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How to Take Metacognition to the Next Level in Your Classroom

In our last post, we laid out a basic primer on metacognition<: what it is, how it helps students, and how you can integrate it into your classroom in order to build your students’ skills over their lifetimes. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of metacognition and haven’t read that post, we suggest that you take a look at it before you read this one.

Now that we know what metacognition is and understand some basic building blocks for encouraging our students’ metacognitive skills in class, let’s dive into some more detail.

As your students approach a task, they can put their metacognitive skills to work in three key phases: planning, monitoring, and evaluation. Each phase presents an opportunity to help them better understand their learning processes and put their skills to use at higher levels. Here’s how:

  • The planning phase: Once students understand what you’re asking of them, they need to figure out how to take the first step toward the challenge.
    • Students almost always have prior knowledge and skills that they can bring to bear for a certain task. One problem is that students often don’t realize they have it. Another problem, as Graham Nuthall points out in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners, is that their knowledge usually doesn’t completely overlap with the peer sitting next to them. Therefore, you’re rarely dealing with a group of young people who are coming to a problem from the same place. But, with the right activities, you can use this diversity of understanding to your advantage.
    • You can help everyone get on the same page with simple tasks that help them activate relevant prior knowledge:
      • A straightforward class discussion: ask students to contribute relevant facts to a list that you make on the board
      • A 1-2 minute free write session: ask your students to write down what they know about the subject at hand and share their findings with a partner (also known as a “think-pair-share”)
      • A class brainstorm: ask students to add as many words as they can to a list of terms that relate to a given topic (i.e. the year 1776, or Marie Curie), and then use that list to kickstart further discussion
    • At some point in the planning phase, students will shift from planning their thinking to planning their doing: i.e. preparing to take an action they’re probably fairly familiar with, like writing a paper or solving a math problem. You can help them identify successful strategies from the past by:
      • Showing them an analogue with a worked example
      • Helping them through a similar task with guided practice
      • Prompting elaborative interrogation and self-explanation to help them identify previous facts and processes that can help them in the present moment
    • The monitoring phase: This happens when students can pay attention to the progress they’re making when they’re in the middle of a task—often quite a challenge. We often overestimate students’ ability to do this independently. But that’s not a “problem” as such; it’s just where the brains of younger people are developmentally.
      • You can help your students by identifying some helpful questions, such as:
        • “How is this strategy working for me?”
        • “Am I on a path to success?”
        • “What changes should I make, if any?”
        • “Are there strategies that others are trying that might work for me?”
        • “Would it help me to ask a question or talk to anyone?”
      • Be sure to remind students about the importance of asking these questions as they go—and remind them in the moment. Remember, part of this process is to train students to be independent thinkers, to be the masters of their own learning.
    • The evaluation phase: This happens after students finish the task. Basically, you can help guide them through a formal process that helps them link strategies to performance.
      • You can ask them questions like:
        • “How well do you think you did?”
        • “How well did your strategy work?”
        • “What might you do differently next time?”
        • “What new insights did you uncover about yourself as a learner (strengths or areas of challenge, for example)?”
      • You can give them time to talk to each other and compare the strategies they used. Often, they’ll get great ideas from each other. (But make sure to have each pair report out to the class, so that you can nip any less-than-great ideas in the bud.)
      • Remember that you’re working with a small window in terms of time and emotional bandwidth here. Make sure to capture the evaluation phase as soon as possible after the completion of the task.

Overall, the goal with reflection and metacognition is to help students understand what strategies help them succeed—and to use those strategies more and more over time. Embedded within the idea of growth mindset is that students will be more likely to keep going when things are hard if they understand their success as a consequence of what they do, rather than who they are (i.e. their innate ability). It’s also important that students learn to see failure (or less-than-optimal strategic decisions) as an opportunity to make better decisions next time—and to see their teachers as guides who can help them build their own personal toolkit of skills they’re confident about using.

Also, remember that one of the best ways to help students build their metacognitive skills is to show them how you do it! Modeling each of these processes in realtime can help your students see what they can do on their own. Even simple moves like asking “Hmm, what do I already know about this?” when you’re planning something in class can help bring metacognition to life—and help your students understand that everyone, even their teacher, is always growing and changing.

Here at the CTTL, we can’t get enough of metacognition—and it shows: our newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, contains constant reflection exercises that help teachers learn research-informed strategies for student success in just 3-5 minutes a day. (Psst—for more on reflection and metacognition, check out the Education Endowment Foundation’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning Guidance Report. It’s full of helpful ideas!)