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The Role of Metacognition in Teaching Geoscience
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Five Examples of Metacognitive Teaching for Large Classes

By Perry Samson
Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan

Metacognitive teaching can be implemented in a wide variety of methods. For example, the participants in the 2008 On the Cutting Edge workshop on Metacognition developed a series of metacognitive teaching activities illustrating a variety of techniques and audiences. The five examples presented here are designed for use in large survey-level classes. While they can be implemented effectively using in-class technology such as LectureTools they can just as easily be implemented using traditional classroom techniques. Of course, they can also be used in smaller classes.

Each of these examples is capsulated into a self-contained wrapper. First, a metacognitive question is asked that challenges the student to predict their learning outcome. Second, the student performs some activity (a lab, homework exercise, or exam) followed by a content question or quiz. Third, the student gets feedback on how well they performed on the content assessment. Lastly, the student is presented with a follow-up metacognitive question that can be augmented by a discussion about the metacognitive process. Each of the examples below uses these general steps, though the exact details vary. Follow the links below to read detailed descriptions of each example.

Student group

1. Use the First Exam

The first exam in a class often holds an opportunity for metacognitive teaching. At this point the student is arguably most open to hearing your message, especially if their outcome is less than they had hoped. One way to employ metacognitive teaching in this situation is to ask students to assess how well prepared they feel prior to the exam, an example of the kinds of questions they anticipate being on the exam, and a detailed list of how they are preparing for the exam. Once they have answered these questions, presumably prior to the day they will take the exam, the instructor may use the opportunity to pull out a few examples to present (without the author's name) and discuss. The students then take the exam. After the exam and before the grades are recorded the students can be asked how well they think they did and where they had the greatest difficulty.

Go to the activity sheet for Using the First Exam

2. Creation of Analogies

Seeing similarity between two processes or events and drawing inferences from that is an example of using analogies for learning. Instructors use analogies throughout their lectures. When an instructor uses phrases such as "similarly," "likewise," "in the same way as," "in comparison to," and "just like," they are generally using analogies to help students grasp a concept. Glynn et al. (1995) suggests "mapping" shared attributes between the analogue and target. The goal is to transfer ideas from a familiar concept (the analogue) to an unfamiliar one (the target) by mapping their relationship.

Go to the activity sheet for Using Analogies

3. Peer Instruction

Peer instruction may offer some of the richest opportunities for metacognitive teaching. Reciprocal (peer) teaching requires the peer "instructor" to use a whole series of metacognitive processes such as determining what the learner already knows; deciding what is to be taught/learned and how; monitoring comprehension and evaluating the outcome in terms of increased comprehension. All of this, in turn, encourages the "instructor" to reflect upon his or her own thinking processes. By asking the students to defend their answer to a question to another student you are, in effect, moving the role of "teacher" to the students.

Go to the activity sheet for Peer Instruction

4. Challenging Pre-Conceptions

Students carry into class pre-conceptions based on stories they've heard, articles they've read and experiences they've had. One of the best opportunities to teach metacognition is at a 'gotcha' moment when they come to realize their pre-conception is amiss. In my field of meteorology one sure-fire misconception is to challenge students to choose which air is heavier: (a) air at 90°F and muggy or (b) air at 90°F and bone dry. Wrap that content question with a metacognitive question that asks them to state on what they base their response. Invariably students will pick the muggy air based on their experience of discomfort on a muggy day. Now ask them to justify alone or in groups how they arrived at their answer. In the midst of this debate provide the basic data of the atomic weights of hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen and ask them to use that information in their response.

Of course, you are hoping that students will look at the molecular weights of N2 and O2, the dominate ingredients of dry air, versus the molecular weight of water vapor, H2O, and come to realize that replacing N2 and O2 with H2O yields a lower net weight. Hence the muggy air is lighter (a fact that plays an important role in formation of "dry lines" that trigger tornadoes). As students realize their preconception was wrong it is valuable to point out that they probably have other preconceptions that are wrong, too, and that there are methods for testing whether a concept is correct. This is an excellent time to discuss how learning is aided through self-regulated assessment and adaptation. How do they know what they know? How can they test whether their 'knowledge' is correct?

Go to the activity sheet for Challenging Pre-Conceptions

5. What Do You Know Now?

Another opportunity to offer metacognitive teaching arises from the simple question, "What do you know now that you didn't before (fill in the blank)"? This simple question can be asked after a reading, a lecture, a lab or other unit of student activity. The point is to ask the student to consider what they've been exposed to and reflect on what they've learned. Did the activity change their opinion? Did this activity help them identify an analogy?

Of course, having asked these questions, it behooves us to check their self-assessment through a quiz or second activity. Having had their knowledge tested, we can ask a second string of questions to see if they want to change their answer to "what do you know now." This approach can be illustrated by assigning the class to read a short section of their textbook or an article. The instructor could ask, "What do you know now that you didn't before you read the selection?" followed by a set of questions challenging the student to extend what they read to another situation. Reviewing the answer to those questions, the instructor could then ask the students to reflect on what they thought they knew and whether that helped them answer the follow-up questions. This presents a situation in which the instructor can then explicitly discuss strategies for adapting their learning to new situations.

Go to the activity sheet for What Do You Know Now?

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