Metacognitive skills are arguably the most important set of skills we need for our journey through life as they orchestrate every cognitive skill involved in problem-solving, decision-making and self-monitoring (both cognitive and socio-affective). We start acquiring them at a very early age at home, in school, in the playground and in any other social context an individual interacts with other human beings. But what are metacognitive skills?
What is metacognition?
I often refer to metacognition as ‘the voice inside your head’ which helps you solve problems in life by asking you questions like:
- What is the problem here?
- Based on what I know already about this task, how can I solve this problem?
- Is this correct?
- How is this coming along?
- If I carry on like this where am I going to get?
- What resources should I use to carry out this task?
- What should come first? What should come after?
- How should I pace myself? What should I do by when?
- Based on the criteria I am going to be evaluated against, how am I doing?
The challenge is not only to develop our students’ ability to ask themselves these questions, but also, and more importantly, to enable them to do this at the right time, in the right context and to respond to those questions promptly, confidently and effectively by applying adequate cognitive and social strategies.
How does one become highly ‘metacognizant’?
Let us look at two subjects from an old study of mine, student A and student B, in the examples below.The reader should note that the data below were elicited through a technique called concurrent think-aloud protocol (i.e. the two students were reflecting on the errors in their essays, whilst verbalizing their thoughts).
Self-questioning by student A:
Question: What is the problem here?
- Too many spelling mistakes
- I must check my essay more carefully with the help of the dictionary
- I also need to go through it more times than I currently do, I think
Self-questioning by student B:
Question 1: What is the problem in my essay?
- There are too many spelling mistakes
- I need to check my essay more thoroughly
- I rarely use the dictionary I usually trust my instinct
- I also need to go through it three or four times
Question 2: What are my most common spelling mistakes?
- Cognates, I get confused
- Longer words, I struggle with those, too
- I usually make most of my mistakes toward the end of the essay
- I also make mistakes in longer sentences
Question 3: But why in longer sentences?
- Maybe because I tend to focus on verbs and agreement more than I do on spelling
Both students identify the same problems with the accuracy in their essays. They both start with the same identical question, but Student B investigates it further through more self-questioning. In my study, which investigated metacognitive strategies, most of my informants tended to be more like student A; very few went spontaneously, without any prompt from me, as far as student B, in terms of metacognitive self-exploration.
How did student B become so highly metacognizant? Research indicates that, apart from genetic factors (which must not be discounted), the reason why some people become more highly metacognizant than others is because that behavior is modelled to them; in other words, caregivers, siblings, people in their entourage have regularly asked those questions in their presence and have used those questions many a time to guide them in problem solving or self-reflection. I cannot forget how my father kept doing that to me, day in day out since a very early age: ‘why do you think it is like this?’, ‘how could we fix this?’, ‘why do you think this statement is superficial?’, ‘how can you write this introduction better?’ – he would ask. I used to hate that, frankly, as I would have preferred to just get on with reading my favourite comics or watching tv; but it paid off. The intellectual curiosity, the habit of looking at different angles of the same phenomenon, the constant quest for self-improvement that I eventually acquired were ultimately modelled by those questions.
This is what a good teacher should do: spark off that process, by constantly modelling those questions, day in day out, in every single lesson, so as to get students to become more and more aware of themselves as language learners: what works for them and what doesn’t; what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they can do to best address them; how they can effectively tackle specific tasks; what cognitive or affective obstacles stand in the way of their learning; how they can motivate themselves; how can they best use the environment, the people around them, internet resources, etc. in a way that best suits them, etc.
Twelve easy steps to effective modelling of metacognitive-enhancing questioning
But how do we start, model and sustain that process? There are several approaches that one can undertake in isolation, or, synergistically. The most effective is Explicit Strategy Instruction, whereby the teacher presents to the students one or more strategies (e.g. using a mental checklist of one’s most common mistakes in editing one’s essay); tells the students why it/they can be useful in improving their performance (reduce grammatical, lexical and spelling errors); scaffolds it for weeks or months (e.g. asks them to create a written list of their most common mistakes to use every time they check an essay produced during the scaffolding period); then phases out the scaffolding and leaves the students to their own devices for a while; at the end of the training cycle, through various means, the teacher checks if the target strategy has been learnt or not.
The problem is, with two hours’ teacher contact time a week, doing the above properly is a very tall order, and the learning gains in terms of language proficiency may not justify the hassle. I implemented a Strategy Instruction program as part of my PhD study; it was as effective as time-consuming and I could afford it because I was a lecturer on a 14-hour time-table. Would I recommend it to a full-time secondary teacher in a busy UK secondary school? Not sure…So what can we do to promote metacognitive skills in the classroom?
There are small and useful steps we can take on a daily basis which can help, without massively adding to our already heavy workload. They involve more or less explicit ways of modelling metacognitive or metacognitive-enhancing self-questioning. Here are some of the 41 strategies I have brainstormed before writing this article.
- At the beginning of each lesson, after stating the learning intentions, ask the students how what they are going to learn may be useful/relevant to them (e.g. ‘Why are we learning this?’, ‘How is this going to help you be better speakers of French?’)
