by Adele Marky
Metacognitive skills allow us to think deeply about learning and helps to improve the effectiveness of our own learning processes. These skills are scaffolded throughout elementary school and continue to be taught explicitly throughout higher education. While some students develop strong metacognitive skills early on, others may need additional support to hone these skills.
Metacognition is broadly defined as “thinking about one’s own thinking.” Metacognition is identifying, through self-awareness, the way our strengths and weaknesses affect how we learn. Once we establish an understanding of how we learn and what obstacles stand in our way of learning, we can begin to truly understand our own learning processes.
There are different approaches to learning. In the Matthew’s Academic Learning Lab (M.A.L.L.) here at Far Hills Country Day School, we focus on a personal, individualized learning process. Students learn what works very well for them, may not work for others, and vice versa. When we identify what works best for us individually, the better equipped we are to receive support and implement the evidence-based strategies needed for success.
The essential questions and making connections
A critical component of teaching metacognitive skills is to have students ask critical questions in themselves: “Do I understand the objectives of this lesson?” “Are the expectations clear?” Teaching goals include building higher-order thinking skills and thinking with accuracy and depth. The development of these goals is contingent on the student first understanding and appreciating the lesson and the corresponding tasks that have been assigned to reinforce new ideas and concepts. Considering the value of the learning–and how it will affect future understanding–is a way to bring meaning to the learning process and the motivation required to engage in it. When we pose upon the students to think like a scientist, historian, mathematician, or author, they practice metacognition. “Where would a historian travel?” “How would a scientist research more information?”
Effective learning occurs when previous knowledge connects with new information in a meaningful way. We want our learners to recognize how classroom instruction is scaffolded to build upon previously learned concepts while further solidifying a more profound understanding through the introduction of more complex ideas and concepts.
When teaching metacognition skills, a key focus is on developing self-regulation skills. Students become independent learners when they monitor and address their own thought processes and planning. An example of this is when students who work to understand math concepts are prompted to consider the following self-monitoring questions: “Which questions are difficult for me to solve? Where are my errors?” “How did I prepare for my quiz?” and “What will I do differently the next time?” Self-questioning is effective as it allows students to be reflective and adjust their future thinking.
- "What do I already know?"
- "Where am I confused?"
- "What is the most effective/efficient approach to face my difficulties?"
Students are encouraged to take these reflective learning opportunities by:
- seeking the assistance of their teachers;
- doing an internet search;
- reviewing materials;
- collaborating with peers; and/or
- discovering information in M.A.L.L.
Our specialists help develop these metacognitive skills, which are essential for critical thinking and problem-solving.
Self-regulation skills are further practiced in the M.A.L.L. when, in sequence, students:
- check their Google Classrooms;
- update their planner accordingly;
- review the assigned rubrics;
- check to understand teacher expectations; and
- answer “What is the value in this learning/assignment?”
Know the expectations
Similar to executive functioning skills, metacognitive skill development requires specific short and long-term goals. Priorities need to be clearly set and recorded. Task steps need to be achievable, manageable, and meaningful. Success is realized when students know the expectations, make and stick to a plan, reflect on progress, evaluate the outcome, and make adjustments in this sequence as necessary. We know from research that these skills don’t fully develop until our mid-twenties, as the prefrontal cortex is still developing, and therefore this practice often requires teacher support.
Teachers in the M.A.L.L. support students tasked with a reading assignment by utilizing metacognitive markers to complement their close reading. Metacognitive markers are symbols or codes used to express reactions to reading. Close reading is an approach to analyzing the details and meaning of a text.
Pictured: Metacognitive markers in action.
When using metacognitive markers, paragraphs are chunked into smaller sections, summarized, and the main idea and author’s choices are then identified. Metacognitive markers annotate text, which prompts students to write their predictions, circle unfamiliar or new words, draw connections to prior learning, and underline essential facts. Students also share their reactions to their reading by addressing thinking prompts such as, “What did the author assume you already knew?” “What surprised you? What do you wonder about?” and “What connections can you make from learning in other classes?” Together, we share predictions, surprises, questions, and realizations so that students are collaborating and expanding their learning. Most importantly, students strengthen their comprehension skills through the process.
