Mississippi Learning: Personal Experience with Metacognition with Different Student Populations

By Julia Johnston, Department of Geosciences, Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS

Education courses were not included in the curriculum of my Geosciences degrees. I was aware of the concept of metacognition, but was not familiar with the lexicon associated with it. Therefore, my experience with the concept of metacognition is exclusive to personal observation.

During the research for my thesis, I read some basic papers about learning styles, cognitive levels, self-assessment, and teaching methods to reach a broad range of students. During the 5 years of teaching basic Earth Science courses for mostly non-majors, I have observed some of these concepts in practice, and tried to adjust my teaching styles to accommodate different classroom populations.

My first teaching at the college level occurred as part of my thesis research, when I became the Lab Coordinator for the Earth Science I (Introductory Geology) courses at Mississippi State University in Starkville. These labs enroll 300 students each semester, taught by 6-8 Graduate Teaching Assistants, who worked under my supervision. My research centered on gathering data from a baseline semester, and then making incremental changes to the lab in subsequent semesters and assessing the impact of the changes on the students' learning. The student population in these labs is almost entirely traditional students, non-majors, many of them studying education, business, or arts, or undecided. Students majoring in other sciences or engineering are almost absent from our enrollment. There is also about an even division of African-American and Caucasian students, representative of Mississippi State's general student population. Very few Hispanic or Asian students (maybe 6 or 7 out of the 300) were in our course.

After receiving my Master's degree, I was immediately hired as an adjunct instructor at multiple colleges. I was hired by the Geociences Depart at MSU, where I had earned the degree, to teach lecture sections of Earth Science I, Introductory World Geography, and retain my position as Lab Coordinator. The student population in each course was similar to that of the labs. I was able to apply several of the teaching methods that resulted from my thesis research to the lecture courses as well. I found that these traditional students rarely approached me with questions about how to study or learn until after midterm grades, and then only after earning a D or F for a midterm grade.

At the same time, I was approached by Mississippi State's extension campus at Meridian to teach the same Earth Science I course, at first in a once-a-week night class, and eventually in an online format. The student population in this course consists mainly of nontraditional, working mothers, many of them single parents, approximately 75% African-American, who are taking evening classes to earn a degree and enhance their employment opportunities. I quickly found that it was necessary to adjust my teaching methods to accommodate different learning styles and the mostly independent-study nature of these courses. Just this semester, Fall of 2008, I have also been developing an accompanying online lab course which is taken by a subset of the lecture students. These students often approach me for ideas about learning and studying techniques in the first few weeks of the semester, indicating that they are attempting to assess their learning styles and adjust their methods accordingly.

Also during the same semesters, I began teaching Introductory Geology and World Geography at the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, 25 miles distant from Starkville. Although the name is no longer entirely appropriate, as they allowed male students to enroll beginning in the late 20th century, 85% of the students are still female, and about an even distribution of traditional and non-traditional students, as well as African-American and Caucasian students. The majority of the students are majoring in either nursing or education, and there are no geology majors, as my course is the only geology course offered. These students begin in the first or second week of class working together in groups, and trying various study methods to help each other learn the material. There is a non-competitive interaction between them that excludes me from their metacognitive development, but helps them to be independent and interdependent.

In my experience, distributions of age, gender, major field of study, and lifestyle have a profound effect on the students' metacognitive development. If we can adjust our teaching styles to accommodate these differences, we should be able to expect increased learning in not only our Geosciences courses, but in all areas the students will study in their academic careers.