- Before starting a new activity ask the students how they believe it is related to the learning intentions; what and how they are going to learn from that activity (e.g. ‘Why are we doing this?’);
- On introducing a task, give an example of how you would carry out that activity yourself (whilst displaying it on the interactive whiteboard/screen) and take them through your thought processes. This is called ‘think-aloud’ in that you are verbalizing your thought processes, including the key-questions that trigger them (e.g.: I want to guess the meaning of the word ‘chère’ in the sentence “C’est une voiture chère”. I ask myself: is it a noun, an adjective,…? It is an adjective because it comes after the word ‘voiture’ which is a noun. Is it positive or negative? It must be positive because it I cannot see ‘pas’ here. Does it look like any English word I know? No, it doesn’t… but I have seen this word at the beginning of a letter as in ‘Chère Marie’… so it can mean ‘dear’ … How can a car be ‘dear’? Oh I get it: it means expensive. It is an expensive car!)
- At the end of a task, ask students to self-evaluate with the help of another student (functioning as a moderator, rather than a peer assessor) using a checklist of questions, the use of which you would have modelled through think-aloud beforehand. For the evaluation of a GCSE-like conversation this could include: Where the answers always pertinent? Was there a lot of hesitation? Was there a good balance of nouns, adjectives and verbs? Were there enough opinions? Were there many mistakes with verbs? Etc.
- Encourage student-generated metacognitive questioning by engaging students in group-work problem-solving activities. The rationale for working in a group on this kind of activities is that at least one or two of the students in the group (if not all of them) will ask metacognition-promoting questions and by so doing they will model them to the rest of group. If this type of activities become daily practice (in all lessons, not just MFL ones), the questions they generate might become in the long-term incorporated in one’s repertoire of thinking skills. Such activities may include: (1) inductive grammar tasks, where students are given examples of a challenging grammar structure and they have to figure out how the rules governing that structure work (see my activity on French negatives:https://www.tes.co.uk/teaching-resource/inductive-task-on-negatives-6316942 ) ; (2) inferring the meaning of unfamiliar words in context; (3) Real life problem solving tasks: planning a holiday and having to reserve tickets online, find out a hotel that suits a pre-defined budget, etc.
- Get students, after completing a challenging task, to ask themselves questions like: “what did I find difficult about it?”; “Why? ”; “What did I not know?”, “What will I need to know next time?”.
- On giving students back their corrected essays, scaffold self-monitoring skills by getting them to ask themselves: “Which ones of the mistakes I made in this essay do I make all the time?”, “Why?”, “What can I do to avoid them in the future?”
- Every now and then (do not overdo this), at key moments in the term, get the students to ask themselves questions about the way they learn, e.g. After telling them, concisely and using a fancy diagram (e.g. the curve of forgetting by Ebbinghaus) how and when forgetting occurs, ask them to reflect on what distracts them in class or at home and what one can do to eliminate those distracting factors;
- At the beginning of each school year, to get them into a reflective mood and to gain a valuable insight into their learning habits and issues, ask them to keep a concise reflective journal to write at end of each week with a few retrospective questions about their learning that week. Avoid questions like: “What have I learnt this week?” Focus on questions aimed at eliciting problems about their learning and what they or you can do to address them.
- Ask them, whilst writing an essay, to review the final draft of the essay and ask themselves the question: “What is that I am not sure about?” and ask them to highlight every single item in that essay evoked by that question.
- Ask them, at the end of a lesson, to fill in a google form or just write on a piece of paper to hand in to you the answer to the questions: “What activity benefitted me the most today? Why?”
- Ask your students to think about the ways they reduce their anxiety in times of stress (e.g. the run-up to the French end-of-year exams?); do they always work? Are there any other techniques they can think of to keep stress at bay? Are there any other techniques ‘out there’ (e.g. on the Internet) that might work better? I have done this with a year 8 class of mine and I was truly amazed at the amount of effort they put into researching (at home, of course) self-relaxation techniques and at the quality of their findings (which they shared with their classmates).
It goes without saying that there are classes with which one would be able to do all of the above and others where one will be lucky if one can use one or two of the above strategies. It is also important to keep in mind that by over-intellectualizing language learning in the classroom you may lose some of the students; hence one should use those strategies regularly but judiciously and, most importantly, to serve language learning – not to hijack the focus of the lesson away from it . The most important thing is that the students are exposed to them on a daily basis until they are learnt ‘by osmosis’ so to speak.
Metacognitive literacy and explicit instruction
Ideally, the modelling and fostering of metacognitive self-questioning will be but the beginning of a more explicit and conscious process on the part of the teacher, to, once s/he believes the student have reached the maturity necessary to do so, impart on them a metacognitive literacy program. By this I mean that, just as we assign a name, in literacy instruction, to each part of speech or word class (e.g. adjective, noun, ect.), we should also acquaint them with what each metacognitive strategy is called, what purpose it serves and which of the questions modelled to them over the months or years it relates to. The importance of sharing a common language is crucial in any kind of learning, especially when dealing with high order thinking skills. After all, as Wittgenstein said; “The limits of my language, are the limits of my world”.
Once that common language is well-established in the classroom, the implicit metacognitive modelling that the teacher has embedded regularly in his/her lesson can be made explicit and strategy training can be implemented using the framework that I have already outlined above and that I reserve to discuss at greater length in a future post:
1. Strategies are named and presented
2. Strategies are modelled
3. Strategies are practised with scaffolding
4. Strategies are used without scaffolding
5. Strategies uptake is verified by test and/or verbal report