Research School Network: Thinking about metacognition

Thinking about metacognition

by Durrington Research School
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At Durrington High School we run a half-termly journal club where teachers come to discuss a useful and relevant education research paper. Our first paper of the academic year was Metacognition: Study Strategies, Monitoring, and Motivation by William Peirce (2003) which is a useful review of the literature surrounding metacognition.

Metacognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently been shown to have high levels of impact on learning – often leading to significant progress, especially for low achieving and older students. However, this impact can be quite difficult to achieve. (Follow this link for the EEF advice and guidance on metacognition and self-regulation.)

The Peirce paper defines metacognition as thinking about thinking’. Or, as Taylor (1999) put it, effective metacognition is:

an appreciation of what one already knows, together with a correct apprehension of the learning task and what knowledge and skills it requires, combined with the agility to make correct inferences about how to apply one’s strategic knowledge to a particular situation, and to do so efficiently and reliably.” (2)

To achieve this, our students need to possess and be aware of three types of knowledge:

  • Declarative knowledge: factual information – e.g. momentum = mass times velocity;
  • Procedural knowledge: knowledge of how to do something – e.g. knowing the mass of an object and how to do the calculation;
  • Conditional knowledge: knowledge about when to use a procedure, skill or strategy and when not to – e.g. recognising that an exam word problem requires the calculation of momentum as part of its solution.

As well as this, research suggests that explicitly teaching study strategies improves learning; however, these strategies are often domain specific and do not readily transfer from one context to the next. In other words, self-assessing your work in maths will be very different to self-assessing in English, and very different again from self-assessing in P.E. This is why students need to know about which strategies to employ in different contexts.

Students need to actively monitor the strategies that they are choosing to employ. These include goal setting, monitoring, self-assessing and regulating during thinking and writing processes.” For example, when completing an English essay, students will need to choose which planning, monitoring and evaluating processes they will use. These, of course, will need to have been explicitly taught in the first instance.

There are several types of problems students come across when monitoring their learning. An effective teaching strategy is to ask students to tell you step by step how they are going about a task. This way, you can discover the errors and mistakes they are making – such as missing important steps or not separating relevant information from irrelevant.

Simpson and Nist (2000) reviewed 20 years of literature on strategic learning and highlighted the following points:

  • Understanding the task is of great importance;
  • What students believe about learning affects their selection of study strategies;
  • Instructors need to provide good instruction in how to use study strategies;
  • Instructors should teach a variety of strategies that research has shown to be effective;
  • Instructors should emphasise the cognitive and metacognitive processes that underlie a study strategy.

At the end of journal club, teachers shared the teaching ideas they will take away and use in their classrooms. These included:

  • Asking the question How did you come to think that way?’ so that students can explain their thought processes.
  • Concentrating on common misconceptions during DIRT lessons – and then showing students how to overcome them.
  • Using the last five minutes of of lessons to ask students what they have and have not learnt.
  • Asking students to explain where and how they will start a task.
  • Using the vocabulary of metacognition with students – i.e. explain and discuss three types of knowledge – declarative, procedural and conditional.
  • Picking out questions that students could not answer fully. Ask them to declare their knowledge as the first step on putting this right.
  • Getting students to fail faster’ by giving them an impossible task and then asking what they will need to know to complete it. This why, they see why they are learning something.

If you are interested in developing the use of metacognition strategies in the classroom, take a look at our forthcoming training programme – Using the EEF Toolkit to address disadvantage in coastal areas.

Posted by Andy Tharby

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