Metacognition: Teaching ‘Thinking About Thinking’ to Increase Student Engagement
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
Much work has been done in the area of helping students recognize the best manner in which they’re able to learn: ‘I’m an auditory learner,’ ‘I’m a visual learner,’ ‘I’m a tactile learner.’ Unfortunately, plenty of teachers have heard ‘I can’t learn online’ or ‘I need to be in class to learn’ or similar over the course of the last two years in K12.
Regardless of the circumstances, recognizing one’s best-suited learning style greatly benefits any learner. But what is a student supposed to DO with that information to help them become a better learner? This is where understanding metacognition – thinking about thinking - becomes a critical skill.
Metacognition as a critical skill for students
It’s often been said that the only real mistake that one can make is the one from which we learn nothing. Central to this idea is the learner’s ability to 1) recognize that a mistake has been made and 2) be equipped with strategies that one can employ to correct the mistake. Only when the learner can explain how they corrected the mistake and why they utilized the strategy they did to correct it are they fully engaged and an active participant in (and observer of) their own learning.
The authors of Making Thinking Visible (Ritchart et al., 2011) believe that most of what happens in the classroom isn’t necessarily learning – it’s training. And as most veteran teachers would attest, there’s certainly an element of truth to that assertion. Teachers often spend a considerable amount of time telling kids what’s important and having them practice skills – while the teaching of independent thinking skills and strategies tend to be sadly missing. In most cases, students are ‘learning more about the subject than learning to do the subject’ (Ritchart et al., 2011). Yet if given the tools and strategies to become problem solvers and critical thinkers - and learn how to think about their thinking – students can become more metacognitive.
In actuality, defining metacognition as ‘thinking about thinking’ is only partially correct because that definition doesn’t cover the entire process and outcome of metacognition. To be fully metacognitive, the learner must also take charge of his or her learning (Metacognition and Learning: Strategies for Instructional Design, Malamed, 2015). To better illustrate this point, Malamed separates metacognition into two processes: Knowledge of Cognition and Regulation of Cognition. In brief, she indicates it’s not simply a matter of understanding how one learns – but rather it includes the ability to employ and monitor one’s learning to ensure success and engagement in learning.
Teachers are often masters of offering students multiple strategies for learning: everything from reading strategies to rote memorization techniques. Still, a disconnect usually exists between teaching these strategies and students being able to recognize what strategies are most helpful and in which situations. Learners need to be taught to think metacognitively; it’s not something most learners do intrinsically.
Many of us internalize strategies without ever giving them another thought. For example, we use “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” to memorize the mathematical order of operations. Did we just memorize the sentence, or are we aware of the learning technique that helps us memorize the information (learning skill: acronym)? How many of us consciously employ the use of acronyms for memorization? Students who don’t understand what strategies direct their learning are more likely to be less active, less independent, less engaged, and less metacognitive as learners (Ritchart et al., 2011).
So, what can teachers do to help students think metacognitively?
To begin the process of helping students become engaged in their learning rather than passive guests on the education train, educators can start to retrain themselves first. That’s no small task, mind you. A good starting point is to begin by asking authentic questions during instruction and discussions. Asking questions to which the teacher does not already know the answer is a powerful technique to building a classroom culture that feels intellectually engaging (Ritchart et al., 2011). Teachers can facilitate the learning of metacognitive strategies by using Socratic questioning strategies when asking the student to think about his or her thinking - ‘What makes you say that?’, ‘Can you say more about that?’, ‘Can you say what you were thinking in a different way to help me better understand?’
Ultimately, instructor questions should push students further with a focus on interpretative and self-analysis type questions (e.g., ‘What does that tell you then?’, ‘What makes you say that?’) – this juxtaposition essentially places the student in the lead role while the instructor assumes more of a ‘guide’ position in learning. It’s a difficult transition for some teachers to move from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side,’ but this is precisely what needs to occur to drive advanced understanding in learners (Ritchart et al., 2011).
With Socratic questioning, the teacher isn’t pushing the student down the path of learning. Rather, by assuming a lead role in their own learning, the student becomes actively engaged. The student is now in control of understanding not only the content but also how and why the student understands and synthesizes the content. The end goal of metacognition? Students become independent thinkers and problem-solvers across the board in all aspects of their lives, not just in the classroom.
Student engagement can be defined in innumerable ways depending upon the learning setting. Though the objective is to develop independent thinkers and problem solvers, those skills and the level of self-discipline needed to develop those skills can take time for students to master.
Deledao’s Live Classroom Management software monitors student engagement by detecting when students may be off-task during digital learning. For example, our ability to automatically detect students on YouTube or Spotify allows teachers to focus on teaching instead of policing students.