“What Am I Doing? Is It Getting Me Anywhere?” Scaffolding Student Metacognition

Steven Volk, Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence (CTIE) and Professor of History Emeritus, Oberlin College
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Hands up those of you who have had students come to your office hours anguishing over the poor grades they received on an exam. I’m not talking about the student who thinks his grade should be higher, rather the student who can’t figure out why she got such a low grade since she worked really hard preparing for the exam:

I studied all Saturday night and Sunday; I re-read all the assigned textbook readings and went over my notes. I even took the time to memorize all the words bolded in the text. I worked really hard, but still got a C-. I don’t know what to do!

So, what’s your advice, dear reader? Tell the student: “It looks like you’re not studying hard enough. You need to work harder; you need to figure out how to apply yourself better”?

Or what about the student who has done well on all the quizzes and exams you have given but seems to struggle when asked in class to explain the reasoning behind her proofs or the concept from which the equation is drawn?

Or what about the student who took the entry-level physics class, and did very well, but doesn’t appear to have carried over what he learned in that class to the next level?

It’s not surprising that the great majority of our students have learned to be good at school – they know how to take tests, draw between the lines, memorize what they are told to memorize, and give us what we seem to be asking for. They probably wouldn’t have been admitted if they weren’t good at school. But that doesn’t mean that they have learned how to be good at learning, that they know how to make learning their own, or have gained some insight on how they learn, not just what they learn, and can transfer what they have learned in one domain (say the close attention to detail that helps them excel in art history) to other domains (perhaps psychology, or a close and critical reading of texts). And, ultimately that would be a shame because the latter are the students who will better apply what they have learned in school to help them succeed in many fields after they graduate.

The historian Brook Adams, writing in the Atlantic in 1879, observed: “Knowing that you cannot teach a child everything, it is best to teach a child how to learn.” Adams charged that the Boston school system, on whose board he served, was failing miserably at this. Francis W. Parker, the superintendent of the Quincy, Massachusetts system around the same time, wanted all students to, as he put it, make their learning their own, to gain from their schooling a resource they could rely on throughout their lives. Le plus ça change?

If the tension between being helping students be good at school and helping them be good at learning is an old one, it’s probably also one that each of us continues to confront in our classes. We are trained as scholars and creative artists in specific fields, analytic philosophy or printmaking, hydrogeology or contemporary Hebrew poetry. We probably wouldn’t have made it as far as we have if we hadn’t become experts not just in the content of our subjects of study, but also in understanding – explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously –how we best could approach our own learning. And yet, probably for most of us – and I’d certainly include myself here –we couldn’t, or can’t, articulate just what it was that we did to achieve this. Nor did we have many (any?) grad school professors who stopped us along the way to ask: do you know what you did to get over that roadblock, to make learning your own?

llustration from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Principles of Light and Color (1878)

As instructors, we are hired to teach students the content that we have become expert in. And, except for some in psychology or those in the field of education, we don’t necessarily think about whether we should make our students aware of how they can also master learning, and not just history or music theory. And even if we did, would we know how to go about this?

We’re now in the realm of metacognition and helping our students think about their own metacognitive strategies. In this week’s article, the first of two on the topic, I’ll discuss some approaches to how we can help our students become better learners by focusing on metacognitive strategies in class sessions, on exams and papers, and after they have finished a course. The research literature on metacognition is rich and quite deep, and I’ll include a short bibliography at the end for those interested in  pursuing it further (and I am sure that our colleagues in Psychology can be of much greater help than I in this regard). This essay draws from a number of research publications, but it is primarily indebted to Kimberly D. Tanner, “Promoting Student Metacognition,” which appeared in Life Sciences Education (American Society of Cell Biology) in 2012.

In a future article I’ll focus on how we, as teachers, can use megacognitive strategies to improve as instructors.

Metacognition

Without getting too deep in the definitional weeds, we could use some working concept of metacognition. In its simplest sense, metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” But we can also push it a bit further. Any process that helps us think about how we got to an answer, rather than the answer itself, can probably be thought of as a metacognitive process. The Socratic method would qualify as a metacognitive one in the sense that it focuses on a guided set of questions that can produce an answer. Math problems that require the student to record step-by-step reasoning rather than just writing the answer are in the metacognitive mode, at least in a broad sense. My go-to guy, John Dewey, who argued that students would learn more from reflecting on their experiences than from the actual experiences themselves, introduces a metacognitive approach – and we’ll return to him shortly.

Metacognition, according to John Flavell, the psychologist credited with the developing the term, “refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes…the learning-relevant properties of information or data.” Flavell divided metacognitive processes into three categories, summarized here.  The divisions are useful as we think of methods that can support our students’ metacognitive understandings.

