Learning processes: focus on metacognition

Metacognition strategies

Following on from her appearance on the Oxford Education Podcast, Zoe Enser explores metacognition in more detail and how student wellbeing can benefit from embedding these practices.

As teachers we are often experts in thinking about our own learning processes. Having been generally successful in the education system, many of us have automated this and are barely aware of the stages we might go through in order to tackle the challenges we face. That is great for us, but harder for those who are still learning and even worse for those who are finding things difficult. This is where metacognition can be really powerful in helping students to understand their own learning, identify the tools they have to enable them to be successful and motivate them to learn more.

What is metacognition?

Broadly speaking this falls within the domain of self-regulation. Self-regulation, or the way in which we manage our learning, is divided into three areas: cognition, metacognition and motivation. Cognition relates to what we know and how we process that information, and metacognition is how we think about those processes we go through to learn. First explored by John Flavell in 1979, metacognition is sometimes called Metamemory, Thinking about Thinking or Learning to Learn. More specifically it relates to how we plan, monitor, reflect and evaluate on our own learning. [1]

How does it support learning?

The EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) have found that metacognition has ‘consistently high levels of impact’ on learning, with an additional seven months progress made in the reviews they have undertaken.[2]  Students who are taught to have high level of awareness about their approaches to learning, planning for what they need to do, drawing on their prior knowledge of the topic or task, monitor their progress as they develop and evaluate their success, are in stronger position to understand what to do when they encounter increasingly complex tasks or need to work on something independently. It enables them to self-scaffold the work they are doing and builds their confidence as learners who don’t need to rely on others to make progress.

What does it look like in practice?

In my English classroom students would be encouraged to start an independent reading task by reflecting on how they had tackled this type of task before. They would be reminded of the tools they had available to them and what they might need to do if they got stuck. A similar way of thinking was developed around writing, with planning, review and evaluation built into any extended writing work they did, with prompts provided to support them with this.

What are the misconceptions around it?

The main misconceptions I encounter around metacognition is that being this kind of self-reflective learner is something which can either be taught as a generic skill or that it is something which some students simply are or are not. The evidence from the EEF suggests that the real power of metacognitive learning comes when it is firmly rooted within a particular discipline or task. What I might need in an English classroom might be quite different to what a maths classroom requires. That means we need to be specific and precise with what we want our students to do, taking opportunities to explicitly teach and model it. This is particularly important for me in English, with some real pinch points around moving from the planning process into writing. If I can model and scaffold students to think about how to do this, they will have a greater chance to achieve this independently later.

Equally, metacognition is not age specific, nor do some students just not have the ability to think about things in this way. Some students who are struggling with their learning may not have learnt how to do this yet, but by directly teaching them how to do this we will potentially be teaching them how to be successful in that task.

How might metacognition support wellbeing?

Metacognition is closely related to motivation and with increased motivation comes an increased sense of wellbeing. We enjoy being successful. Students who understand how they are learning, can make links to previous successes and have clarity about where they might have gaps in their own learning. They are then much more likely to feel empowered to take ownership of their own learning. It is not only adult learners who benefit from having some agency over what they are doing. This became particularly apparent to me when exploring low stakes quizzing. Students could immediately see which areas they needed to revisit in their revision, and this made the task both visible and manageable. The same is true when using things such as summary or mapping, with students again having real clarity on what they know and what they need to explore further.

[1] Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906 – 911.

[2] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation/

Listen to Zoe’s episode of the Oxford Education Podcast here.

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