Teaching Metacognition: an Example
By Perry Samson
Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan
I remember once finishing a lecture on the why particles are distributed in three modes in the atmosphere. I used an image, brilliantly developed years earlier by Prof. Kenneth Whitby of the University of Minnesota showing a plot of the tri-modal distribution of particle number versus particle size (Figure 1) as I felt it embodied the essence of what I was trying to convey that hour. I was pleased with my lecture, detailed yet full of examples and relevant examples working to describe how physical processes in the atmosphere would be expected to produce three distinct sizes of particles. The graph had served to end the lecture with the scientific major chord that would have made Beethoven proud.
I stood and turned to the class and asked for questions. There was a long silence, which I assumed to be a time of reflection, with the students absorbing the lesson and constructing their own understanding. Then, just before time was up a fellow in the front row raised his hand and asked "I see the three mountains in the picture, but I don't understand which way the wind is blowing."
The essence of why I teach metacognition is embodied in that student's response. Students often think they understand what is being taught but it is not uncommon that they are wrong. When students engage in metacognition, they (1) come to an understanding of what they understand and (2) make adjustments in their learning strategies to improve their learning in subsequent opportunities, particularly when they recognize that their understanding is flawed or incomplete.
It is not something taught in any science class I ever took.
In recent years, I have begun exploring how to use web applications to help students develop metacognitive skills, particularly in large classes. I offer these tools as one example of how to implement metacognitive principles in lecture and in homework assignments.