  • “Knowledge of person variables” concern general knowledge about how we process information and our own awareness of this, i.e. “learning about learning.” The first example I gave, that of the frustrated student who can’t figure out why she’s doing poorly on exams, probably has a fairly low awareness of how she learns the best. Perhaps she’s studying while listening to music, checking her text messages frequently, or trying to study when she’s just too tired.
  • “Knowledge of task variables” refer to our deeper understanding about the task that we are given. Students who leave as much time to read a short story as they do for a 40-page article by Judith Butler or a chapter in a physics text could easily be in trouble because they haven’t properly assessed the task at hand.
  • “Knowledge about strategy variables” include understanding cognitive and metacognitive strategies as well as conditional knowledge about when and where it is appropriate to employ such strategies. “Knowledge,” Jennifer Livingston writes, “is considered to be metacognitive if it is actively used in a strategic manner to ensure that a goal is met. For example, a student may use knowledge in planning how to approach a math exam: ‘I know that I (person variable) have difficulty with word problems (task variable), so I will answer the computational problems first and save the word problems for last (strategy variable).’”

Supporting Student Metacognition: Student Self-Questioning

While there has been more research on the impact of metacognitive thinking on K-12 students than on college-age students, one clear conclusion from the research is that students with low metacognitive abilities generally can’t evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses appropriately. (Remind you of anyone?) They quite often overestimate their abilities and therefore are less likely to prepare well for assignments. James Lang, who writes frequently on teaching and learning for the Chronicle of Higher Education, some years ago referenced the cringe-worthy opening episodes of each season of “American Idol” calling them a mashup of lousy singing and dreadful metacognition: Don’t they know that they have no talent as singers? Returning to higher education: students who over-estimate their knowledge, skills, or level of preparation are unlikely to do well for the assigned task.

“Convolutions,” : Dr Alesha Sivartha, “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man,” 1898.

Paul Pintrich, on the other hand, has argued that “students who know about the different kinds of strategies for learning, thinking, and problem solving will be more likely to use them.” So how do we teach metacognitive strategies to our students and what can we do to help them?

Tanner’s article provides a wonderful place to begin, starting with prompting questions that students should ask themselves as they prepare for class, assignments, exams, or other tasks. For each type of activity (class session, active-learning task and/or homework assignment, quiz or exam, overall course), Tanner provides a set of questions-to-self that students can explore when planning an activity, monitoring their progress, or evaluating the outcome. (Here’s a great idea for an app to all you programmers out there: A metacognition app that prompts students, as in: “Siri: What do I already know about this topic?” “Alexa: What strategies should I use to study?”)

I’ll include a few of Tanner’s questions here. You can find the whole chart at the linked article.

Activity Planning Monitoring Evaluating
Class session *What are the goals of the class session going to be?*What do I already know about this topic?

*Where should I sit and what should I do (or not do) to best support my learning during class?

*What insights am I having during this class session?*What am I confused about?

*Can I distinguish important information from details? How will I figure this out?

*What was today’s class about?*How can I get my remaining questions answered?

*How did the ideas of today’s class relate to previous classes?

Active-learning task and/or homework assignment *What is the instructor’s goal in having me do this task?*What are all the things I need to do to be successful in this task?

*How much time will this take me?

*What strategies am I using that are working well or not working well to help me learn?*What is most challenging for me about this task? Most confusing? *To what extent did I successfully accomplish the goals of the task?*When I do an assignment or task like this again, what do I want to remember to do differently? What worked well for me that I should use next time?
Quiz or exam *What strategies will I use to study? Study groups, problem sets, etc.*How much time should I be studying? Over what period of time?

*What should I be spending more or less time on based on my current understanding?

*Am I taking advantage of all the learning supports available to me?*Am I struggling with my motivation to study? Do I remember why I am taking this course?

*Which of my confusions do I have to get clarified? How will I do this?

*What about my exam preparation worked well that I should remember to do next time?*What didn’t work so well so that I should not do next time or should change?

*What questions did I get wrong and what confusions do I have that still need to be clarified?

Overall course *Why is it important to learn the material in this course?*How does success in this course relate to my larger goals?

*How am I going to actively monitor my learning in this course?

*In what ways is the teaching in this course supportive of my learning? How could I maximize this?*How interested am I in this course? How confident am I in my learning? What could I do to increase my interest and confidence? *What will I still remember 5 years from now that I learned in this course?*What advice would I give a friend about how to learn the most in this course?

*What have I learned about how I learn in this course that I could use in my future courses?

