Metacognition is the practice of thinking about thinking or identifying one’s cognitive process (Lovett, 2008) and is a reflective skill that is necessary for creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Students often perform metacognitive work in writing classes by reflecting on their writing process or development, or in STEM courses by reflecting on course design projects. Within the classroom, teaching metacognitive practices enhances student learning outcomes (Tanner, 2012) and helps students to have a more complete understanding of what they learned and how (Brownlee, Purdie, & Boulton-Lewis, 2001).
As with most skills, it takes time and practice to become fluent in metacognition. To encourage students to engage in reflective activities, instructors can intentionally include brief and effective metacognitive strategies in their courses. This can be done through explicitly modeling metacognitive practices, for example, by making your thinking and reflection process explicit and/or using any of the activities outlined below (primarily adapted from Major, Harris, and Zakrajsek, 2015).
One of my favorite practices to enhance student metacognition is to have them write themselves a letter "from the future," as if it were the end of the class. They use the prompt, "I met my academic goals for this course because … " We then review this letter at the middle and at the end of the semester. I think this helps them remember why they are doing what they are doing and helps them focus on their goals.
- Monica Linden, Neuroscience
Planning, monitoring, and evaluation prompts all highlight different aspects of a student’s thought process by illuminating how they approach a task or activity. For example, asking a student to plan and evaluate their goals on a writing assignment or problem set allows them to understand their motivation and its connection with the task. Below are example prompts from Schraw (2001):
- What is the nature of my task?
- What is my goal?
- What information /strategies do I need?
- How much time/resources will I need?
- Do I understand what I’m doing?
- Does the task make sense?
- Am I reaching my goals?
- Do I need to make changes?
- Have I reached my goal?
- What worked/did not work?
- What would I do differently?
For more detail, Tanner (2012) adapts these prompts for specific activities (e.g., class session, active learning task, or exam). To help students think consciously about their learning, you can ask a series of metacognitive prompts as part of an assignment and ask students to respond to them using the comment feature in Microsoft Word (LaVaque-Manty & Evans, 2013).
Minute Reflection Paper/ Question of the Day Exercise
These are activities that prompt students to write a reflection to an open-ended question or statement such as “What was the muddiest point of today’s lesson?”; “Today I learned…”; or “A question I have is…” These may be asked in or outside of class and only take a couple of minutes to write. Asking students to reflect on what they learned gives them the opportunity to assess their current understanding and determine the significance of content. These short reflections also allow instructors to gauge student understanding of the material at a particular moment in time.
This activity is typically a short pre-, post- reflection that "wraps around" an existing assessment or learning opportunity (e.g., homework assignment, exam, or lecture). For example, you could assign an exam wrapper that asks students about their study strategies, preparation, or study goals. After returning exams, ask students to identify how these study strategies worked. An example of a pre-lecture wrapper may include pointing out to students effective listening or note-taking skills. A post-lecture wrapper asks students to write down three important ideas from the lecture followed by presenting them with the desired takeaways, which gives students an opportunity to check their alignment (Lovett, 2008). Using wrappers is one way to help students be more reflective when they approach assessment and learning opportunities, identify areas in their learning they can improve, and invite students to think about pedagogical decisions behind curricular tasks.
This structured assessment provides students with the opportunity to reflect, monitor, and evaluate their thinking and approach to learning. When creating a self-assessment for students, focus on what aspects of their learning you want them to assess. This may include their preparation, implementation, or evaluation of a task. Advantages of self-assessment include increasing self-efficacy, improved motivation to persist through the content or course, and an opportunity to identify gaps in knowledge in order to create a plan to move forward. Examples of reflection prompts include:
- Describe your preparation and work process
- Describe your goals or what you hope to achieve (e.g., work product)
- Evaluate your performance
- Provide areas for future improvement
- Describe your next steps
Similar to self-assessment, group-assessment benefits students by asking them to reflect, monitor, and evaluate their role and relationships within a group. This can be done formally through a prescribed form or worksheet, or informally by asking students at the end of a group activity to reflect on the whole group experience. Some advantages to a group-assessment include increased autonomy and accountability for students, and it also provides a feedback mechanism for the instructor to gauge group dynamics and if groupings need to change in the future. Asking students to be a participant in a group assessment has the potential to increase participation among all members.
