Metacognitive Strategies for Teachers and Undergraduates in the Geosciences

Christy Briles, Montana State University

Metacognition is a process in which we monitor our own learning and recognize ways of successful learning. It involves managing thoughts, and organizing and synthesizing them in ways that lead to the successful completion of a task or problem. It also involves building connections between information and categorizing it based on its relevancy to the problem.

Currently, I am involved with teaching climate science to teachers working on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservations in eastern Montana. We use both face-to-face meetings and web-based discussions and activities. In the course, we use self evaluation/monitoring techniques, such as self-score cards, where the teachers evaluate themselves on their progress. At the end of each face-to-face meeting we ask the teachers for their "muddy points," or topics and concepts they did not understand from the activities that we completed for an individual learning module. This requires them to evaluate between learned and unlearned material. Several topics addressed in the course receive a lot of media attention, such as ozone depletion and global climate change, so I have the teachers brainstorm what they know about the topics before they start the module. They then revisit their lists after going through the material and evaluate their understanding of the subject before and after the module. I have found that using concept maps is another useful tool that helps the teachers connect and organize the information they have learned. Finally, I have them keep a "scoop notebook" where they develop an activity for their students based on one or a series of modules, implement the activity in their classroom, and determine how well the activity was carried out and what the students learned. This process requires the teachers to take the scientific information they have learned and develop it for their grade school students.

I have also taught both upper and lower division courses in physical geography. One activity that I incorporate into all my courses is environmental journals. Students connect concepts or terms discussed in class with examples in their everyday lives. In my weather and climate course, for example, students keep a weather journal and make note of weather forecasts, their own observations, and the accuracy of day to day weather forecasts. The journals are very important for large classes where it is impossible to take students into the field. In my smaller courses, I have students present a topic connected to the day's lecture or as part of a research assignment. The challenge for the student is to present their main points in a clear and concise fashion in a short period of time.

I have noticed an apparent difference in motivation to learn between my teachers and undergraduates. The teachers are motivated by the desire to see their own students succeed beyond the reservation. They see the relevancy of topics in their lives and on the reservation because they are active participants in the community. Teachers also understand what it is like to be a teacher and they understand what you are trying to accomplish. Some undergraduates are taking a class (especially the lower division courses) simply to fulfill a requirement. So it is important to instill motivation by giving students a purpose to learn and developing ways for them to monitor their own motivation. In my undergraduate courses, I give a brief introduction to the subject and then give them a chance to tell me what they expect to learn from the class and the potential it has to influence their lives. This tells me what is important to them and I can draw on those interests more in my lectures and activities.

I am interested in learning more about teaching metacognition in my courses at a variety of different levels from GK-12 through graduate school. I have not formally studied how to use metacognition in my classroom and look forward to a workshop devoted to the topic. I want to learn about current research on teaching metacognition in the geosciences and about techniques and tools that I can use with my students. I am involved with web-based courses, so I am particularly interested in learning metacognition techniques specific to this teaching environment.