Research School Network: Metacognition in action

Metacognition in action

by Research Schools Network
on the

Alister Talbot, Science Research Lead at Huntington Research School

Do you have a certain aspect of your subject that you just know the students really struggle with? A topic or a key concept, which every year rears its head and you are reminded of the slog it is for both you and the students to get through?

So, what was the hurdle my students struggled with? Reacting mass calculations.

Inspired by the recent Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report on Improving Secondary Science and some in-school training on metacognition based on the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-regulation guidance report (along with ideas from Adam Boxer’s blog), I decided to tackle the reacting mass calculations head on using some teacher modelling and the metacognition cycle from the guidance report.

What really struck me in Adam’s blog was how he clearly related teaching calculation questions to the metacognitive planning, monitoring and evaluating cycle. He described how at first as students learn how to do the problems, monitoring their progress following a checklist, before then building up to planning – where they are able to identify for themselves what type of question it is and therefore plan how to answer it.

Step 1 – Rephrasing the Question

I began by taking the students through a worked example of how to approach these calculations. A key part of this was unpicking what the questions were asking. So, I reworded the exam question to: If I take 2g of calcium oxide, how much calcium hydroxide will I form?’ This made it clearer to students what the question was actually asking of us.

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Step 2 – Modelling how to tackle a Reacting Mass Question

In the next phase of teaching, I went through the exact steps of how to answer this exam question. The students did not write anything down at all. I was given some training on reducing cognitive load in science teaching as part of a department training session, and one of the points raised was that teachers should think about when students are writing and when they are listening. I thought on this occasion it was appropriate to adopt this approach of no notetaking’, so that students were fully able to attend to my explanations.

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Step 3 – Checklist writing

After my modelling of a worked example, I asked the students to write a checklist for you to refer to when you get stuck on these questions’. The students write these for themselves as opposed to me giving them one, thus linking with the self-regulation cycle. The checklist then becomes a point of reference; for example, if they were doing questions at home and forgot the method.

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Step 4 – What a Good Checklist Looks Like

I shared my thinking checklist with my students. This gave them a second opportunity to see my thought processes when approaching reacting mass calculations. Students were then invited to add in any extra points to their own checklists.

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Step 5 – Practice

The students were then given another exam question. They completed this on their mini-whiteboards to allow for instant whole-class feedback. Rather than just attempting the question blindly, they used their own checklists, ticking off each step on their checklist as they went.

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And the outcome?

While I did not collect any quantitative data when using this new teaching approach, I noticed a few real differences in my students: 

  • Enhanced confidence. Knowing that they could dive into their books if they were stuck seemed a real safety net for some, especially for some of my under-confident year 11 female chemists.
  • Improved completion of homework. When I have taught this in the past the number of half complete pieces of work handed to me has been high, accompanied by the reason of It was too hard, Sir; I forgot how to do the calculation’. I honestly think that having a checklist that the students had written for themselves helped with this improvement in completion of work.

My next teaching steps include:

  1. Giving this a go for other calculations. The idea of teacher modelling, students writing checklists and then practising using their checklists could be rolled out to some of the other challenging chemistry calculations at GCSE and indeed A‑level.
  2. How could I adapt this for written answers as opposed to calculations? The typical ionic bonding question of describe how magnesium and oxygen bond to form magnesium oxide’ could lend itself to a student written checklist post-teacher modelling.

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