Short Character Memoir
Asking students to focus a short memoir, or a first-person account of an experience, on a learning experience provides them an opportunity to reflect on the connections between course content and their personal lives. This is an activity that can be done once or as a series throughout a course. This activity includes a prompt or goal to direct their thinking, such as, “In a 140-character memoir, summarize your experience with the course content.” This is a familiar activity to students who engage with social media such as Twitter or Facebook.
An elevator pitch asks students to convey information to a general audience in a short amount of time, for example, as long as it takes to ride an elevator. This activity can take on the form of a role play with one person persuading another “stakeholder” to take action from a brief conversation. If students are prepared, they will have reflected on what they have learned and convey the crucial parts of an idea or activity (e.g. research project or writing assignment) to the “stakeholder.” This activity requires a student to reflect and integrate concepts and ideas in a concise way.
Learning or Reading Log
This is an activity that involves students writing in a log at the beginning and end of class. Similar to a minute reflection paper, an instructor may ask questions that relate to the particular course. For example, “What is one idea that interested you today and why?” or “How would you explain a concept covered today in your own words?” A template may also be used for consistency, for example, asking students:
- What I did and why
- What did I learn
- How will I use it
- Questions I still have about it
- Resources I will use
A learning log has many functions. It is a way for students to track changes in their thinking, provide them with moments of reflection and action, and serve as a form of self-assessment. A learning or reading log provides useful feedback for instructors to gauge student learning in order to be adaptive with their instruction.
Visible Classroom Opinion Poll
This activity is an effective way to invite students to engage with content and peers. It consists of presenting a controversial statement to students who then must analyze and determine their opinion on that statement. This is followed by a visible representation of that opinion. Students might be asked to move to particular corners of the room that correspond with designated options, taking steps across the room, or simply raising their hands. Advantages of this activity include actively engaging students in critically thinking and communicating ideas/opinions, synthesizing and incorporating multiple perspectives, and demonstrating a comprehension of topics through justification.
An example of promoting metacognition throughout a course is given by Robert Ward, a visiting lecturer in English.
I've built the Academic Essay class on the act of reflection - on sight, on hearing, on feeling - that develops through close reading and writing practices. To enable students to acquire reflective critical skills, I assign a series of metawriting essays, in both notebook and print forms. The students use these essays to consider the decisions they took in their major thematic writing.
- Robert Ward, Nonfiction Writing Program, English
These reflective practices are a great way to help students be aware of how they approach problems, writing tasks, projects, concepts, etc. Practices that require students to communicate complex ideas with one another provide them the opportunity to improve and refine their thinking.
If ou would like to discuss strategies for promoting metacognition in your own classroom, please contact the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning for a consultation: Sheridan_Center@brown.edu
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Brownlee, J., Purdie, N., & Boulton-Lewis, G. (2001). Changing epistemological beliefs in pre-service teacher education students. Teaching in higher education, 6(2), 247-268.
LaVaque-Manty, M., & Evans, E. M. (2013). Implementing metacognitive interventions in disciplinary writing classes. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVaque-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (122-146). Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Lovett, M. C. (2008). Teaching metacognition [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://web.uri.edu/teach/files/Metacognition-ELI.pdf
Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2015). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed educational activities to put students on the path to success. Routledge.
Schraw, G. (2001). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. In H. J. Hartman (Ed.), Metacognition in learning and instruction (pp. 3-16). Springer Netherlands.
Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113-120. Available: http://www.lifescied.org/content/11/2/113.full