Encouraged students to reflect on and evaluate what they have learned
Author: Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
Why this teaching method matters
Knowing what you know and what you do not know is one of the most important skills a person can have. But it is not as simple as it sounds. Cognitive scientists document the many difficulties we have in ascertaining our own knowledge. We are often overconfident in our understanding of material, biased in our self-assessment of knowledge, and blind to gaps in our knowledge1. Correspondingly, a broad range of research focuses on the mental processes that influence understanding and memory. Based on this research, instructors should take pains to encourage students to reflect on and evaluate what they have learned, processes falling under the umbrella term metacognition.
Metacognition, defined as “knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena” consists of assessing task goals and requirements, evaluating the status of learning goals, planning a strategy, applying the strategy, and reflecting on and adjusting the strategy as needed2. As is evident in this broad definition, there are many components to metacognition of which the key element is a reflection on one’s own thinking processes. The more instructors help students reflect, the more likely students will become self-regulated learners using cognitive skills that will enhance many facets of life. For example, instructors can ask students to reflect on the most important insights they gained from a reading, perhaps consider what surprised them most about an assignment, or to identify the most confusing points of a lecture. Instructors can also make sure they ask students questions on material just covered during lectures, or start class by having students look over notes and identifying material they may not have understood. aStudents who struggle to naturally engage in metacognitive behaviors can improve learning when instructors require explicit use of these skills. In one of the most comprehensive summaries of student learning evidence, John Hattie found that teaching metacognitive strategies had a large effect size with regard to student achievement (d=.69). Not surprisingly, instructors have tried many different ways to foster metacognitive skills in the classroom3,4.
A growing body of research shows that training students to focus on their learning helps. Many instructors concentrate on covering content in class and assume students should know how to study or that students have learned how to study in high school. To students, ‘studying’ often means rereading the textbook or notes, instead of practicing the many activities encompassed under the metacognition umbrella. In general, students who are prompted to self-explain their learning, essentially unpacking the process of their own learning identifying barriers and insights, have greater knowledge gains than students who received no prompt. For example, in one study, students who were given explicit self-regulated learning training outperformed students in a control condition6. Teachers trained students in summarizing the text, questioning themselves on material related to the text, and answered the questions raised by themselves and classmates thereby fostering self reflection. Students also performed better on comprehension tasks when engaged in comprehension monitoring activities7. Even something as easy to do as asking students to explain a concept from the readings to a classmate/neighbor, fosters metacognition.