Teaching our Students About Metacognition

I have taught high school freshmen my entire teaching career, and one of the things I like to expose them to at the beginning of the year is the process of metacognition:  thinking about your thinking.  Honestly, I believe the majority of the general population does not practice this valuable habit of checking in with one’s thinking.  Metacognitive thinking can be re-examining beliefs and values, or evaluating if one is on the right track for the goals they want to achieve.  For my young students, I encourage them to use metacognition to contemplate questions such as: what areas of life do I feel successful in?  What do I need help with?  Am I giving my best effort and attention to different areas in my life?  How can I improve and what steps will it take to make that happen?

Just recently I asked my students to engage in a metacognition check in.  I want to share some of the their responses, with some comments about where I see them in their educational career.  Perhaps you can recognize some of your students in these reflections.  This simple exercise provides a valuable place to peek into their thinking to respond to and mentor them.

Most days at the end of class when the bell rings and all the work I didn’t do is homework, I always regret it, because I tell myself that I should have done it when I had the chance instead of getting distracted.  I could improve by focusing more and not get distracted in my thoughts because when I do, I just stop working.

Wow – how many of our kids fall into this pattern in class?  This year, I have had an epidemic of students not being productive in class, NOT doing their work as homework, and they seem to be constantly behind the 8 ball of being late.  Perhaps, when they recognize this, changing the conversation back to their own metacognition realization so that they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated?  Worth a try…

Thinking about my thinking is like research on myself, observing what I’m thinking and the reason behind it.  And, if my thinking is on the wrong path, then I should start thinking how I can control it and bring it to the right path.  Right now, I’m thinking more about the STAAR  – it’s the first time I’ve taken the star, so I have no idea what they are like.

Bravo, this high achieving immigrant student, for understanding how she is thinking.  But, the pressure of these standardized exams are real for our students.  Our state has changed these tests 3 times in my short 13 year teaching career.  It’s hard to continue hitting the benchmarks when everyone has to start from scratch again.  Here’s another student’s response to her thinking about the STAAR exam:

The STAAR test is giving me second thoughts everyday.  I just need to relax about the STAAR test and think good thoughts that I’m going to pass…

The struggles are real.  I often encourage my students to focus on the areas of information they feel solid on going into an exam, not about the things they think they don’t know.  That simple tactic can change a negative attitude into one that is more positively focused which can help their performance.  But the reality on our campus is that there is a large percentage of English language learners, SPED students, and low socio-economic families.  These are huge hurdles for these students to leap over, just to come close to passing these exams.  It’s no wonder some of them just give up – they just don’t have the supports they need to help them be successful.

One of my sophomore students in my PreAP class would approach every project asking me what she should do.  It was a classic case of the student wanting the teacher to give them the solution because they are fearful of making a wrong choice.  I was pleased to see what her thinking revealed:

I believe that I need some work on thinking more clearly and faster.  I need to work on thinking to understand my work rather than only trying to finish it.  I will start trying to think about my thoughts so I will understand more.

We’ve been making handmade books in the art classroom as our final project for the year.  I love this project because it is so student driven.  I assess the students on how much effort they put into their artwork in addition to the objectives I want them to hit.  They are racing against themselves; are they pushing their thinking for their visual solution and are they working on improving their individual skill level, because they are not being compared to other student’s talent or skill level.  I loved seeing this response from a student:

In terms of my thinking, I don’t think that my thinking is on track.  I have the lowest grade in this class out of all of my classes even though this class is the easiest.  I really want to end this year with better grades overall, so I’m going to actually start a new book with everything looking really good and complete.  Hopefully, after that I’ll be able to increase my grade.

Yes!  As we are near the end of the school year, he has done just that, and will make a top grade on this book for the effort he’s put in!  Another student is at the end of the spectrum in the Myers & Briggs personality system as a feeler instead of a thinker:

I don’t think with my mind a lot.  I’m that kind of person that uses their heart too much.  I just follow my heart through every situation – it’s not a right way to think and I’m aware of that.  I try to change that sometimes, but deep down I’m not determined enough since being a feeler instead of a thinker doesn’t bother me that much. However, following my heart like that doesn’t keep me constant most of the time:  one minute I want to do more of something or be someone, the next I’ll have a whole new plan.

I, too am a feeler, and can relate to her struggle.  But I am also glad that she recognizes the benefits of strengthening her thinking (like I have!) for better balance, consistency and performance.

The last student response gets at the heart and soul of metacognitive thinking.  I’ve had this student for two years, and she is one of those I will miss a lot.

The dictionary defines metacognition as an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.  I go through the process a lot.  I always try to make the best decisions for myself and think often about my actions because I know what’s good for me.  I know myself better than anyone else and do the things I do for a reason.

Bingo!  Ultimately, this is what I want every student to understand – that they are the creators of their life path and have the power to make the best choices for their goals.  Not everyone has such clarity about their insight.  Using this simple exercise in the classroom from time to time can strengthen the habit of using metacognitive thinking at various times in their life where it could impact their decision making or evaluation of their efforts.  Try it out for your self or with your students!  Feel the power of metacognitive thinking!

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