Deliberately teaching metacognitive skills, or “thinking about thinking” can enhance a child’s ability to learn in all subject areas. Metacognition refers to a level of thinking that involves active control over the process of thinking that is used in learning situations. Planning the way to approach a learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating the progress towards the completion of a task: these skills are metacognitive in nature. Similarly, maintaining motivation to see a task to completion is also a metacognitive skill.
The more students are aware of their thinking processes as they learn, the more they can control goals, dispositions, and attention. Self-awareness promotes self-regulation. If students are aware of how committed they are to reaching goals, of how strong their disposition to persist, and of how focused is their attention to a thinking or writing task, they can regulate their commitment, disposition, and attention.
How to Teach Metacognitive Skills
- Preparation: Explain the importance of metacognitive learning strategies. Guide students to set specific goals for the task. Help students plan their time in order to accomplish the task.
- Presentation: Model the learning strategy. Talk about the usefulness and applications of the strategy explicitly. Develop a menu of strategies for many possible tasks. Illustrate your strategy use through a reading task with “unknown” vocabulary words. Teach the strategies to use (one at a time). Give instruction on how to use these strategies. Remind that no single strategy will work in every case.
- Give students opportunities to practice the learning strategies with an authentic learning task. Ask the students to make a conscious effort using the metacognitive strategies while reading.
- Evaluation: Give students opportunities to evaluate their own success in using learning strategies. Activities used to develop students self-evaluation can include self questioning, debriefing discussions after strategies practice, and checklists of strategies used.
Modelling Metacognitive Strategies
- Thinking aloud when solving problems.
- Mirroring student ideas back to them.
- Rephrasing student ideas to include thinking words (planning, strategy, steps to be taken).
- Clarifying responses and questions.
- Having students include the “how they did it” as part of larger assignments.
Think out Loud to Model Metacognitive Strategies
“Let’s see. I have five 1s in the ones column and one 10 in the tens column. I need to take away eight 1s from the ones column, but I don’t have enough. So now what do I do? I can’t do it with the ones, so now what? What do I know about the tens column? That one 10 is the same as ten 1s. So, if I take the one 10 and break it into its ten 1s and put them into the ones column, then I can take away eight. Now, is my answer reasonable? I will check it by adding the eight I took away and the seven that were left. 7 + 8 = 15!”
General Metacognitive Strategies for Students
Teach students how to:
- Plan the way to approach a learning task “What do I have to do and how will I do it?”
- Identify: Students need to make conscious decisions about their knowledge. Guide students to list “What I already know about…” and “What I want to learn about….” As students learn, they will verify, and clarify, or replace with more accurate information, each of their initial statements.
- Monitor their own comprehension “Did I understand ALL of that?” “Do I need more information?”
- Evaluate and debrief their progress “Have I done everything I need to…” Conduct closure activities that show how strategies can be applied to other situations. One such activity is guided self-evaluation, which can be introduced through individual conferences and checklists about thinking processes.
- Maintain motivation to complete a task. The ability to become aware of distractions and sustain effort over time also involves metacognitive functions. Teach skills such as covering your ears while you read to screen distractions, finishing the math problem before looking up from the worksheet. Break work into chunks, etc.
Teach text-noting tactics:
- Highlighting, underlining, circling, copying key words, phrases or sentences, outlining, diagramming.
- Listing ideas: causes, effects, characteristics, etc.
- Calling attention to confusion with a “?” in the margin.
Teach mental learning tactics:
- Rote learning of specific information.
- Visualizing information.
- Self-questioning and self-testing.
- Mnemonics, chunking information, cognitive rehearsal.
- Use personal strengths to better understand the content. If I am a good reader, I focus on the text; if I am good at figures and diagrams, I focus on those.
- Inferring meaning: While learning, try to determine the meaning of unknown words that seem critical to the meaning of the content. (Ask for clarification, get a dictionary, use the context, or analyze the word).
- While learning, consider and revise background knowledge about the topic. Try to link it to prior knowledge.
- Distinguish between information that is already known and new information.
- Note how hard or easy a text is to read and use extra time or effort to learn harder material.
Reading Comprehension Metacognitive Strategies for Students
Successful comprehension depends on directed cognitive effort. Students must purposefully invoke strategies, and do so to regulate and enhance learning from text.
Teach children to:
- Plan their reading: You may need to provide structure to start with.
- Students should read the table of contents first to help understand what the text is about and set the scene.
- Connect the current topic to prior knowledge. “An owl is a predator, like when we talked about lions being predators too.”
- Use Previewing, Predicting, and Vocabulary Study.
- Previewing text mentally prepares a student to receive information from written material. Discussion for fiction should center on whether the students think the story will be realistic fiction or fantasy and why, who the characters may be and how they will interact, what the problem in the story may be, etc. By focusing on story structure teachers give students a framework on which to place information from the text. Discussion of non-fiction should center on what students already know about a topic, what they would like to know; the structure of the book or article; and what information may be included.
- Set Reading Goals Use the preview discussions to help students generate questions about what they want to find out from the text. For fiction, these questions will be centered on story structure, such as the characters and their goals and problems; for non-fiction, questions will focus on what students would like to learn about a topic. For both, chapter titles or subtitles may be rephrased as questions to help students set their goals for reading.
- Study Essential Vocabulary Words. Choose vocabulary words that are not easily understood within the text, but are essential to its understanding. Discuss the words in terms of their meaning. Link these words to prior knowledge the students may have about them, and decoding and word structure.
- Predict and Verify From the Text. Do this repeatedly before and during reading. Text is broken into chunks. For each section readers predict what will be in it, based on what has occurred before, and then read to verify their prediction, and then predict again.
Teach general reading tactics
- Skimming a text to get a general understanding or to look for words students don’t understand can be a useful first step.
- Reading the text at normal speed.
- Slower reading often enhances comprehension as does re-reading selected text.
Math Metacognitive Strategies for Students
Teach the Mnemonic DRAW
- Discover the sign.
- Read the problem.
- Answer the problem using lines and tallies or on scratch paper.
- Write the answer.
- Add by counting on from the first addend or the larger addend.
- Use mnemonics.
- Understand that two times any number will be even or that five times any number will always end in a zero or a 5.
- Use a finger strategy for multiplying numbers less than 10 by 9.
- Manipulatives are an excellent way for students to develop self-verbalizing learning strategies. Students should be encouraged to talk their way through each problem using manipulatives.
- Construct relationships between the new process and what they already knew.
Ask questions about math problems.
- Comprehension questions (e.g., What is this problem all about?)
- Connection questions (e.g., How is this problem different from/ similar to problems that have already been solved?)
- Strategy questions (e.g., What strategies are appropriate for solving this problem and why?)
- Reflection questions (e.g., does this make sense? why am I stuck?)
Taking the time to deliberately teach metacognitive strategies can improve student learning. Giving students the ability to think about their thinking, and be aware of their learning goals promotes a more authentic learning environment. If you are new to deliberately teaching metacognitive skills, the lists above would be a great place to start.