Teaching Metacognition in the Classroom: Just Think About It!

How do you study in order to learn something? Do you read and reread printed copy? Maybe you highlight key terms and phrases? Perhaps distilling and paraphrasing is your technique? Or does your strategy borrow from an assortment of cognitive approaches, selecting the most applicable method for each unique situation?

In college, I discovered that my most effective learning strategy was to create a concept map. Unlike the more commonly taught format, in which words and phrases are webbed together, mine was constructed upon simple drawings. Hastily sketched icons became the nodal points that connected isolated chunks of information. Standing back, the big picture emerged from these graphically connected building blocks.

My mapping strategy wasn’t a methodology that I was taught in a classroom, nor was it one I gleaned from learning theory. It was a personal and private construction, and one I happened upon based on both my visual approach to learning and my intrinsic skill of cartooning. While studying, I would doodle and create sketches inspired by the content. Later on, I discovered that by webbing the visuals together, I could create a “big picture” of perceived learning outcomes.

Once I locked in the nuances of this approach, I learned to apply it to a wide range of learning situations. In fact, I learned how to play guitar by “nailing” both musical chord structure and chord sequences using this visual technique. It was then that I realized (with a guitar in my hands) that auditory processing was not my strong point. Melody and harmony did not come naturally. However, if I could illustrate these aural concepts, I could “visualize” a naive rendition of the music and learn it. 

For my bandmates, however, learning music was based upon the actual sound, and not a graphic derivative. They were the real musicians and felt “the vibe” as they navigated an intuitive sense of pitch, rhythm, melody, and harmony. As one might say, they had genuine soul. Me? I was a realist and considered myself more of a mechanic who could play by translating visual patterns into sound patterns.

Although it was sobering to realize that I lacked the artistic “chops” of a true musician, I was content with my more-than-adequate visual learning skills. From that point on, I realized that my most effective approach to learning would be wrapped around doodling and primitive cartooning skills.

What Is the Role of Metacognition in the Classroom?

It wasn’t until I was a classroom teacher that I understood this learning process in terms of metacognition, which can be broadly defined as awareness of one’s own thinking processes. Although I had been familiar with the word, along with its knee-jerk definition of “learning about one’s learning,” it was not until I had the responsibility of facilitating the learning of others that I deeply appreciated its effectiveness in education.

As most teachers do, I thought back to my own struggles as a student. Throughout my K–12 years, I accepted that when it came to auditory learning, I was slower than my classmates. For some cryptic reason, I struggled with certain concepts that others breezed through. My most difficult challenge was mastering a second language. 

No matter how much I listened to the sound of foreign words, I could not repeat them, let alone remember them. So why didn’t Mr. Martinez switch up my learning modality? Perhaps adding a dab of visual support could have improved not only my comprehension but also my self-image as a learner of Spanish.

The problem, as they say, was all in the timing. It wasn’t until 1999 that the landmark publication entitled “How People Learn,” authored by the National Research Council and published by the National Academies Press, elevated metacognition to the profile it deserved.

As we now know, metacognition offers students the opportunity to continually monitor and gauge their learning. Through an awareness of strengths and weaknesses, students can apply their most effective learning strategy to the task at hand. The result not only is increased understanding but also an emotional boost that arises from competency.

Through attaining this success, students become better learners. And when they envision themselves as better learners, they become better learners. It’s that positive reinforcement loop at work resulting in an outcome which seems to resonate with the essence of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Teaching Metacognition to Students

So, what does teaching metacognitive skills look like in the classroom? First, we need to make sure students are aware of what metacognition means. They must not only understand “learning about learning” but also be ready to apply the strategies that nest under this approach to their own learning. And that is not an easy task!

Next, when teaching metacognition to students, they need to be made aware of not only the range of learning modalities but also the specific strategies that engage learning strengths. Although such an introduction to metacognition may be presented independently of content, research suggests that applying these skills in context is more effective. For example, when presenting the taxonomy of living things, profile the use of Venn diagrams and illustrate how they can visually aid in understanding classification.

A main tenet of metacognition is the need to self-assess what works and what doesn’t. Ideally, this is accomplished before too much time is spent with less effective cognitive approaches. To facilitate a timely shift, students can be made aware of behavioral inertia that could unnecessarily impede change. They also need a sense of self-esteem that is strong enough to allow for introspection and self-critique. 

So, there you have it—a primer on metacognition in the classroom with a personal (and somewhat of a globally applicable) narrative. To further your understanding of teaching metacognition, I would suggest several online resources including “Thinking about One’s Thinking” by Nancy Chick or Chapter 6 of Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools, accessible through the National Academies Press. You can even access the online version of the NRC’s later release of “How People Learn.”

So, what’s your next step? Think about it…

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Michael DiSpezio is the author of the award-winning ScienceFusion and HMH Science Dimensions programs. Learn more about HMH's K–12 science programs, which are designed to encourage student-directed learning and deeper understanding of concepts.

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