For years, as an English teacher, Alex Quigley tried to get his GCSE and A-level students to do one simple thing that would improve their exam performance: to explicitly plan their responses to questions.
He tried everything he could think of to convince them of the value of planning, but he always got the same response: “Do I get any marks for this, Sir?”
“And I developed a really well-trodden answer to that,” Quigley explains, speaking on the latest episode of the Tes English Teaching podcast.
“Directly, you don’t get any marks. But as soon as an examiner sees a careful plan, they start to think about you in different ways. They start to think about you as a student who’s a writer and who can articulate their ideas in an organised way," he would tell students.
“Ultimately, what the plan will do is, if you have good practices for planning how you write and planning your ideas, then your answers will be better. Your answers will be more coherent. They will be more developed,” he adds.
What Quigley didn’t realise was that in asking his students to “plan”, he was requesting that they undertake a very complicated mental process, which they had never been properly prepared for.
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Want to know more? Read the EEF guidance on metacognition and self-regulation
It was only later, when he began to learn more about metacognition, that Quigley understood that this was the key to leading his pupils towards exam success.
What is metacognition?
Metacognition is about understanding your own thought processes, recognising them and knowing the strategies that you can apply to improve your performance.
In the podcast, Quigley – who is now a senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation and co-authored a recent report on metacognition and self-regulation – explains how metacognitive skills contribute to exam performance and what teachers can do to help pupils develop these skills.
This starts, he says, with recognising the complexity of the metacognitive processes of planning, monitoring and evaluating – and with teachers acknowledging that pupils will not be able to complete these processes automatically, without explicit instruction.
“The reality is that we often expect expertise from students, when they’re novices. And we need to be more deliberate about those processes,” Quigley says.
This means teaching pupils specific strategies that they can use to support their thinking under exam conditions.
Strategies for exam success
For example, Quigley suggests, for the pupil who has good subject knowledge, but tends to panic in exams and write far more than she needs to, teachers could help her to set a limit on how much she should be writing. Then, during practice papers, they could enforce a 10-minute monitoring period within the exam time limit where, instead of writing, she must be reading over what she has done and checking for any gaps.
The idea is that by modelling these strategies explicitly and getting pupils to practise them, metacognitive techniques will eventually become so natural that pupils will apply them without thinking, regardless of the amount of pressure they are under.
The aim, Quigley says, is to make the process completely automatic, “like driving a car”.
“When you first learn to drive a car, you have to get taught to do the gears and look in your mirrors and everything else. But over time it becomes automatic,” he explains.
This, he points out, is something that teacher will be training their pupils to do already, but perhaps not quite as explicitly as they need to be.
“I don’t know of any teacher who has not been trying to cultivate metacognition. It’s just that we need to have that more deliberate, coherent understanding of what it is,” he says.
“Giving it a label, breaking it down into named strategies is what we’re aiming for. Because ultimately, we just want a student in exam conditions to be able to pick from a handful of different strategies to deploy in that moment.”
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In the podcast, Quigley goes into more detail about how teachers can learn about metacognitive skills and how they can pass these onto their pupils. He also discusses his recent book, Closing the Vocabulary Gap and shares strategies for teaching vocabulary.
You can listen to the podcast below, or search on your podcast platform for “Tes - the education podcast”.
Jamie Thom is an English teacher at Cramlington Learning Village. His book A Quiet Education will be published in November 2019. He tweets @teachgratitude1