Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking

iStock_000006201684XLargeWhat are your students really thinking? While we may not know the answer to this question, all the time, we can help students raise their awareness of their own thinking processes and become better at improving their thinking skills.

Metacognition refers to the skill or ability to think about our thinking — more specifically, the ability to consider what we know, how to assess what we know, and when to access the appropriate information or call on the skills necessary to be successful at a task or endeavor.

Scott Jaschick and Maryellen Weimer explain that teaching metacognitive skills as part of your course may make the difference not only in students learning and retaining the material, but in boosting their confidence to learn content in the future.

Students, even in upper-level classes, are frequently unaware of whether or not they have actually learned course content–even though they assume they have mastered it.

Here are some sample metacognitive questions you can use to engage your students in reflecting on their own experiences as learners–during the course itself–to facilitate their growth and improvement over time.  You may wish to start with just one or two questions and use them more than once over the course of the semester to provide students with practice in thinking this way about themselves and their learning.

  • How have I prepared for class today?
  • What’s the best way for me to prepare for a class like this one?
  • What questions do I have?
  • Why did I miss those exam questions/do poorly on this project or paper?
  • What do I need to do to do better next time?

(modified from list provided by Maryellen Weimer ).

Here you can find a good overview of metacognition as well as a list of how to help students learn metacognitive skills. You can also register for the next Part-time Faculty Institute session, “Promoting Metacognition in the Classroom” on Thursday, February 21, from 5:30-7:30 in the Delphi Center for more information.

What are some ways that you encourage your students to think about their thinking in order to be successful in your course?

14 thoughts on “Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking

  1. OK, you hit my hot button. My belief is that without metacognition, students can merely go through a course to “check the box” and then discard the material after the final exam.
    I have two strategies to try to get students to think about their thinking.
    Strategy #1: —————-
    When I assign a project, I always require students to answer some or all of these questions:
    1. What did you learn from this project?
    2. What was the most difficult part of the project and why?
    3. If you did this project again, what would you do differently and why? (Try this question at a doctoral defense.)
    Strategy #2. (only recently implemented) ————-
    At the beginning of the semester, I assign a rather simple project with little or no direction. The project is something that they should be able to complete using basic life skills and knowledge.
    At the end of the semester, I assign a similar project, but requiring concepts from the course.
    After they complete the final project, I have the student compare their work on the two projects and write about what they learned this semester. It is not unusual to have students talk about their “AHA!” moments that I think would have gone unnoticed otherwise.

    • Wonderful way to go, Tim! Would you mind if I shared a few of these tips at the workshop on Thursday and credit you, of course?

    • Tim, good comments and quite timely for me. I too would like to ask permission to use the Strategy 1 questions. I am teaching a face-to-face (f2f) class this semester and a couple of my classes have been online due to prior commitments I had before the semseter. The class is non-tradional learners who hope to be trainers when they graduate.

      I was thinking just last night about how to tie the alternate delivery method into my next f2f class as a review, a demonstraion of alternate delivery methods and how that ties into their professional development. I came up with a few questions to ask but nothing as extensive as you offer. Of course I would cite you as the owner

      Also, your Strategy 2 is a variation of a Kirkpatrick Level 2 Evaluation that measures learning which is what the class is all about. I did a pre-reflection assignment at the beginning of the semester using iClickers to poll, gather and display the results and will do the same at the end of the semester. Ideally, it will be a demonstration of one of the four levels in the course (Level 2 Evaluation) while pictorially displaying the results. Thanks for offering these ideas.

      Any consideration would be appreciated, thanks.

  2. Tim, call me a cynic at this point, but I tend to ponder the authenticity of student responses to questions similar to those you use. I wonder if they are simply putting down what they “think” we want to hear/read in order to “check the box” as you’ve used; or, are they being authentic in their feedback? Is there a factor of metacognition related to the mental maturity of the student? I suspect that the metacognitive skills of a student in their last semester of their college experience might be more developed than that of an incoming first-year student. Rhetorically, do we use the same set of questions for all students or tailor them to the stage of their metacognitive development?

    • Dale, All valid points. In thinking about my thinking on this topic. i have no way to be certain. However, if a student at least answers these questions, I think they had to do some amount of thinking and maybe drive home a point or two. I do find it more effective when students do oral presentations in my office. In that case I can probe a little deeper. Regarding the same set of questions… I really don’t know how to rephrase the questions too much, I do have a higher level of expectations as the students progress in their education.
      Any other ideas/comments are certainly appreciated.

  3. I think that even if the students report “what we want to hear” as Dale pointed out, these questions that Tim proposed would make the students somehow think about the path that they went through to complete the project. Therefore, I agree with you all that it is valid to ask the students those questions, since it may help them to mature their “learning skill”.
    Now I am thinking if I could apply these to my 100 level class somehow… Maybe using collaborative learning? Any suggestions?

  4. I’ve started using the Private Journal in Blackboard for metacognitive reflection about the major assignments in my programming classes. I ask students to add a journal entry (visible only to me and the student) for each programming project. I prompt them to spend some time thinking about what they learned from completing the project. What were the most important things that they learned? Did they run into any problems? How did they overcome these? Are there things they wish they had done differently? Why? Recently I added specific sentence prompts:

    In this programming assignment, I learned how to …
    In this programming assignment, I struggled with …
    In this programming assignment, I wish I had …

    These help them get started. To incentivize participation, I award up to 5% extra credit on the assignments that they provide sincere feedback on. In addition to their metacognition, I’ve learned a lot about what students are struggling with as they complete these assignments. I’ve made changes to what I do in the classroom in response. It creates a feedback loop, of sorts, for me, too.

    • That’s a great strategy, Andrew. Do I have your permission to share these questions at the workshop on Thursday as an exemplar? I will credit you!

    • Andrew, I really like the private journal idea, but have not been too confident in the assessment aspect. How do you assess the journals? Do you read each entry and provide feedback? Or do you assess the journals at the end of the semester?

  5. My work is primarily with first year students, and I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t thoughfully repond to Tim’s Strategy 1 questions. In fact, I think it would be ideal for first years to encounter this kind of post-assignment reflection more often. This kind of strategy seems like it would help them take more ownership of the learning process and develop their academic self-confidence. Going back to one of our earliest threads, it’s also a place where “what didn’t go well” can be couched as a learning opportunity rather than a failure. For any ongoing reflection, I’d say that particularly for first years some form of timely instructor response would be important. If there’s not time to offer feedback for all reflections, then I’d be inclined either to reduce the frequency or integrate some peer-to-peer discussions/feedback. So many of our students, particularly if they breezed through high school, struggle to figure out how to effectively tackle college-level coursework, and I’d love for more students to have this kind of feedback early on; it would serve them well heading into upper-level courses.

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