Best practice: Making sense of metacognition – Part 2

This article was written for SecEd Magazine. 

This is part two of a two-part article. Read the first part here.

In the first part of this article last week, I defined the terms “metacognition” and “self-regulation” and sought to explain what they look like in the classroom (Metacognition explained, SecEd, November 2018).
I explained what pupils must do in order to take control of their own learning, and what teachers must do in order to help their pupils develop metacognitive skills.

In the second and final part, I’d like to share six more teaching approaches that help develop pupils’ metacognition and self-regulation, namely:

  1. Thinking aloud.
  2. Thinking hard.
  3. Thinking efficiently.
  4. Thinking positively.
  5. Thinking together.
  6. Thinking alone.

Thinking aloud

One of the most effective teaching strategies to promote metacognition is “thinking aloud” whereby the teacher makes explicit what they do implicitly and makes visible the expertise that is often invisible to the novice learner.

The best thinking aloud occurs when the teacher is modelling excellence. For example, a teacher may write a short paragraph of persuasive text to model how to use rhetorical devices. As she is writing, the teacher explains every decision she is taking, and articulates the drafting and redrafting process that is essential to all good writing.

There is some evidence, at least in terms of metacognition, that modelling and thinking aloud should not be too specific as this may inhibit pupils’ reflection. Indeed, as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), curators of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, says, “some ‘deliberate difficulty’ is required so that pupils have gaps where they have to think for themselves and monitor their learning with increasing independence”.

For more, see Teaching practice: Explanations and modelling (SecEd, January 2017). (All URLs are listed below.)

Thinking hard

Teachers need to set an appropriate level of challenge if they are to help develop pupils’ metacognition and self-regulation because if pupils are not given hard work to do – if they do not face difficulty, struggle with it and overcome it – they will not develop new and useful strategies, they will not be afforded the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and they will not be able to reflect sufficiently on the content with which they are engaging.

Moreover, if pupils are not made to think hard, they will not encode new information into long-term memory and so learning will not occur.

The EEF offers some useful questions for pupils to ask that gauge the difficulty level of the work they’re doing.

Knowledge of task:

  • Is this task too challenging for me?
  • What are the most difficult aspects of this task?
  • How much time should I devote to this task?
  • Are there easy bits I can get “done”?

Knowledge of self:

  • Is this task asking for subject knowledge I can remember?
  • Do I understand the concept(s) that underpins this task?
  • Am I motivated to stick at this tricky task?
  • What can I do to keep myself focused?

Knowledge of strategies:

  • Are my notes effective for understanding this task?
  • Do I need to ask the teacher for help?
  • What strategies can I deploy if I am stuck?
  • What can I do to ensure I remember what I’ve learned?

For more, see The process of learning: Hard times (SecEd, October 2017).

Thinking efficiently

As well as thinking hard, pupils need to think efficiently if they are to cheat the limitations of working memory. Yes, pupils must be challenged and must struggle with new concepts if they are attend to them actively and therefore encode them into long-term memory, but if the work’s too hard, they are likely to hit cognitive overload whereby they try to hold too much information in working memory at one time and therefore thinking fails.

The trick, then, is to ensure the work is hard but achievable. The work must be beyond pupils’ current capability but within their reach. They must struggle but must be able to overcome the challenge with time, effort and support.

The concept of cognitive load theory (which was first espoused by John Sweller) is crucial to metacognition and self-regulation for three principal reasons.

First, when we draw on existing knowledge from long-term memory to support working memory, creating what’s called “schema”, we increase working memory capacity and overcome its limited size. This explains why knowledge is important and why pupils must be encouraged to try and activate prior knowledge before asking for help.

Second, we understand new concepts within the context of what we already know. The more pupils know and can draw from their long-term memory, the more meaningful new knowledge will become and the more they will be able to process and apply it.

Third, to ensure that learning activities don’t demand too much of working memory and cause cognitive overload, we need to teach pupils coping strategies such as using mind-maps, taking effective notes (perhaps using the Cornell method), thinking aloud to work through problems, and breaking tasks down into smaller steps.

Teachers can support this process through the use of structured planning templates, teacher modelling, worked examples, and breaking down activities into their constituent parts, revealing one part at a time and in sequence. Teachers can also help by being mindful of the fact that metacognitive tasks – such as asking pupils to reflect on their learning – can, if not well-timed, distract pupils from the task at hand. In other words, teachers shouldn’t expect pupils to develop new cognitive and metacognitive skills simultaneously, rather one must follow the other.

For more, see The process of learning: Cheats prosper (SecEd, October 2017).

Thinking positively

Research suggests that an important factor in the effective use of metacognitive strategies is the ability to delay gratification.

In other words, pupils who are better able to delay rewards in favour of studying are better at planning and regulating their learning, and vice-versa. This is nothing new, of course. Walter Mischel began his now-famous “marshmallow tests” back in 1960. He gave young children a challenge of delaying their gratification by offering them a choice of one small reward – a single marshmallow – or waiting 15 minutes and receiving two marshmallows instead.

