by Dr. Sue Pieper, Coordinator of Assessment
With more students struggling academically, particularly in the first year, and fewer students persisting to graduation, many of us in higher education are asking how we can help our students to succeed. One way is to teach students to “think about their thinking.” In other words, we can teach them to develop metacognitive skills that will help them to become aware of their own thinking processes and use that self-awareness to regulate those processes. Researchers and practitioners agree that metacognition is critical to academic success.
In a previous blog post, I promised to provide some easy-to-implement strategies for teaching metacognition in face-to-face and online courses. When I reviewed the research and talked to colleagues about what they were doing to promote metacognition in their classes, a theme emerged: The best way to teach metacognition is to do it in conjunction with activities and assignments that are already a part of your class. Here are some strategies for teaching your students to think about their thinking when they take exams, listen to lectures, or work on writing assignments in your class.
College students are often unaware of what they know and don’t know (Zabrucky and Bays, 2011). When taking exams, students frequently overestimate their level of understanding and readiness to take a test. First-year students in particular report that “looking over their notes” before an exam has worked well for them in the past (Ruban and Reis, 2006), and they are shocked when they receive exam scores that are lower than expected.
Karen Zabrucky and Rebecca Bays suggest that we can help students better understand what they know and don’t know by asking them to predict their exam scores right before they take an exam and then also estimate their scores right after taking an exam but before receiving their grades. Students can then compare their predictions and estimates with their actual exam scores. The authors also suggest that instructors ask students questions about how they studied for an exam and whether they felt they were adequately prepared to take the exam. These questions prompt students to reflect on both their level of preparation for an exam and the consequences of their level of preparation.
Shawn Nordell (2009) conducted research with students in a large introductory biology course and found that most students had difficulty recalling course knowledge. When students were asked to write down two or three of the main points discussed in a lecture and readings, most students had no response at all or could remember only a key word or phrase.
Marsha Lovett (2008) described a technique called “wrappers,” activities that wrap around a learning activity or assignment and can be used to foster students’ metacognitive skills, including the recall of course knowledge. Instructors can “wrap” a lecture by presenting tips on active listening before the lecture, having students write down the three key ideas from the lecture immediately after the lecture, and then giving students a list of the three key ideas from the lecture for students to self-check. Lovett found that over time the students’ three key ideas increasingly matched those of the instructor.
One way to prompt students to reflect on their writing is to provide them with questions for self-assessment. Before students begin to write, ask them to answer questions such as “What are my goals for this writing assignment?” or “What do I need to do to prepare to write?” You can also ask students to answer questions right after they write. Here are some suggested questions, adapted from a questionnaire used in a large-scale university writing assessment at Truman State University:
- How do you feel about your finished writing sample?
- How representative is this sample of your writing?
- Describe your writing process.
- What do you feel is especially strong about your writing sample?
- What do you feel could be improved in your writing sample?
The Writing Place at Northwestern University offers good examples of self-assessment questions and a worksheet for students to use when evaluating their own writing.
All of these strategies help students to practice their metacognitive skills and grow as learners. Have you tried any of these strategies in your online or face-to-face class? What worked, and what didn’t work? What other methods have you used to encourage students to think about their thinking? Please comment on your experiences with teaching your students how to learn.
Lovett, M. C. (2008, May 5). EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Events. Retrieved May 18, 2008, from Metacognition and Monitoring: Understanding and Improving Students’ Skills for Learning.
Nordell, S. E. (2009). Learning how to learn: A model for teaching students learning strategies. Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching, 35 – 42.
Ruban, L., & Reis, S. M. (2006). “Patterns of Self-Regulation: Patterns of Self-Regulatory Strategy Use among Low-Achieving and High-Achieving University Students. Roeper Review, 148 – 156.
Zabrucky, K. M., & Bays, R. (2011). Helping students know what they know and do not know. College Teaching, 123.