Metacognition: Making it Happen in the Classroom

According to the EEF Toolkit, metacognition and self-regulation is one of the top two most effective teaching and learning strategies (the other being feedback), and can increase students’ progress by as much as eight months. The EEF succinctly explains that metacognition involves ‘teaching pupils specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate their own academic development. Self-regulation means managing one’s own motivation towards learning. The intention is often to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from during learning activities.’ However, metacognition and self-regulation is also a notoriously tricky area to unpick and use in the classroom.

Accordingly, in April 2018, the EEF will be publishing a guidance report on metacognition, and this will no doubt be of immense help for teachers in deciding how theory can be turned into practice. Alongside this, at Durrington High School, Ben Crockett (Lead Teacher of Geography) has been trialling and implementing metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies with students as part of his Masters study, and in doing so has developed some pearls of wisdom that are a useful guide for any foray into the metacognitive maze.

Ben’s focus in implementing metacognitive strategies in Geography is twofold. Firstly, Ben is investigating the enigmatic but undeniable gap between the mind of the novice and the mind of the expert. How can we encourage and scaffold students to think like subject experts? More explicitly, how can we help students to mirror the experts’ cognitive processes when solving problems and completing tasks? Secondly, Ben is taking a more contextual-approach by asking how effective is metacognition with regards to improving students’ outcomes. To what extent are Durrington students aware of their own metacognition, and how can this awareness be developed through direct instruction in the classroom?

To anchor his action research, Ben decided to focus his investigations on the metacognitive awareness of Year 9 students. This started with a survey conducted with the target group of students, in which students had to identify themselves from a scale starting ‘never’ ranging to ‘always’  against statements such as as I am aware of the strategies/steps I use to complete tasks; I pace myself to ensure I have enough time to complete as task; and I try to relate new things to what I already know. The outcomes showed that these students had very limited self-awareness of their own learning, i.e. what they know and what they do not know, coupled with generally poorly-developed self-regulatory skills, such as the ability to monitor and evaluate their learning as they complete tasks. Most notably, the survey results identified very clearly that many students did not believe they could mirror the thought processes of experts (such as their teachers), and, more troublingly, believed that this was an impossible state to achieve.

For his dissertation, Ben has used these results to pinpoint and enact changes in classroom practice. This incorporates looking at how teachers can use direct instruction techniques to develop metacognitive skills. For example, the use of live modelling is key to students realising how experts, aka teachers in this context, think through and produce responses to tasks and questions. It is important for students to hear and see the mental processes that experts work through, and this is achieved by teachers thinking aloud as they work and explicitly commenting on why they are choosing to use particular strategies at particular points, and likewise disregarding other available options.

Interestingly, a change that Ben is conscious of making over the course of his research is to veer away from presenting students with completed ‘perfect’ examples and instead spending a greater amount of lesson time constructing a response ‘live’ in front of students. By doing so, Ben is able to challenge the students’ notion that experts are a different breed by purposefully making mistakes, and crossing these out on a whiteboard rather than deleting them so that the error is still visible. This begins to tackle the widely-held misconception that teachers can create high-level responses simply because they know their subject so well. Although subject knowledge is vital, another major factor that enables experts to create high-level responses is their metacognitive awareness of the best way to go about responding from a range of possible strategies, and to monitor how this is working as they go along. Making and fixing ‘live’ mistakes is, therefore, a powerful tool in the teachers’ metacognitive tool box.

So far, the impact of explicit and direct teaching of metacognitive and self-regulatory skills has yielded some interesting results. For example, Ben has noticed that higher-attaining students tend to be more precise in their evaluative thinking. This cohort are better able to ascertain where they will have picked up marks in an assessment and where they will have lost marks, and therefore have a more accurate idea about what the outcome is likely to be. This will lead to much more targeted preparation and revision between assessments, and lead to better attainment overall. Other students who find this evaluative thinking more challenging require a greater degree of metacognitive scaffolding. This can be achieved through rephrasing the evaluation question to make students think differently about themselves as learners. For example, Ben suggests asking a student “why will you not get full marks on this test?” rather than “what mark do you expect to get?” The former question forces the student to consider their knowledge gaps (procedural and subject) and thus engage with metacognitive thinking, whereas the latter gives the opt-out of just picking a score at random in order to get the question answered. Enabling students with different starting points to engage equally with the metacognitive discourse is key to ensuring parity in the classroom.

Four Practical Ways to Begin Teaching Metacognitive Skills in Classrooms

  1. Use the language of metacognition wherever and whenever possible, for example have we evaluated…? and have we monitored…? Ben recommends using metacognition checklists alongside content checklists to aid this shift.
  2. Seek opportunities to include live modelling in your lesson. This enables teachers to make metacognition visible, as otherwise it remains a covert, otherworldly process contained in the mind of the expert.
  3. Use tracing paper over exam questions to annotate thoughts and ideas that experts consider before attempting to answer the question. This will include consideration of what knowledge to include in the response, and what strategies to use to convey this knowledge.
  4. Metacognition must be seen by students to be as essential as subject knowledge for successful learning. This will entail careful curriculum planning whereby capacity for direct metacognitive instruction is created and embedded over time.

Fran Haynes



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