It’s that time of year when pupils tell us they can’t answer a question because they “haven’t learned it yet”.
We look at the question, and we sigh. We have, in fact, taught them everything they need to know to answer that question. And we’ve equipped them with the necessary skills to answer it, too.
So what’s going on?
Quick read: Have we forgotten to teach pupils how to learn?
Quick listen: Teach metacognition to boost exam results
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The problem is usually that the pupil has simply not identified the key ideas that sit behind the question. This is because, however many examples you give your students of ways to apply an idea to various situations, they’ll inevitably encounter an unfamiliar context at some point.
But all is not lost. If we support our students to consciously appraise the way they think about things, we’ll equip them to choose successful approaches to problems, without needing us there to scaffold their thinking for them.
Reflecting on your thinking is an aspect of metacognition, and it’s a common characteristic of the most effective learners.
Metacognitive learners choose from a range of learning strategies when they approach a task, and reflect on how appropriate it is. They are able to evaluate their choices, and learn from their strengths, as well as their mistakes.
Metacognitive approaches can be taught explicitly but, in practice, metacognition can feel quite intangible, leaving teachers feeling unsure of exactly what it might "look like" in their classrooms.
There are some general metacognitive principles that apply in a range of settings, but the most effective strategies are context-specific, so it really helps teachers to see examples of metacognition applied in practice.
This is why a paper by Gregory Thomas really interested me. It describes a practical, accessible and transferable approach that can be used to support metacognition and develop conceptual understanding in chemistry.
Laying it out
One of the reasons students find chemistry tricky is because they have to describe processes they can’t see, some of which are difficult even to imagine. They then need to use these abstract ideas to explain phenomena that they see and experience around them.
As teachers, we are able to identify connections that aren’t evident to our students, because we link them using processes that are invisible to the naked eye. But there’s a danger that we won’t think to explain these links explicitly to students, because they are second nature to us.
Thomas’ paper is based on the premise that to develop metacognition, students should consciously reflect on their learning processes.
It describes a simple worksheet that prompts students to identify what an idea looks like at different conceptual levels, and consciously make links between them. It also allows teachers to see how their students have interpreted these concepts and connections, and to pick up on any misconceptions.
I’ve designed a similar worksheet (with some help from Oliver Cavaglioli) to help my Year 12 students deepen their understanding of concepts we’ve been studying this term. Feedback has generally been positive from students, and I’ve found it straightforward to use.
You can see the worksheet by clicking here alongside an exemplar of how it should be used.
Time will tell if it’s something that’ll be useful in the long term, and across a range of topics. But thus far it has helped me to develop my students’ metacognition in a straightforward and practical way.
Dr Niki Kaiser is network research lead at the Norwich Research School at Notre Dame High School