What Do Students Need to Know About Metacognition?




Metacognition, often known as ‘thinking about thinking’, is on the radar of more and more schools. And why wouldn’t it be? Sitting at the top of the EEF leaderboard for most effective teaching pedagogies. With a reported 7-month increase in student attainment, copious amounts of solid research behind it, and a push from OFSTED that it should be included in effective teacher training, it is surely the next big thing that schools are going to focus their attention on.

What do students need to know about metacognition?

This raises the question, therefore, as to what students need to know about metacognition? Considering the development in student knowledge of what effective revision looks like is perhaps a useful benchmark for this. I’d argue that even as recently as 10 years ago, students weren’t aware of effective revision practices. In fact, how many teaching staff were confident with what effective revision looked like? But with the proliferation in high-quality research, writing and training in the last decade or so, teaching staff are more aware of what effective revision looks like, and so are students. You now have a fighting chance of finding a student who knows what the Leitner Flashcard Method is!

In 10 years time, what do we need students to all know about metacognition? 

Firstly, students need to start to become aware of their thinking. Utilising the ‘levels of metacognition’ scale from Perkins, 1992, we could argue most students are currently tacit – that is, completely unaware that thinking is deliberate, planned or evaluated. We need to make students aware of their thinking, and how deliberate it can be, moving them to become strategic or even reflective learners. Strategic learners will begin to consider best practice and effective strategies, whilst reflective learners will go one step further and monitor their cognition as they complete an activity. 

To get here, there are things that students need to know. Firstly, they need to know that cognition is a three-part process of planning, monitoring and evaluation. But what does ‘knowing’ look like?

What does ‘knowing’ look like?

Knowing means that students are aware of what they should be doing in the planning process:

  • Checking their comprehension of the task
  • Considering the cognitive strategies available to them to complete the task
  • Pondering previous attempts at similar problems and evaluating how that impacts their current attempt.

Knowing also means that students are aware that they ought to be monitoring during a task:

  • Is my strategy working, or ought I change tact?
  • Am I going to finish on time?
  • Is my current attempt going to produce an outcome that is in-line with the expectations of the task.

And finally, knowing means that students evaluate this whole cognitive process, and establish steps for future, similar tasks:

  • Was the cognitive strategy I chose the most effective and efficient?
  • Have I achieved an outcome in line with the task requirements?
  • What would I do the same next time? What would I do differently? Why?

If students are actively working through these three stages with their work AND can verbalise what it is they are doing (and why), then we will be able to claim that they are reflective learners. I would claim that this means students know what we need them to know about metacognition.

Taking it further

But could we take it further? This is a challenge even greater than the above – making students aware of the ‘knowledge of’ part of metacognition, which is: knowledge of self; knowledge of task; knowledge of strategies. Once again, what do I mean by students ‘knowing’ these things?

A student will understand knowledge of self if:

  • They understand what core (factual) knowledge they have that is relevant to the completion of a task.
  • Know where they have gaps in knowledge required to complete a task.

A student will understand knowledge of task if:

  • They can break down a task into the key criteria which must be included in an outcome.

A student will understand knowledge of strategies if:

  • They are aware of relevant cognitive strategies that they can use to attempt a task.
  • Are aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses that each strategy has, and the relevance of certain strategies for certain tasks.

As with planning, monitoring and evaluation, for a student to really ‘know’ these things, they would need to both be able to carry them out independently and automatically AND be able to verbalise them too.

There’s the challenge then. Can you get your students aware of what metacognition is, of planning, monitoring and evaluation, and even those three ‘knowledge of’ areas? That is the perfect 10-year challenge for us all. 

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