Metacognition Essay

Jeannette Sablock, Salem State College

I broadly define metacognition as a term which encompasses many different ideas about the mechanics of how students learn, how they understand how they learn, and how they use that information to enable themselves to be better learners. Whether acknowledged or not, I think all teachers think about metacognition when preparing course materials, often using themselves as a model. I've come to realize that modeling student learning on my learning style is not useful since I am a scholar by inclination and occupation, unlike most of my students. A more useful approach is to require students to complete an in-class or online learning style survey early in the semester. Students enjoy the process and I gain a better understanding of what kind of learners are in the class. With the availability of useful resources such as those from SERC's Cutting Edge Collections (which I browse & borrow from often), finding a useful resource is easy. I always start with these materials when I'm looking for a project or an idea and either use them directly or modify them to suit my class. Understanding how students learn is critical to setting and accomplishing our goals as educators. Helping students understand themselves as learners puts them on the path of lifelong learning, one of the primary goals of general education.

I teach metacognition by attempting to make student learning and progress visible to them. An example of what I mean by that is a simple little exercise I have students do the first time they work with the polarizing microscope. After an introduction to the microscope using a modified version of Jane Selverstone's excellent power point presentations Optical Mineralogy In A Nutshell (available on John Winter's website and used with permission), I put a list outlining the various parts of the microscope on the board and have them go to a scope and stick labels in the appropriate places. I can then check their work on the spot, correct errors and move on to using the microscope. I also provide opportunities for students to compare themselves to their classmates through in-class projects, in part to show them that what I expect them to learn is learnable by many of their peers.

One of our goals as teachers is to discover what and how students are or are not learning; their goal is often to hide that information from us. Assessing student learning therefore, requires a certain amount of trust on the part of the students; trust in both their fellow students and in their instructor, and a bit of trickery on the part of the instructor. With trust you can generate meaningful responses to the often pointless "Do you have any questions?" question. With trickery, in the form of in-class projects and reflection questions, you can learn what your students are learning and what they are confused about.

An aspect of metacognition which I think would be especially useful to me concerns helping students develop into what Karl Wirth described in his essay as independent learners. Many of our students are the first generation in their families to go to college, and many of them are dependent and timid learners. I'm defining timid learners as students who are afraid to make connections from the material learned in one class to another, or to make 'best guesses' based on limited information. Other aspects of metacognition which interest me include the idea of building memory hooks, and student reflections on learning. The business world trivializes the idea of memory hooks as a tool for remembering clients' names, but I think memory hooks are critical for learning, especially for learning complex information. I try to compress the process of hook forming and layering to a sequence of quiz, related lecture(s), in-class projects and reflection questions; a process which I think falls under the widely used term scaffolding (Jamie McKenzie, 1999). For example, here's the sequence I use for introducing the topic of phase diagrams to a sophomore level Mineralogy class. 1) A brief introduction (1 to 2 slides), at the end of a power point presentation on an unrelated topic, the week before we start the topic of phase diagrams. 2) A quiz, to set the hook, on the Phase Rule before a more in-depth lecture on the Phase Rule. 3) A lecture with some interactive material included followed by a short in-class assessment with a reflection component, to evaluate how well they understood the material. 4) A short lecture adding another component to the previous material followed by an in-class project for review, and to guide them through some of the mechanics outlined in the lecture. Near the end of the period their answers are discussed. The main concepts are reviewed the next week along with another project which is started in class and finished as homework. Students succeed with the scaffold. The critical question is, can they become independent learners and succeed when the scaffold comes off?


McKenzie, Jamie, 1999 Beyond Technology Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School.