive skills boost academic achievement (Hattie, 2009), but being self-aware and able to self-reflect will benefit students in their future professional and social lives. Indeed, the colleagues whom I have most admired, both in education and outside, continuously evaluate their approach to their work and are always considering how they could do better in the future. As a result of this belief, I have tried to build students’ metacognitive skills by using self-reflections, surveys，and reflective journals. However, I feel that my instruction of metacognition lacks consistency and impact. Therefore, in this post I will look at some practical ways to make metacognition a regular feature of my teaching.
What is metacognition?
Metacognition is often defined as ‘thinking about thinking’; however, this definition is too vague for teachers wanting guidance for regularly developing these skills. Therefore, a more comprehensive definition is when a learner “plans, monitors, evaluates, and makes changes to their own learning behavior” (“Getting Started with Metacognition”, n.d.). This definition emphasizes that use of metacognitive strategies is not limited to the end of an assignment or a test, but also a key part of planning how to tackle a challenging task and how to monitor progress toward a goal. Asking students questions (see some example questions below) before and during tasks is an effective way to embed metacognition throughout the learning process rather than just as a post-test or assignment reflection.
My ultimate goal for developing students’ metacognitive skills is for each student to have a wide array of strategies at their disposal for completing a task. Then each student can choose the most appropriate strategy based on the task or their preferences or skills. As a result, students will develop an awareness of what strategies help them learn most effectively. This means more of a focus on how students learn rather than just on what they learn. These are the transferable skills I want to teach.
How can I teach it?
A key finding from the research is that explicitly teaching about metacognition can lead to increased student achievement (Hattie, 2009). Teachers can start by having students define metacognition and give examples. One way to do this is by using a metaphor such as that of ‘driving your brain’ (Wilson & Conyers, 2018). Examples such as slowing down for difficult situations or speeding up when it is safe might make the idea of metacognition more tangible for students. Teachers can also incorporate lessons on how the brain works including relatively recent findings from neuroscience that learning can physically change the nature of the brain. Another key reading or viewing activity could involve comparing fixed versus growth mindsets. Taking the time to teach how we learn can get even the most skeptical students to recognize the value of metacognition for effective learning.
Another precondition for effective teaching of metacognition is to create a safe learning environment where confusion and questioning are considered essential steps for deep understanding. Students need the confidence to tell their teachers and peers when they don’t understand. Furthermore, students need to identify their own level of understanding to ensure a deep, transferable and lasting understanding rather than mere familiarity with the content. Building this type of classroom culture requires strong student teacher relationships.
To ensure you give students enough time to develop their metacognitive skills, teachers can allocate a set time each week for this purpose. Using the last 10 minutes of the week is a good routine otherwise it is all too easy to put off a reflective activity to the next week. During this set time, students could write a learning journal using prompts such as the ones below. However, to truly integrate it into the class, these metacognitive activities should not just be done at the end of the week, but they should also be integrated throughout the lesson sequence. For example, journal entries can be written before a task to identify and evaluate potential strategies to complete the task or they can be written midway through a task as students pause to check their progress and potentially re-evaluate.
Students also need to be able to specifically name the strategy they are practicing whether it be monitoring comprehension, questioning, or predicting. This will create a shared language for teachers and students to more effectively discuss the use of different learning strategies.
After introducing or discussing a specific strategy, teacher questioning in a class discussion can get students to consider how the cognitive strategies could be applied to other subjects, to students’ future careers or even to their social lives. This might help increase relevance for learners thus increasing their commitment to practice and develop them.
In addition to teacher-made learning goals, students can set their own personal learning goals (Marzano, 2010). I have previously done this with students as part of a writing portfolio. Then, with written feedback or through conferences, teachers can give specific feedback on each individual students’ goal. This type of goal setting can be expanded to other strands of class such as reading comprehension, speaking and listening.
A particularly useful instructional strategy for modelling metacognition is using a think aloud. I can explain to students how I would approach the task and what strategies I would use. For me, this will help encourage metacognitive processes both before and during learning not just at the end. Over time, students can start to use think alouds between each other as think-pair-shares, small group or even whole-class discussions.
Example Metacognitive Questions
Below is a list of questions that can be asked during different stages of the a task.
- What do I already know about this topic?
- Have I done a task similar to this before?
- What strategies were effective when I did that task?
- What am I confused about?
- What aspect of the task am I have the most difficulty with? What will I do to solve this?
- How am I going with the task? Am I on track to reach my goal for the task?
- What should I do next?
- Would a different strategy be more effective here?
- How can I do it better next time?
- My personal goal for next assignment is …
- What specific action(s) would improve your performance based on the feedback you received?
- How can I apply this to other subjects or other areas of life?
- Did I get the result I expected?
- What aspects of my exam preparation worked well that I should remember to do next time?
- What did you learn from working on this task — about the content, topic, process, and/or yourself?
While most teachers agree that teaching, modelling, and practicing metacognitive skills is an essential part of learning, it can be difficult to know how to incorporate these skills into daily learning activities. For me, the key is to plan metacognitive questions with each activity to ensure sustained practice of these difficult but important skills. Using a combination of the strategies above can help make teaching metacognition more tangible for busy teachers.
As I have discovered, students need lots of time to be able to explicitly discuss and evaluate their thought processes especially ESL or EAL students. Therefore, it is OK to start slowly when introducing metacognition into your course. However, with sustained practice and the belief from both teachers and students that metacognition is a skill worth developing, improvements can definitely be made by all students.
This metacognitive checklist from Cambridge could be helpful for teachers trying to incorporate more m/cog in their classrooms.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Milton Park, UK: Routledge.
Marzano, R. J. (2010). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Getting started with Metacognition. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2019, from https://cambridge-community.org.uk/professional-development/gswmeta/index.html
Wilson, D., & Conyers, M. (2018, February 21). Building a Metacognitive Classroom. Retrieved February 10, 2019, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/building-metacognitive-classroom