Pictured: Students sharing predictions, surprises, questions, and realizations.
In the M.A.L.L., additional time outside the classroom is available to practice these skills. Not only will you find Grade 5 and 6 plot diagrams in the M.A.L.L, but also you will find students with a pencil and book in hand–ready to record and take notes as we continue to analyze texts. Small groups and pairing of learners in our space allows us to focus on the metacognition needed so that the main events and the theme of the text can be examined closely.
Metacognitive skills strengthen when we recognize and analyze why and how failure has occurred and how to tackle it. “Why am I distracted?” “How can I study after school?” Self-monitoring, paired with teacher feedback, can help our learners remain positively challenged with a sense of academic progress. Times of struggle present opportunities to show students how learning frustrations lead to brain priming, and eventually, mastery! New information consumes cognitive capacity, such as processing, memory, and retrieval, all of which are mental exercises that can lead to feelings of defeat. This is why learners need to be provided the time and space to practice being active participants in their learning, with teachers modeling what active learning and metacognitive skills looks like.
More and more often, we witness our students openly and freely share their own personal learning challenges with one another. Our learners are becoming more comfortable expressing their learning challenges, which often results in other students chiming in with their own difficulties too. Expressing our challenges in a safe and supportive environment allows us to further discover our perceived limitations and to identify the “height” of the hurdles. The discussions that come from these moments will remind us that we will persevere through these obstacles.
At the start of this school year, we introduced the concept of metacognition to our Grade 5 and 6 classes and revisited metacognitive concepts with the Grade 7 and 8 classes.
We began with definitions:
1. Thinking about your thinking.
2. Learning how to learn.”
We posted these definitions on a wall and discussed the meaning as a group.
Our students created a slide show entitled “About Me.” This was a fun back-to-school ice-breaker activity. The requirement was to create three to seven slides that highlighted personal interests, activities, hobbies, and family facts, etc. However, one slide was to include self-perceived strengths and weaknesses. Students had the option to share their completed slide presentations; 100% of them were more than eager to do so! After sharing, peers had the opportunity to ask questions specifically about the “Strengths and Weaknesses” slides only. We discovered that many of us share similar and opposite strengths and weaknesses. We discussed how and why we believe we have been bestowed these “gifts.” We also thought about how we should address these challenges. Which strategies are best for strengthening a specific weakness?
This experience helped set the tone for the type of work we do in the M.A.L.L. That is, we focus on areas of weakness by drawing on the skills of our strengths, and by using evidence-informed strategies that are modeled, implemented, and evaluated throughout the year. Educators know that establishing trusting, personal relationships is important for linking emotional connections to academics.
Our opening activity provided a segway into understanding what motivates and interests our learners so that we can draw on these connections as we work together throughout the year. For example, one student shared one of his weaknesses is “being allergic to bees.” We can refer to that when studying for vocabulary. Consider, for example, the vocabulary word “panacea.” “What is a panacea for bee stings?” In learning about ancient civilizations, that connection can be applied as such when discussing which civilization was recorded to have first harvested honey from beehives. This particular student is an avid soccer player, so being allergic to bees is a big deal in his life. And this weakness creates vulnerability and discomfort. But, talking about this and facing it can help build general overall confidence and well-being. And that can transfer to other areas in which a weakness exists. We are modeling metacognition by thinking about our own strengths and weaknesses and developing a strategy to address these personal challenges.
Some areas of academic weaknesses and strengths shared by students included “reading comprehension, reading fluency, creative writing, research writing, memory, and problem-solving.” It is important that learners know that neuroplasticity provides the ability for our brains to change and learn, and therefore, current weaknesses can become strengths! As educators, we desire to help students strengthen their weaknesses. Thus, we come to school every day to help change brains, mindsets, and to strengthen metacognition.
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