A primary goal of university teaching is to help students learn how to engage with the content around which courses, degrees, and entire disciplines or fields of inquiry are organized. To “pass” a course, “earn” a degree, or “gain entry” into a community of scholars, students must demonstrate a certain level of mastery of knowledge and skills, according to the particular expectations and standards demanded of them at that particular level. The teacher’s role, of course, focuses on preparing students sufficiently to meet this challenge and to succeed in doing so.
Even so, instructor expectations and departmental or discipline standards are not always apparent to students. Specific learning objectives for courses or assignments may not be given in advance (or at all), evaluative criteria may not be articulated explicitly or clearly, and a particular instructor’s (or department’s or even discipline’s) standards of excellence may not be known by the student. A host of other factors can also conspire to undermine student attempts to prove their mettle. Yet even when conditions are most favorable for students – when expectations, objectives, criteria, standards, etc. are crystal clear – they can still fail or perform poorly in their attempt to demonstrate their learning.
One significant factor that can stymie students’ efforts and thwart their success is poor metacognition. According to Stephen Chew, professor and chair of psychology at Samford University, metacognition “‘is a person’s awareness of his or her own level of knowledge and thought processes. In education, it has to do with students’ awareness of their actual level of understanding of a topic’“ (quoted in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education). For example, given only introductory engagement with a given topic, students can become overconfident in their level of understanding of it. They then can stop thinking about it or even studying for exams because they feel they have mastered it. Such students will be surprised when they perform poorly on exams or assignments, having thought their answers were correct or their work was at a high level.
In such cases, poor metacognition – lack of self-assessment skills for discerning how much they actually know – prevents students from doing the work necessary to succeed, such as devoting enough time for reading, studying or writing, or engaging in such activities with sufficient focus and purpose. Indeed, to be done adequately, let alone well, work such as writing requires more than “whipping up” a few paragraphs the night before a due date. Work such as reading requires more than haphazard scanning and highlighting right before class. To learn from such activities, beyond mere short-term memorization, requires a more rigorous process of active engagement. We even use terms such as “exploring” or “grappling” to describe this process. Indeed, the traditional notion of “studying” implies it, too. The key here is a thoughtful approach, in which one is more or less aware of what one is doing and how the process is unfolding.
Unfortunately, as Zimmerman (2002) observes,
Few teachers effectively prepare students to learn on their own. Students are seldom given choices regarding academic tasks to pursue, methods for carrying out complex assignments or study partners. Few teachers encourage students to establish specific goals for their academic work or teach explicit study strategies. Also, students are rarely asked to self-evaluate their work or estimate their competence on new tasks. [quoted in this article]
In other words, like discipline-specific knowledge and thinking, metacognition has to be learned.
As I see it, instructors can help students develop and hone their metacognitive abilities in two ways. First, we can include opportunities for students to develop general metacognitive skills that will not only help them do better in our courses but also serve them in almost any academic context. Here are three easy, straightforward examples:
- Minute Paper: At the end of class or a lecture segment, give students a couple of minutes to write a summary of key points, indicate the most important thing they learned, note any questions or confusions they might have, or some other option that allows them to reflect on what they are learning. There are many possibilities. You can collect their responses and scan a few for any issues that need clarified. The responses can be anonymous or include student names and contribute to their participation grade, if this is part of your course.
- Study Game Plan: In anticipation of exams, have students outline the strategies they will use to prepare, list the content they expect they’ll need to know, develop a timeline for studying that indicates when and what they’ll study, and note the grade they expect to get. After returning the exam, have students review their study plan and note whether they followed it, if their strategies worked or not, and how they might alter their plan for the next exam. This might seem like a silly exercise to students and instructors alike, but don’t we prepare a plan before walking into class to teach? Don’t athletes prepare for games? The fact is, most students do not think through their study strategies, but those that do, tend to perform better.
- Problem Re-Solve: Have students re-solve the most important problems they miss on exams or quizzes (or revise written assignments) and also write out the correct strategies for solving them. Some instructors will award partial credit for corrected answers, or have students solve new, similar problems for partial credit. Such an exercise reinforces for students that mistakes are opportunities for learning and, in fact, that we often learn the most from mistakes.
Secondly we can be more explicit in how we teach students to engage content in a discipline-specific way, that is, how to become scholars in the specific context of our own fields of inquiry. Again, here are three examples:
- Process of Inquiry: Provide students with a basic method of inquiry they can use to engage course content as any scholar in your discipline or field would. This can be a simple checklist of key, critical questions to be asking of any text or issue, or it can be a more elaborate framework of strategies and poignant questions. The idea is to give students a means for “wrapping their head around” the course content in a meaningful way. Plus, if all students are using a shared approach, it becomes a focal point for facilitating discussion or structuring group work.
- How to Read: Take a moment in class to walk students through the process of reading a text in a critical fashion, including steps to follow, questions to be asking, and ways to begin formulating responses to the text, among other things. We often do this, to some extent, when “going over” the reading during lecture or discussion, but the idea is to make the process explicit. It can also help students to have a reading guide handout that outlines the process in clear fashion (here is an example). The payoffs are that students come better prepared for discussion and write better papers that are more enjoyable to read.
- Writing Self-Assessment: In addition to their paper, have students hand in a brief description of their writing process, that is, the steps they took, the strategies they used, the problems they encountered, and a request for the feedback they most want to hear. This requires students to think more carefully about their writing process, and it provides us with invaluable information about how they are engaging their writing. This can be combined with a brief overview or demonstration of good writing process in class.
All of these examples can be included in our teaching without too much effort on our part. We only need to reflect a moment on our own teaching, taking stock of the various ways we can model for our students, in explicit fashion, the process of discipline-specific engagement with content we take for granted in our own scholarly work. In other words, we engage ourselves in metacognition with topic areas we find exciting, and then we challenge students to do the same and thereby make our courses meaningful to them. The beauty and fun of it is that we can do what we love and inspire our students in the process.