Supporting Student Metacognition: Other Approaches

Providing significant formative feedback to students can also help them more accurately assess their knowledge about a topic. Many of these ideas will be familiar: minute papers, muddy point writing, clicker questions, etc. Here are a few others:

ConcepTests: Developed by the legendary Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, ConcepTests focus on a single concept; can’t be solved using equations; have good multiple-choice answers; are clearly worded; and are of intermediate difficulty. Stephen Chew, chair and professor of psychology at Stamford University (Birmingham, AL) describes how he uses them: After putting up a multiple-choice question, “Students select their answers individually, and I poll the class. They can then discuss their answer with other students, after which I poll the class again. Finally, we discuss the answers as a class. This gives me a sense of how well students understand the material. I can identify and address problem areas.” (Chew also offers a 6 short videos on metacognition and “how to get the most out of studying,” including a final one: “I Blew the Exam, Now What?”

Retrospective Post-assessments as a means of pushing students to be aware of conceptual change: Cognitive psychologists often define “learning” as “a student-centered activity in which students change their ideas about a topic” (Posner et al, 1982). Approached in this way, learning doesn’t happen until students examine how their understanding of a concept or idea has changed. This insight is reminiscent of Dewey’s argument that reflection on experience is more important than the experience itself. The learning happens in the reflection. Again, the question is how to help our students be reflective. One way is to engage students in a post-assessment exercise in which they are asked to discuss how they thought about the topic or concept before the assignment or other activity and to compare that with how they think about it after having completed the assignment.

Memo to Self: What did I learn? A relatively simple way to help students reflect on their learning is to have them write a letter or memo to their “future selves” after they have completed and been graded on an assignment. Encourage them to note what about their preparation for the exam or paper or other assignment worked well enough that it should be repeated the next time they take on a similar task. Did they work with a study group? Go to a peer instruction session? Attend office hours? Get two hours extra sleep the night before? Have a good breakfast? Similarly, they need to think about what didn’t work so well and shouldn’t be repeated?

Prompts to use in Class: Finally, again borrowing from Tanner’s excellent article, here are a list of questions you can ask students after standard classroom activities as a way of supporting their metacognitive thinking.

For “pairing-up” types of discussion after a ConcepTest, clicker question, or other multiple choice question posed to the class:

  • What did you think the question was asking?
  • What process did you use to arrive at your answer? Why did you choose “b,” for example?
  • What were the main reasons you didn’t chose “a” or “c”?
  • Compare your ideas with your discussion partner.
  • What most confused you about this question?
  • How confident are you in your answer? Why? What more would you need to increase your confidence?

For homework or active-learning tasks:

  • Pose three questions you had about the concepts you explored in this assignment that you still can’t answer.
  • Describe at least two ideas related to this assignment that you found confusing.
  • Do you agree that you “learned a lot” from the assignment? Why? Why not?
  • Think about how you approached completing this assignment and compare it with the way that you completed the last assignment.
  • What advice would you have for yourself based on what you know if you were just beginning the assignment?

Preparation for Quizzes and Exams:

  • How do you plan on preparing for the upcoming exam? Why?
  • What resources are available to support you? How will you make sure to use these?
  • Compare your exam preparation strategy with three others enrolled in the class – ask them how they are preparing.
  • What concepts have you found most confusing so far? What has been clearest? Given this, how could you best spend your time preparing for the exam?
  • Based on your performance on the first exam, write a memo to yourself with advice about preparing for the next exam.

Conclusion: It’s OK to be Confused

The final point, again from Tanner, is that we need to create an environment in the class where students know that they are both allowed and encourage to share their confusions as well as their brilliant insights. We can do this by recounting for students what happened when you taught the course before: “Students in previous semesters really seem to hit a speed bump when they got to this concept, so please share your questions and confusions; that way the whole class can benefit from the discussion.” In a previous article I suggested that, when addressing students who answer questions in class, it is as important to spell out why a particular answer was correct as why it was wrong. Pulling out the conceptual or procedural reasoning behind a question helps students as they think about their own thinking. Help your student not just to be good at school, but to be good at learning.


Some beginning resources on metacognition and teaching and learning:

“Odors and Flavors,” Dr Alesha Sivartha, “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man”

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., Lovett, M.C., DiPietro, M and Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (Short summary here.)

Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chew, S.  Five-part video series on learning.

Coutinho S.A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate 7, 39–47.

Kruger J, Dunning D (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how differences in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. J Personality Soc Psychol 77, 1121–1134.

National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Pintrich P. (2002). The role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory Pract 41, 219–226.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild N., Su T. T. (2009). Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions, Science, 323 (5910), 122-124.

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