How Metacognition Makes Students Better Learners

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In her new book, Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, Starr Sackstein suggests an array of ways to give students a voice in the assessment process, while eliminating traditional grades.

One way to “hack” assessment, according to Starr, is to teach students to reflect on their own learning. See exactly what the two-time Bammy Awards Finalist says about metacognition in this excerpt from her bestselling book.

How Metacognition Makes Students Better Learners

by Starr Sackstein

The Problem: Students don’t know what they’ve accomplished

Even though grades are commonly used to communicate learning, at times students still don’t understand why they receive the grades they do. Some believe that the test scores or report card grades aren’t representative of what they actually know because they haven’t had ample time to display their growth. In most cases, students fail to grasp the specifics of their knowledge and skill set.

Since assessing learning has traditionally been the responsibility of the educator, students aren’t always clear on the criteria for mastery. They don’t know what level of proficiency they’ve achieved because they haven’t been provided with specific information about what they’ve done well and what needs continued effort.

  • Students are notoriously left out of the assessment process.
  • Despite getting test scores or comments on projects, kids don’t always know why they earned the grade they did.
  • Students are often left without a voice in the process of learning.
  • What students know isn’t always communicated accurately in a final project alone.

The Hack: Teach students to reflect on the process of learning

Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School

An Amazon Bestseller

When students learn to reflect meaningfully about their learning, they can participate in a dialogue with the teacher that allows them to work together to determine the actual level of mastery. No longer working in isolation, the teacher can now adequately discuss depth of learning, thereby helping students to communicate particular knowledge that is too often absent from their final products. After students provide the teacher with thorough information about their process, the teacher is in a better position to assess student learning.

Ask students to consider the following:

  • What was my understanding of the task in my own words?
  • What did I do to achieve success on the task?
  • What challenges did I face and how did I overcome them?
  • Which standards did I meet and what evidence from my work supports that assessment?
  • What goals did I set and meet? Which do I still need to work on?
  • If I had the opportunity to do it again, what would I do differently?

A way of providing excellent feedback is to read the student’s reflection and review the data you collected while the student was working before you assess the work. The teacher will have a clearer idea of what he or she is looking at, and will thus be able to provide every child with accurate individualized feedback.

In short, teachers cannot look at all student work the same way because every student starts in a different place. To ensure maximum progress to mastery we need to give every child feedback tailored to his or her specific needs.

Self-reflection also resolves the challenge of assessing group work. When every child presents a personal reflection, the teacher has a much better idea of what each child gained from working in the group. Consider what role the child played and how he or she grew. Remind students not to complain about other group members in their reflections, as the reflection should illustrate their own work, not their peers’ work. Each student therefore receives fair assessment on the merits of his or her work and growth during the group project. In addition, the whole group should receive feedback on the project, focusing on how well they were able to meet standards. You can do this with a group email or short conference.

What You Can Do Tomorrow

Teaching students to reflect takes time, but it’s well worth the commitment. There are things you can do right away to prime the learning:

  • Find out what they already know about reflection. Ask students what their understanding of reflection is by engaging in a conversation about it. Have they done it before? What does it look like? What should it include?
  • Co-construct a list of items to be included in a reflection. Take time in class to do a brainstorm with students, allowing them to contribute to the checklist.
  • Show them an example of a reflection that exhibits mastery. Nothing works better than showing a child what the expectation is, so allow students to read a good reflection and discuss what they notice with their groups. (See the sample in Hack 1.)
  • Ask students to reflect at the end of class. To get students into the habit of reflecting–and it is a habit that requires practice–ask them to consider what they have learned at the end of every class. This will also facilitate writing across content areas.

A Blueprint for Full Implementation

This book breaks the mold of “factory settings” and inspires educators to fully embrace the power of student autonomy           —Glenn Robbins
Step 1: Plan a lesson that shows students what reflection is.
Gather a few samples of good evidence-based reflections. Put students into groups and ask them to read and compare the reflections. What do they notice? How do the reflections compare? Ask them to generate a list of things they learned about reflections. In a full-class discussion, have students share why reflection can help their learning.

Step 2: Have students make a poster for the classroom that inspires reflection.
Once students grasp what reflection is about, have them synthesize what they’ve learned to present as a visual reminder for the class. Encourage them to consider these inquiries:

  • What essential questions must be answered in a reflection?
  • How can a student use reflection at the end of an assignment to communicate learning?

Hang the posters on the wall as an important resource throughout the year.

Students will see their own work and words about reflection and have a renewed understanding of why they are doing it. Share posters with colleagues so that all students are receiving a similar message.

Step 3: Teach the standards and skills.

If reflection is to be effective, students must understand the standards they aim to master. Help students understand why they are working on specific projects:

  • What are they supposed to be learning?
  • How do these skills align with content and standards?
  • How does the work connect with other learning?

Devote class time to reviewing the standards that apply to each project/assignment/unit before you get started and then refer to them throughout. Make sure students have internalized the expectations and are able to talk about them in their own terms.

Step 4: Make reflection routine.

Reflection is most effective when it happens regularly. As with any skill, constant practice will improve the process and generate deeper understanding. Students should reflect during the last five minutes of class: Just ask them to write about something they learned and something they need to work on. Students should specify their goals and the strategies they used and present evidence from their work. They can also connect topics to what’s being studied in different classes.

Step 5: Provide feedback on reflections regularly.

If we want students to improve the quality of reflection, we need to give them specific, immediate, feedback when they reflect. Keep explanations simple:

  • “You have provided an effective summary of the task, but you need to share more evidence of understanding.”
  • “This reflection does not discuss any standards.”
  • “Focus your reflection on your role in the group assignment and not on the work or lack of work of others.”
  • “Expand your discussion in this area to talk about what you learned or what you would do differently.”

As students improve, make sure to acknowledge that you have noticed. Tell them you see specific improvement: “I noticed that you used standards this time with more evidence from your own work. Please make this a habit.”

Don’t miss Part 2

In Part 2 of this excerpt from Hacking Assessment, Starr explains how to overcome pushback against student reflection and self-evaluation, and she shares a real sample of a student self-evaluation, in the section called, the Hack in Action.

Learn more about Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School (Times 10, 2015)

Published with permission from Times 10 Publications

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Mark Barnes is the Founder and CEO of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series -- books that provide right-now solutions for teachers and learners. Mark is the author or publisher of dozens of books, including Bestseller Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 115,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.