Becoming a (Metacognitive) Teacher – Part 1

26 May 2017

Author: Dr Susan Smith

In a recent EEF focus group held in school we spent some time trying to define metacognition and what it looks like in practice. It became clear that what teachers wanted was an example of what this actually means in practice. In order to provide some insight on this I wanted to share what I have been doing with metacognition over the last two years…

Last year, while training for my PGCE-(lifelong learning), I took the opportunity to try out some of the metacognitive techniques I had been learning in school (Tomsett, 2015a, 2015b, 2015c, Norris, 2016) to help boost the attainment of my adult GCSE Biology students in College. All my adult students require a C grade pass or higher to move on to their chosen path in nursing, primary teaching, or university, so the pressure was on.

In the light of the EEFs recent recommendations that metacognition and one-to-one teaching had high impact and were cost effective (Higgins, Kokotsaki, & Coe, 2012), I decided to use the IPEVO viewers as an in-class tool, as we do in school, to demonstrate exam answering techniques, but I also decided to add in a one-to-one element by providing this teaching as a personalised video resource through the VLE.

What is metacognition?

Metacognition, first coined by Flavell (1979) describes the processes of learning how to learn. It uses a series of building blocks of good teaching practices to enable students to develop strategies for learning, revision, self-regulation and exam technique.

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Adapted from Flavell1976 and Dunlosky & Metcalfe, 2008

Schunk & Zimmerman, (1994) showed that students who were able to self-regulate their learning by, for example, selecting appropriate learning strategies, setting goals, monitoring their own progress and having qualities such as persistence, effort and adaptability had better outcomes than students who could not. Dunlosky & Metcalfe, (2008) further defined metacognition as a process which required both knowledge about how to learn and were able to self-regulate their learning.

But what does it look like in practice?

The problem

The current AQA GCSE science specifications comprise 50% recall, 50% application, synthesis and evaluation based questions but the new specification (first examination in 2017), has a 40:60 split (AQA, 2015), so while there is merit in boosting students’ memory capacity, recall alone will only get them at best a C/D (4/5 from 2019, Ofqual, 2014).

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 7.34.55 PM

Many students are flummoxed by these application questions when they appear to be about things they don’t know about and give up. I remembered a student saying to me outside the 2014 biology unit 2 paper: “What the heck do I know about Pistol shrimp, Miss?” Not realising it was a speciation question, she had thought she knew nothing about pistol shrimp and hadn’t even tried to answer the question.

When supporting students as a TA in school, I often see students give up like this.

What helps the students is to use a metacognitive approach: taking time to sit down with a pupil and go through how I would tackle these questions, showing them my thinking and showing them that they do have the knowledge to answer at least some of these questions. This process improves their self-belief and resilience and I hope their desire to attempt these questions the next time.

It is clear then that students need to be taught such strategies to improve their learning.

Breaking down the problem:

There seems to be a number of barriers such students have:

  • Anxiety, fear and lack of self–belief and resilience.
  • Difficulty with reading for understanding.
  • Difficulty in recalling the appropriate knowledge.
  • Difficulty in drafting the answer.

Conquering the fear and lack of self-belief:

Students’ learning is affected by psychological and educational differences, with struggling students often having poor self-esteem and self-motivation, as well as having difficulty with reading text, with speech or with organisational skills (Wellington & Ireson, (2008)). For many students Science is hard due to them finding the concepts difficult and their lack of self-belief in their intellectual, literary and analytical skills. My adult students are no different, often having had poor previous experiences of learning and a tendency to over-exaggerate the difficulty of the work and exert too much pressure on themselves.

However, we know from Dweck, (2012) that students will have better outcomes if they adopt a “growth mindset” believing that they can learn and improve their “intelligence” rather than if they adopt a negative “growth mindset”.

The task, therefore, is to find ways to improve students’ self-confidence and motivation, by teaching students clear strategies, improving literacy skills and providing plenty of practice.

Reading for understanding

The “thinking aloud” strategy was described in relation to reading theory (Tinzmann et al., 1990; Gunning, 1996; Meyers, Lytle, Palladino, Devenpeck, & Green, 1990). Students are taught to think aloud when they read to improve understanding. This process involves reading, pausing to reflect on what they have read, underlining key aspects of the text and making notes about related knowledge as they read. This is a fundamental skill in reading comprehension and causes the student to take control of the question and gain in self-confidence.

There is little published evidence, however, about how such a strategy might be useful in Science apart from Mockel, (2013) who showed that using the “thinking aloud” strategy is very effective in improving university students’ scores in tests. She also showed that for high achieving students only one session of training was enough to effect this change.

Recalling appropriate knowledge

The “thinking aloud” strategy requires students to do what I term “reading with a pen in your hand”. Students can learn to make notes beside their answers which allow them to make the connections to their knowledge and to begin to plan their answer.

Students are encouraged to underline key scientific terms in the text which then triggers links to their knowledge. The regular use of concept maps, mind maps, memory devises like mnemonics and flow diagrams helps them to connect the keywords with their knowledge (see later).

Part 2 to can be found HERE.


Dr Susan Smith, Science TA, Huntington School and Biology Tutor, York College

Posted on 26 May 2017
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