In education, there is often a big leap from theory to practice. We may be convinced that a particular pedagogical approach is good, but find it challenging to translate that approach to the classroom. Metacognition in particular falls into that conundrum: the research evidence testifying to its effectiveness as a teaching strategy is convincing, but figuring out how to integrate it into instructional flow remains murky.
Luckily, there are expert educators out there who are willing to share their tips and tricks about how to implement metacognition as an instructional strategy. Here are their ideas, ready to be put to use in your classroom.
1. Use cognitive wrappers to help students develop better study strategies
Too often, students who receive feedback on their work zero in on the grade and overlook the opportunity to reflect on their learning process. While teachers may think that students are poring over their comments and strategizing how to improve their future outcomes, students are more than likely checking the grade and then moving on.
“As soon as students get a grade, the learning stops. We may not like it, but the research reviewed here shows that this is a relatively stable feature of how human minds work.” - Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment
José Antonio Bowen, President of Goucher College, recommends using cognitive wrappers as a way to encourage students to make the connection between study strategies and learning outcomes. Cognitive wrappers are short surveys given to students alongside assignment or exam feedback. The feedback does not include a grade; research suggests that including a grade alongside the comments washes out the benefits of the comments themselves (Black and Wiliam, 1998). Instead, the wrapper is a means of having students focus on their own strengths and weaknesses and how to best adapt their learning strategies.
The wrapper consists of questions about how much time students spent studying, what strategies they used, what sort of mistakes they made, and how they might improve their learning outcomes on the next assignment. These wrappers are basically tools for reflecting on and enhancing learning post-exam, reminding students that the grade is not the end goal.
Here is a cognitive wrapper template that you can use to help get students thinking about how they prepare for exams, what sort of mistakes they make, and how they can improve their study strategies. Wrappers should be specific to the content area and address relevant strategies and topics.
2. Model expert thinking
Thinking is an opaque process: we can’t see inside someone’s brain and understand how they break down a problem or strategize their learning. Many students are simply unaware of how they should be thinking while they learn. Exposing the thinking process through think-alouds or annotations can go a long way to giving students insight into how they might change their own approach to learning.
Dr Louise Gascoine, Assistant Professor at the Durham University School of Education, reflects on the importance of modeling metacognition for students: “[...] thinking about learning, talking about learning (and modeling both of these things) are key for teachers to facilitate metacognitive learning. I remember being a secondary school teacher and realizing that my students needed help to see what metacognition looked like. Indeed, recent research by colleagues emphasizes the importance of teachers as metacognitive role models (Wall & Hall, 2016).”
The next time you’re going through a rigorous text or a complex problem, expose to students the sort of questions you ask yourself or how you decide what to do next. Seeing your thinking in action will help give students a model for how they should form their own learning.
3. Create space for thinking
Maryellen Weimer, professor emerita of teaching and learning at Penn State Berks, mentions that most of the time classrooms are filled with talk—teacher talk, student talk—and most of us don’t think as deeply when others are talking. Try asking a question and let there be silence filled with the sounds of thinking. What’s she asking? What’s the answer? Could there be more than one answer? Which one is best?
High school teachers have an average wait time of just over one second per question asked (Sousa, 2017). This is unfortunate, because increasing the wait time after asking a question has been shown to increase the length and quality of student answers and solicit higher-order responses.
Slow down! Too much happens too quickly in most classrooms. If the goal is more thinking about thinking, slow the rapid spread of ideas and give students time to consider what they are thinking, why and how. Then ask for their thoughts. Articulating their thinking in writing is another effective means of giving students the time and space to unravel their own thought process before jumping to produce an answer.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and to teach metacognition. The key is to help students think strategically about their own learning, whether by asking them explicit questions about how they learn, modeling your own thought process, or just giving them adequate time to get to greater depth in their own thinking.
Black, P and Wiliam D. (1998) Assessment and Classroom Learning, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5:1, 7-74, DOI:10.1080/0969595980050102.
Sousa, D. A. (2017). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Publishing Company.
Wall, K., & Hall, E. (2016). Teachers as metacognitive role models. European Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4), 403-418.
Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.