Research School Network: Blog: Metacognition Kathryn Kilbride explores metacognition and self-regulation
Kathryn Kilbride explores metacognition and self-regulation
by Research Schools Network
In 2011 the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit was launched with the aim to bridge the gap between educational research and classroom practice. Since then ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ has become a particular piece of educational jargon that cannot be avoided. It has consistently been ranked as one of the Toolkit’s most popular strands and has been accessed over 120,000 times.
Metacognition and self-regulation has been rated by the Toolkit as having very high impact, it can be worth the equivalent of an additional +7 months progress when used well, for very low cost, based on extensive evidence. However, while the potential impact of these approaches is very high, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, less is known about how to apply them effectively to the classroom. We know that learners develop some metacognition naturally, and most teachers support metacognition in their teaching without realising it but there is no simple method or trick for implementing metacognition and it can be difficult to give concrete examples of what metacognitive knowledge and skills actually look like. The EEF guidance report on metacognition and self-regulated learning was published in 2018 and reviews the best available research to offer teachers and senior leaders with practical advice on how to develop their pupils’ metacognitive skills and knowledge as well as addressing some of the common misconceptions teachers have around metacognition.
So what exactly is metacognition and self-regulation?
Beyond the simple definition of ‘thinking about thinking’ it can be hard to describe what metacognition and self-regulation means in the classroom. On a basic level, it is about our pupils’ ability to monitor, direct and review their learning and effective metacognition strategies get learners to think about their own learning more explicitly. Self-regulation is about the extent to which learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and the strategies they use to learn. It describes how they can motivate themselves to engage in learning and develop strategies to enhance and improve it.
Zimmerman gives a helpful description of what a self-regulated learner looks like:
‘These learners are proactive in their efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations and because they are guided by personally set goals and task-related strategies, such as using an arithmetic addition strategy to check the accuracy of solutions to subtraction problems. These learners monitor their behaviour in terms of their goals and self-reflect on their increasing effectiveness. This enhances their self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning.’
Self-regulated learning can be broken down into three essential components; cognition, metacognition and motivation. Cognition is the mental process involved in knowing, understanding and learning. Cognitive strategies include skills or subject specific methods that allow pupils to acquire knowledge and complete a learning task, for example, memorisation techniques or different methods to solve equations in maths. Metacognition is how our pupils think about and deploy these strategies to monitor and purposefully direct their learning while motivation is about our pupils’ willingness to engage their metacognitive and cognitive skills and apply them to learning. All three aspect are needed be a self-regulated learner and it is important to note that while metacognition is often the most ambiguous component of self-regulation and the focus of the EEF guidance report, it is not more or less important than cognition or motivation. It is impossible to be metacognitive without having the knowledge of cognitive strategies and possessing the motivation to apply these strategies to problems.
This diagram from the EEF is a useful model to demonstrate what we mean by metacognition and metacognitive thought. Its starts with metacognitive knowledge which includes how well we know the task and the strategies that go into completing that task effectively as well as how well we know ourselves; how do we typically respond to that type of task, what do we struggle with, how long does it usually takes us to complete? Metacognitive regulation is how well we use that knowledge to plan, monitor and evaluate. For example, how well do we know this particular task and how does that affect how we plan to do it successfully? What strategies can we use and are we monitoring as we complete the task to see how effective the strategy is? Is this particular strategy working well or do I need to try another strategy? At the end of a task are we evaluating how successful we were at completing that task and thinking about what we might change next time? This type of thinking process is something most teachers will do day in day out without noticing, but it does not have to be left to chance with our pupils and we can explicitly teach them to be metacognitive by using strategies that make this thinking process explicit and forcing them to think in this way.
This purposefully direction of learning is metacognition and it is the purposeful element that is often lost in the simple definition of ‘thinking about thinking’. Perhaps a better definition from the EEF guidance report is ‘metacognition is about the ways learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning.’
How can we incorporate metacognition into our classrooms?
There are numerous different strategies for incorporating metacognition into your practice and these strategies will differ depending on the class, the individual pupil, the subject and the specific task. The evidence tells us that metacognitive strategies are most effective when they are embedded in a school’s curriculum and taught through subject content not as stand-alone lessons.
The EEF suggests the following seven-step model for explicitly teaching metacognitive strategies which can be applied to learning different subject content at different phases and ages.
1. Activating prior knowledge
2. Explicit strategy instruction
3. Modelling of learned strategy
4. Memorisation of strategy
5. Guided practice
6. Independent practice
7. Structured reflection
This allows you to develop solid subject knowledge and understanding which then forms the basis of increasingly independent practice followed by structured reflection of the process. In order for metacognitive thinking to stick, it must be practiced consistently and repeatedly applied to real learning contexts.
Making the implicit explicit
As teachers, we are the experts in the room but our thinking processes can remain largely invisible to our pupils. Modelling our metacognitive thought processes by thinking out loud while completing a task can make that thinking visible. When we verbalise our inner thought processes, we let learners inside our head so they can understand what expert thinking sounds like. Teachers should do this repeatedly, providing numerous examples of the thinking process, naming steps and providing opportunities for pupils to reflect on and critique the decisions made during the task. This can be extended by encouraging them to think out loud both with us and their peers.
Worked examples act as scaffolding during the learning process and can help guide our pupils thinking. The backwards fading ‘I, we, you’ model is a sequence of tasks that slowly increases learner contribution and effort, reducing the need for worked steps. As pupils grow in proficiency they are required to solve more of the problem themselves as guided practice moves towards independent practice with teacher input changing to monitoring and intervening when necessary. When teaching a new skill, start with teacher led instruction and modelling of worked examples. At this initially stage direct modelling and support is necessary, talking through your thinking process, clarifying and exemplifying specific steps. This support is then phased out by creating collaborative models that you complete together and then students complete their own similar task independently. Scaffolded tasks, like worked examples, allow pupils to develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills without placing too many demands on their working memory.
Effective teacher questioning while modelling a task can aid metacognitive reflection. For example, instead of just telling students why you have done each step and the thought process behind it, ask them questions while you complete a task focussing on planning, monitoring and evaluating. What resources do I need for this task? What strategies could I use for this task? Why did I choose to start here? What could I do next? Am I doing well, how do I know? Did this strategy work? What could I do differently next time? Posing metacognitive questions can prompt our pupils to explicitly think about the things they should consider at each stage of a learning task and when done over time can help make this thinking process habitual – when we aren’t asking them, or when they are working independently, the pupils are asking themselves these process questions.
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