Improving Learning With Metacognition: Part 2

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types of students Brilliant or Insane

Improving Learning With Metacognition: Part 2

by Starr Sackstein

Overcoming Pushback

Students will not like reflection at first; they will see it as additional work that doesn’t feel like it’s helping. Like most new things, students won’t appreciate it until they see the growth later on. Be prepared for various complaints.

Why do I need to do this? Because reflection is the most important part of learning. Remind students that seeing how they reflect helps you provide useful feedback that will help them grow as learners. You’ll need to exhibit the same patience you used when you convinced them to shift their mindset.

This might be good for English but will it work for other subjects? Yes, reflection is valuable in English class, but it is also necessary in every other subject. I can’t think of a subject area where students would not benefit from thinking about their learning, writing down what they have learned, and showing how they know that they learned it. Even more valuable is having students express what they struggle with and ask for the kind of help they’d like to receive to make it better. I’m sure a math student could talk about growth in proofs or challenges in trigonometry. Physical education students can reflect on their progress mastering lay-ups in basketball or on the challenges in maintaining a fitness regime. It is this reflection that encourages learners to set goals for improvement. Content should not dictate whether or not students reflect.

The Hack in Action

Once you convince students that you expect reflection and provide time for them to practice, reflection will increase learning. A perfect example is how math teacher Jim Cordery uses reflection with his students. Cordery emphasizes the power of reflection in his class.


I have always tried to get my students to think differently about math, encouraging them to spend time thinking of their method to solving the problem over getting the actual answer. I spend time–my students probably think too much time–asking them to share their thinking behind their answers. To me, what is most important is that they are thinking about math.

Over the last few years, I have thought about how I can increase participation in my classroom. Without a doubt, the addition of student reflections has been the answer I was looking for. I started including these reflections on every project and activity we completed. These are the benefits that resulted from giving my students a chance to reflect on a project or activity:

  1. It makes them think about how the activity connects to the real world.
  2. Reflecting has allowed me to communicate with everyone in class, not just the outspoken students.
  3. I have them writing about how they are learning, not just finding an answer.
  4. Reflection turns struggles into learning opportunities because I ask students to elaborate on what they struggled with.
  5. They think about how the activity’s objective could be used in their future profession or job.
  6. I also get a chance to modify the activity for future use after analyzing my students’ views on what they just completed.

Getting the students through this part of the journey is a challenge. I am constantly battling the phrase: “But this is math class. Why do we need to write?” I have attempted to counter this by initiating a conversation with my students. During this conversation, we discuss what is expected in the reflection. I point out that I am very interested in hearing about the process, but I am more interested in them sharing what struggles they overcame, both personally and as a group. I have taken the time to show past students’ work (with names removed) where we discuss the pros and cons of each piece of work. I am conscious never to interject too much of my own reactions to the writing, because experience has shown I just get carbon copies of that exact piece.

Here is one example of a student’s reflection:

Out of all of the projects and classwork papers I have completed throughout the school year, this project seemed to stand out. The project consisted of picking 5 destinations (cities) in the U.S that you wanted to visit; however, those cities also had to intertwine with U.S history. After you have chosen your preferred destinations, you have to figure out how many miles it would take to go round trip. Starting and finishing at Philadelphia, the stops I made along the way included, Austin, Texas, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Los Angeles, California, Portland, Oregon, and Charleston, South Carolina. This trip was a sightseeing trip and like you would in a realistic situation, you had to figure out how much it would cost to eat, stay at the hotels, fuel your car, and rent a car.

This entire project was at each individual’s pace, which worked out extremely well for me. I can go as fast as I wanted without having to wait, while I also could take time on specific parts of the project I might have been confused about. While this project tied in with U.S history, it not only taught me pre-algebra, math, and setting proportions, it also included a life lesson that I will know for a lifetime. Time management and being wise with your money are crucial understandings that I will need to know in the future. For example, I didn’t want my trip to be year-long, and I also didn’t want to pick the Jeep (the most expensive car available to drive my 7,650 mile journey) because it was a cool car.

The math needed to finish this project is tedious and hard. The fact that this project had multiple steps really encouraged me to try and get one step done each day and to strive for two. The pleasure I received during this project was from part 2. In this section you had to figure out how many miles per gallon your car could go. The reason why is because I feel as if I worked the hardest on this part over all of the others. The math needed to complete this portion was meticulous and I was intrigued even more each car I completed. Before the completion of this project, I was forced to face rough patches along the way. The hardest part might seem silly to you; nevertheless, it was pretty difficult for me. Sometimes choices are good and they allow you to do what you want; however, a bit more boundaries might have helped me finish this task a bit faster. Being able to pick your own cities was actually the hardest part for me because I am not very quick at picking choices. With over thousands and thousands of cities all over the United States, to only pick five was a bit arduous.

Overall, this project broadened my horizons and helped learn about math, social studies, and daily life situations. To be able to do projects similar to this one would be great because I really enjoyed everything involved with it. From the Civil War to the Battle of Fort Sumter, the cities I chose tied in perfectly with U.S. history, while they also were cities that I would want to visit in real life.

The traditional structure of education doesn’t really allow for formal written reflection. We must spend time teaching students to think about their learning and the process they completed to get there. As students become better at reflection, they will be better able to ask for specific help to move forward. This gift can’t be underestimated. Consider if or when you take time to teach kids to think about their processes. When would reflection be appropriate in your classes? How might this process support work you’re already doing?

Part 1 

View Part 1 of this 2-part special on metacognition and learning, from Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment.

For more on self-evaluation, reflection, e-portfolios, cloud-based feedback, and eliminating traditional grades, check out Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment, an Amazon Bestseller.

photo credit: Next generation of religious practitioners, Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche’s Childrens and Young People’s Audience and Blessing, students, Longhouse, Vancouver BC, Lotus Speech Canada via photopin (license)

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series -- books and other series 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 150,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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