What is metacognition?
Metacognition is commonly divided into two components: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive reflections (Quigley, 2018).
Metacognitive knowledge refers to what learners know about learning, and this may be broken down further into knowledge of self (the strengths and weaknesses of students), knowledge of tasks (the different areas of our subject and typical questions and exemplars) and knowledge of strategies and when to use them (Cambridge Assessment, 2017). Metacognitive reflection describes how learners monitor and control their cognitive processes and is often represented by a plan, monitor, evaluate cycle (Quigley, 2018).
Why is metacognition important in remote learning?
When we teach students face-to-face, we are able to do a lot of metacognitive work for them (Eaton and Morrissey, 2020). We plan what work they do and when, we monitor how they are doing and intervene if necessary, and we evaluate the success of the lesson. We use our knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses to decide what they should focus on and how much time they should spend on a task and if they get stuck, we swoop in to help. That’s our job.
When students are learning remotely, they have to plan their days and decide on how long to spend on each task. They have to monitor how well they are understanding and they have to come up with strategies to use if they get stuck.
There are a number of strategies we can use to support students to improve their metacognitive skills:
- Support pupils to plan their work by encouraging them to decide when they will complete each of the tasks. Include checkpoints during a task to ask students to reflect on how it is going.
- Explicitly teach the strategies needed to complete work.
- Ask students to reflect on their understanding and give them a chance to ask questions.
Planning and monitoring
In my school, we have been encouraged to set work for a week at a time to avoid students having an unmanageable number of tasks on their homework platform. The disadvantage of this is that it often means setting four lessons worth of work in one go. Students therefore need advice on how to tackle it.
At the start of term, I supported students with planning by asking them to spread out their work over the course of the week. However, plans are more likely to be followed through if they include a commitment to a particular date (Fletcher-Wood, 2018). Now, I tell students how many parts the work should be divided into and their first task is to decide when they will complete this work during the next week.
Explicit teaching of strategies
Explicit teaching involves explaining a particular strategy and why it matters, and is in contrast to implicit teaching where the thought process is modelled but not explained. Research shows that explicit instruction is relatively rare but in contrast to implicit strategy instruction, was related to an improvement in performance (Kistner, Rakoczy, Otto et al., 2010).
Short videos are the perfect medium for teaching strategies remotely. I have done this in two ways. The first is using animations in PowerPoint and making a Loom video. For example, I created a video to demonstrate to my students how to write a type of chemical equation called a half equation. This allowed me to go into more detail that just providing the answers; I took them step by step through the process of constructing the equation including strategies to use to check whether they were correct. I was pleased with the results, that students were able to construct these difficult equations without support. However, creating the animations for a video such as this is time consuming.
I now print out a copy of the question and use my phone mounted on a stand to make a video of my hands answering the question. This allows me to show how to use a calculator as well as different strategies for extracting information from a question and planning my answer. This second strategy does require some technology, but it gives you the freedom to answer just as you would if you were doing it yourself.
Time for reflection and asking questions:
The ability to identify how well you are doing is often called ‘monitoring accuracy’ and research has shown that more accurate monitoring can lead to improved achievement (Dunlosky and Rawson, 2012). I have been asking my Year 12 students to complete an online form after every lesson, answering the following questions:
- On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is ‘not confident’ and 5 is ‘very confident’, how confident are you in your understanding of this lesson?
- What are you most confident about from this lesson?
- What are you not confident about from this lesson?
- Do you have any questions you would like me to answer?
The final question has been particularly useful. For example, one student asked why certain elements react by a radical dissociation mechanism, which was a question I would not have thought to answer. I use these questions, and common misconceptions from their work, to produce an FAQs document for the whole class.
The example described above is of feedback on the task level (Fletcher-Wood, 2017). A questionnaire such as this also allows me to check whether students have good monitoring accuracy and provide them with feedback at the self-regulation level (Fletcher-Wood, 2017).
Without metacognition students will struggle to get the most out of the remote work we set for them. Judicious use of strategies like those described above can help students to thrive, even without face-to-face contact with their teachers.
Cambridge Assessment (2017) Metacognition. Available at: https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/Images/272307-metacognition.pdf (accessed 16 June 2020).
Dunlosky J and Rawson KA (2012) Overconfidence produces underachievement: Inaccurate self-evaluations undermine students’ learning and retention. Learning and Instruction 22(4). 271–280.
Eaton J & Morrissey F (2020) Metacognition and Home Learning. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRPyxhYfq-E (accessed 6 June 2020)
Fletcher-Wood H (2017) What kind of feedback moves students on. Available at: https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2017/11/05/what-kind-of-feedback-moves-students-on/ (accessed 19 August 2019).
Fletcher-Wood H (2018) Beyond I will implementation intentions to encourage student action. Available at: https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2018/12/09/beyond-i-will-implementation-intentions-to-encourage-student-action/ (accessed 15 June 2020).
Kistner S, Rakoczy K, Otto B et al. (2010) Promotion of self-regulated learning in classrooms: investigating frequency, quality, and consequences for student performance. Metacognition Learning 5(2): 157-171.
Quigley A, Muijs D and Stringer E (2018) Metacognition and self-regulated learning guidance report. London: EEF.