As the pendulum of educational philosophy continues to swing from teaching what to think to teaching how to think, metacognition has taken its place among indispensable instructional practices. Metacognition might be the oldest teaching strategy around, harkening back to the days of Socrates, as it is, at the most basic level, thinking about thinking.
What is Metacognition?
Metacognition goes beyond simply pondering the idea of thinking. It requires learners to “externalize mental events” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 67) and examine what is required to accomplish a specific learning outcome. In addition to developing thinking strategies, the learner must have a “critical awareness” of both themselves and the task at hand. Thinkers must consider their strengths and weaknesses and develop strategies to compensate for any areas of need.
Why is Teaching Metacognition Important?
Students who use metacognitive practices are better able to adapt their thinking to new situations and generalize their learning. They accomplish this by gaining a level of awareness that’s above the subject matter. Additionally, they think about tasks and contexts of different learning situations and themselves as learners in the different contexts. Cultivating highly capable thinkers requires that students practice metacognitive skills correctly and reflectively. In order for a learner to adapt to new stimuli, they must master a wide variety of metacognitive tools that are most effective in support of their own thinking, and they only master these skills with frequent and correct practice.
Metacognition Strategies to Use in the Classroom
Modeling and questioning are critical components of teaching metacognition. Teachers can facilitate metacognition by modeling their own thinking aloud and by creating questions that prompt reflective thinking in students. Explicit instruction in the way one thinks through a task is essential to building these skills in students. Therefore, teachers must not only incorporate questions about thinking into their lessons, but model for students what responses to these questions might be by playing the role of both a successful and unsuccessful learner.
Metacognitive strategies fall into three categories: planning, monitoring, and evaluating one’s thinking. In the planning stage, students engage in practices that deal with the question, “How will I accomplish the desired learning outcome?” While monitoring their thinking, students ask, “How am I doing in my execution of my plan and in my understanding/execution?” And either at intervals throughout the learning process or at the end, students evaluate their thinking and consider, “What went well and what could I do better next time?”
Some metacognitive strategies transcend multiple categories, especially as one considers the idea that learning is a constant pursuit that sometimes requires backtracking, revision, and amendment, and therefore flows fluidly through cycles of planning, monitoring, and evaluating.
Self-questioning is a strategy that can be used at any stage of a lesson. Students simply pose and answer questions of themselves. This can be done informally, even silently, or aloud, as in a think-pair-share. It can also be accomplished through the creation of a reflective journal in which students have a written conversation with themselves about their thinking.
While planning for their learning, a student might ask “What could I do to prepare for class today? What do I already know about the topic we’re discussing? If I were to write my own learning target for today’s lesson, what would it be? What do I need to do in order to accomplish this task?”
During the lesson or activity, the student could monitor their thinking by asking, “What have I been doing today that is helping me accomplish the learning outcome? What other resources could I use to accomplish this goal? How might I obtain those resources?”
At the conclusion of the lesson or activity, the student would then reflect, “What did I learn from this activity that I didn’t know before? What knowledge am I still missing or what questions do I have? What could I do differently next time I’m faced with a similar task?”
Pre-assessments allow students to express and examine their prior knowledge of content. Teachers can increase the effectiveness of this practice by having students examine the information provided by preassessments to determine what questions they might have about the content and how they might plan their personal approach to learning the new skill or information.
Preparing for an assessment such as a quiz or exam has the potential for metacognition, when a student constructs and executes a personalized plan for their preparation. Before an assessment, the teacher might ask students to compare study strategies with classmates to decide if someone else’s strategy might benefit them. Students can also consider their performance on previous assessments and reflect about which preparation activities yielded dividends and which did not, in order to design the most efficient and effective study plan.
Identifying confusions in a low-risk manner can help students monitor their thinking on a topic. Teachers might ask students to write about what they found most confusing about a topic in their reflective journal or as an exit ticket in order to inform the next day’s lesson.
Active-learning tasks are a way for students to participate in monitoring their own learning and include tasks such as, “Write three things you were surprised to learn from today’s lesson and three questions you still have about the topic,” or “Write yourself a note explaining what you would do differently, if you were starting this assignment all over again.”
Students (and, at times, instructors) sometimes see the assessment as the “goal.” However, if learning is the true endgame, then post-assessments are valuable for the insights they provide. When students are asked to reflect on an assessment performance, the preparation strategies used, and the different approaches they might take going forward, an assessment becomes a teaching tool and a blueprint for future thinking.