During the experiment, children used a number of metacognitive strategies such as not looking at the marshmallow and closing their eyes and thinking of something completely different. Pupils need to be taught strategies for delaying gratification and for motivating themselves if they are to master metacognition. There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain a desired outcome. Extrinsic motivation comes from influences outside an individual’s control; a rationale, a necessity, a need. Common forms of extrinsic motivation are rewards (for example, money or prizes), or – conversely – the threat of punishment.

To build extrinsic motivation, and therefore improve metacognition, we can provide pupils with a rationale for learning by sharing the “big picture” with them. In other words, we can continually explain how their learning fits in to the module, the course, the qualification, their careers and to success in work and life.

For example, we can explain how today’s lesson connects with yesterday’s lesson and how the learning will be extended or consolidated next lesson, as well as how it will be assessed at a later stage. We can explain how this learning will become useful in later life, too. And we can connect the learning in one subject with the learning in other subjects, making explicit the transferability of knowledge and skills and the interconnectedness of skills in everyday life.

Intrinsic motivation, meanwhile, is the self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, in order to gain new knowledge. Often, intrinsic motivation is driven by an inherent interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within an individual rather than relying on external pressures or necessity. Put simply, it is the desire to do something even though there is no reward except a sense of accomplishment at achieving that thing. Intrinsic motivation is a natural motivational tendency and is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development.

Pupils who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to engage in a task willingly as well as work to improve their skills through metacognition and self-regulation which – in turn – increase their capabilities. Pupils are likely to be intrinsically motivated if:

  • They attribute their educational results to factors under their own control, also known as autonomy.
  • They believe in their own ability to succeed in specific situations or to accomplish a task – also known as a sense of self-efficacy.
  • They are genuinely interested in accomplishing something to a high level of proficiency, knowledge and skill, not just in achieving good grades – also known as mastery.

For more, see How can you motivate your students? (SecEd, April 2018).

Thinking together

Our job as teachers is to help pupils move from novice to expert. Part of this process is to ensure our pupils become increasingly independent over time. In short, we need to begin with lots of scaffolds in place but slowly remove those scaffolds as pupils develop their knowledge and skills. Asking challenging questions and guiding pupils with verbal feedback, prompting dialogue, and productive “exploratory” talk is a great way to do this.

In practice, the teacher might achieve this by encouraging pupils to think in advance of a task about what could go wrong then, afterwards, to discuss what they found hard about the task.

Of course, it is not just about the teacher interacting with pupils, pupils must also interact with each other in order to test their metacognitive strategies and knowledge.

“Dialogic teaching” is a particularly effective method of managing these interactions because it emphasises classroom dialogue through which pupils learn to reason, discuss, argue, and explain. As the EEF explains:

“A key element of (dialogic teaching) is to encourage a higher quality of teacher talk by going beyond the closed ‘teacher question–pupil response–teacher feedback’ sequence. (Instead), dialogue needs to be purposeful and not just conversation, with teachers using questions to elicit further thought.”

Dialogic teaching is the brainchild of Professor Robin Alexander whose most recent research identified six basic talk “repertoires”: talk settings, everyday talk, learning talk, teaching talk, questioning, and extending.

The most relevant repertoires for developing metacognitive skills, so says the EEF, are learning talk and teaching talk. Learning talk includes narrating, questioning, and discussing; teaching talk, meanwhile, includes instruction, exposition, and dialogue.

For more, see Teaching practice: Socratic seminars & Teaching practice: Dialogic questioning (both (SecEd, February 2017).

Thinking alone

As pupils move from novice towards expertise, they become independent learners and, with a greater degree of autonomy, make active choices to manage and organise their own learning. But even as pupils become independent, they need their teachers to provide them with timely feedback and to help them to plan, monitor, and evaluate their progress.

According to Barry Zimmerman, independent learners use a number of strategies to help them, including:

  • Setting specific short-term goals.
  • Adopting powerful strategies for attaining the goals.
  • Monitoring performance for signs of progress.
  • Restructuring one’s physical and social context to make it compatible with one’s goals.
  • Managing time-use efficiently.
  • Self-evaluating one’s methods.
  • Attributing causation to results and adapting future methods.

David Perkins (1992) defined four levels of metacognitive learner which provide a useful framework for teachers when identifying where on the novice-expert continuum their pupils are and how much support is required:

  1. Tacit learners are unaware of their metacognitive knowledge. They do not think about any particular strategies for learning and merely accept if they know something or not.
  2. Aware learners recognise some of the thinking processes they use, such as generating ideas, finding evidence, etc. However, thinking is not necessarily deliberate or planned.
  3. Strategic learners organise their thinking by using problem-solving, grouping and classifying, evidence-seeking and decision-making, etc. They know and apply the strategies that help them learn.
  4. Reflective learners are not only strategic about their own thinking, but they also reflect upon their learning while it is happening, considering the success or failure of their strategies and revising them as appropriate.

For more, see Developing skills: The magic of myelin (SecEd, January 2015) & What do high expectations actually look like? (SecEd, November 2014).

References to previous SecEd articles:

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