On the Cutting Edge - Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
The Role of Metacognition in Teaching Geoscience
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Reflections and Self-Awareness of Learning Styles


Jim McDougall, Tacoma Community College

Our colleges serve very diverse groups of learners and teachers who work toward goals that include self realization, awareness, and confidence. A teacher can foster an environment rich in methods, applications, and experience that will appeal to people with a broad range of learning styles. Students may also benefit from regular patterns and expectations in the classroom that they will recognize and use to chart their progress. Reflection, metacognition, and self awareness of learning processes and activities are valuable in a good learning environment.

Cultivating reflection and metacognition may depend on how we view the content of our subject and what we think is essential to know for a course of study. Our introductory physics courses use explicit inquiry-based experimental methods with predictions, testing, conclusions, etc. Formal and informal teams report their results verbally and in journals, which include reflections about contributions to solving a problem, difficulties faced, modifications, and what to work toward next. Evaluation of poster presentations includes looking at decisions by group members about how problems were tackled. Metacognitive reflections seem relatively transparent here and can be tied directly with the labs. A possible drawback in these metacognitive prompts is their tendency to be rather "one size fits all".

In geography and the environmental sciences, I use panels, discussions, and guided presentation formats where learning objectives are applied more globally, with summary and feedback along the way. Reflection includes looking at information gathering strategies, fact checking, use of statistics, and what data is applied in forming a model or a viewpoint. Metacognitive activities seem more ingrained, subtle, and less explicit to me than in physics. However, self regulation and adaption of strategies may be more personalized to the needs of an individual student.

My geology courses generally include experiments (like physics) and also make use of exploration and imagination. Metacognitive awareness may include how a learner develops their version of the scientific method to weigh uncertainty and controlled speculation. There are many contexts for methods or strategies of learning and applying experimental models, such as in understanding water percolation, drainage, or flooding. Finding good metacognitive exercises here seems very hard, especially with diverse learners. I listen a lot to students who are willing to tell me how they view a successful learning environment.

Regular reflection by students reveals their awareness about how they might transfer a strategy or method to a new or novel application. For example, my students compared using properties to identify a mineral or rock with using symptoms to define a disease, or using personality traits to form a character in a play. They may look at scientific thinking as being more logical or empirical and apply this in their lives in some fascinating way. Students may develop a scientific habit of mind by weaving interdependent cognitive or metacognitive "strands" (e.g., Herbert, 2003). The strands may be provided in a course or courses and the "weaving" may be done by the student.

Community colleges are largely commuter campuses and many students benefit greatly from meeting other students they would not easily meet or interact with otherwise. I try especially hard to provide this opportunity in the classroom. Interesting cooperative study groups emerge involving students who vary greatly in age and life experiences. Students can benefit from collective reflective analysis, especially examining adjustments they make to matching their cognition to demands of a class, developing strategies, and trying them out. Students negotiate the status of their ideas in relation to other students or to universally held assumptions on how things work (e.g., Mittlefehldt and Grotzer, 2003).

Expert learners analyze problems to understand them, apply content along the way, generate multiple ideas, evaluate, and assess them as they go, and monitor their progress along the way. I see an overall benefit in empowering the learner and freeing them more from dependence on the teacher. Knowledge of strategies and where to use them and just what we really should be doing is what I hope to gain from our workshop.

References:

Herbert, B.E., (2003), The role of scaffolding student metacognition in developing mental models of complex, Earth and environmental systems, DFG-NSF International Workshop on Research and Development in Mathematics and Science Education, Nov. 19-21, 2003, Washington D.C.

Mittlefehldt, Sarah, and Tina Grotzer, (2003), Using metacognition to facilitate the Transfer of Causal Models in Learning Density and Pressure, National Association of Research in Science Teaching Conference, Mar. 23-26, 2003, Philadelphia, PA.


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