Making strides with metacognition

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Gill Ragsdale explains the power of thinking aloud

‘We do not learn from experience…. we learn from reflecting on experience’, John Dewey, educational psychologist. One of the common challenges for teachers is to teach students how to learn and so become more autonomous, efficient learners in control of their own learning. Students who think about and reflect on how they learn language employ a range of metacognitive strategies which generally help them learn more efficiently.

Metacognition is commonly defined as ‘thinking about thinking’. In education, this means learning about learning.

Thinking in this way requires a self-awareness of mental processes and a body of knowledge to work with, so it is something that develops over time. Metacognitive thinking can be developed from childhood, and it can be accelerated by instruction and regular practice.

Metacognitive strategies should be used in the three stages of learning. First, when learners prepare and plan to learn prior to a task or topic. Then, to monitor the process during the learning activity. Finally, when they evaluate the learning outcome.

Both teachers and students benefit from consciously applying metacognitive strategies throughout the learning process. The different strategies all employ a process of students asking key questions of themselves and/or others and reflecting on the answers. Teachers can use similar processes to plan, monitor and evaluate their own teaching.

Metacognitive strategies for learners should by scaffolded by the teacher. Firstly, teachers name and present the strategy, explaining how it supports learning. Then they model the strategy with an example.

Students practice using the strategy with scaffolding support, for example with hints and suggestions. They then use them with less and less support, and finally without any support. This process might occur over several lessons. Pairs and groups of students can go on to practice and give feedback on how well they are using the strategy.

In order for metacognitive strategies to become a common and regular part of lessons, teachers will need to teach not only the strategy itself but also the language required to talk about it. This can seem overlychallenging for lower-level learners but often the language can be simplified and then used routinely so that it becomes familiar. For example, the simple instruction ‘think aloud’ can signal the routine practice of explicitly explaining what the learner is thinking during a task (as described below).

Six successful strategies

1 Introduce the idea

All students (and teachers), whether they realise it or not, have their own ideas and beliefs about the learning process and themselves as learners. They may, for example, have a fixed idea of their own abilities and likely level of achievement. These fixed ideas can be an obstacle to learning, and many students underestimate their potential to regulate their own learning. At the very beginning of a course, students can be asked to describe and discuss these ideas and beliefs explicitly (for example, see this downloadable resource https:// efltakeaways.home.blog/tag/metacognition/).

Students can be encouraged to reflect on what has worked well or been challenging previously and compare their reflections. Some of the strategies on this page may arise naturally from this discussion or can be introduced by the teacher. Make it clear to students that adopting good learning strategies can greatly improve language proficiency for all abilities.

2 Use prior knowledge

Before a lesson or specific activity, students should draw on what they already know that is relevant. Drawing on long-term memory stores decreases the cognitive load of the new information in short-term memory and makes it easier to move the new information to long-term memory for storage. In short – it makes new information easier to remember.

When beginning a new task, students should ask themselves: ‘What do I already know about this language item or this topic?’ This could also be done my brainstorming in groups or as a class. No task or topic will be so new that it cannot be linked to prior knowledge, and the more links that can be made – to other language items, contexts, experiences or applications – the better.

For example, given the title of a listening task such as ‘Let’s have lunch’ students should gather language items on any related content, such as types of food, places to have lunch, best time for lunch and so on. The greater the range of linked items (i.e. not just a list of food options) the more long-term memory is being activated, and the more likely it is that known language will be recognised and new items will be processed.

Students should continue to link new language to prior knowledge during learning and when evaluating learning.

3 Organise information

Accessing prior knowledge and linking information enables students to organize information for example graphically as checklists, concept maps or webs. Organizing information graphically further decreases cognitive load on short-term memory. There are many free graphic organisers online for children and adults.

For example, Venn diagrams can be used to organise language items for a compare and contrast exercise, where students write things in common in the overlapping space and contrasts in the non-overlapping spaces. Word clusters and timelines are also useful organisers.

The teacher could model this, for example with a writing exercise, by drawing a map of ideas and language items to be used and then organising related information to form a plan of the writing. Students then practice this strategy in pairs or small groups before trying it individually. After writing they can peer assess how well the strategy was used, what worked and how the planning could be improved. It should become clear to students that the quality and content of the writing is much improved when preceded by organising and planning.

Writing tasks as short as single sentences can benefit from this approach. Lower level learners can begin by collecting relevant vocabulary to one side before organizing chosen language items into whole sentences.

4 Think aloud

This technique makes students aware of the thought processes used to tackle any language task.

The teacher first models this in example tasks such as, ‘Fill in the blank: ……………. they live near you?’

The teacher thinks aloud: ‘What kind of sentence is this? It’s a question. So, how do we make questions in English? This sentence has ‘they live,’ which is present simple. So, I need the verb ‘do’ or ‘does’ to make the question. Here I will use ‘do’ because ‘do’ goes with ‘they’.’

Next, students try one or more examples together with the teacher. Then they do it in pairs (either collaborating or taking turns) or groups. Students can adapt and learn new strategies from listening to each other. This is an example of socially-shared metacognition that develops a classroom culture of using metacognitive strategies.

Note that all the thinking should be spoken aloud, including mistakes and trial and error. ‘Think aloud’ practice makes students more aware of how they process language, where they are making mistakes and how they can improve. Eventually, the processes will be internalised and happen automatically without being spoken.

5 Slow down and focus

Students often rush ahead when something is confusing and challenging rather than stopping and focussing. Students should regularly slow down and focus. This may require allowing extra time for the activity although once this becomes routine, the time should be repaid by overall increased efficiency. For example, when reading they should stop after each paragraph and ask themselves:

  • Do I understand this?
  • Is there some part that is more difficult to understand?
  • What does the writer want me to understand here?
  • What can I do to try to understand this?

This can be modelled and practiced as a ‘think aloud’ exercise.

Encourage students to use other cognitive strategies to deal with challenges, rather than just ploughing on and reading all the words without understanding the overall meaning.

Image courtesy of Library