Teaching Metacognition in Large Classes

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

Whitby plotFigure 1. Frequency distribution of particles in the atmosphere by size as developed by Whitby (1978).

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.

Many students arrive in our classes with good study habits and a desire to learn. They have, at some point, constructed strategies for adapting their learning to new situations and disciplines. But other students, and particularly in the survey courses required of non-science majors, bring to class a preconceived view that science "doesn't come easily" to them and this can interfere with their motivation to learn. Some of these students complain that they are doing well in their other topics but science provides a mental block. This self-perception, coupled with the institutional requirement that they take a science class, offers them little hope for performing well in the course.

Arguably we could ignore them and ignore their grousing about the requirement and the course. But for those who are passionate about their discipline, it is both inconceivable that students don't share their enthusiasm and an enigma that some students do poorly on their exams. It is for these students that metacognitive skills can play an important role and, arguably, it is through the administration of metacognitive training that instructors may find the best hope for overcoming the preconceptions students carry into class about not being able to learn science.

Through my own experiences in the classroom, coupled with a semester I spent on sabbatical at the Carl Wieman Science Education Institute at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver -- where faculty and science educators meet weekly to discuss readings on science education -- I have developed an interest in metacognition and teaching metacognition. 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.