Metacognitive learning: have you got it all wrapped up?

5th October 2018 at 00:00
To encourage her students to think about the ways in which they learn, and to foster greater independence, Clare Feeney introduced ‘wrappers’ – a self-evaluation technique backed up by research. The results have been remarkable, she says, with pupils now continually improving their strategies for approaching tasks

My students were discussing how they had prepared for their latest assessment, while I listened in with great interest. They get on well and, within seconds, they were sharing the tactics they had used: concept maps, summaries, essay plans and more.

Of course, the high-flyers in the class had (mainly) nailed their strategies, but the majority were still practising how to become effective learners. Hence, I soon heard murmurs of “I just highlighted the notes” and “I reread it a few times”.

This conversation had not begun spontaneously. The class was completing an “assessment wrapper”. I had just returned a marked assignment, and the students were asked to discuss the strategies they had used to prepare for the essay; specifically, what worked, what didn’t and what they could do to improve their piece. This took place last September, at a time when “wrappers” were fast becoming my favourite new tool.

So, what exactly is a wrapper? As the name suggests, it is a self-evaluation technique that wraps around an assessed task – perhaps homework or an exam. For example, when a marked piece of work is returned, students report which strategies they used to complete the task, analyse what they need to improve on and identify potential new approaches.

Why did I decide to try wrappers? I wanted to foster more independence in my students. Who doesn’t? I also knew that existing research cites self-evaluation as vital for effective independent learning.

This is a key component of metacognition: learning to learn. Teaching students how to adapt their learning felt important. We too often just focus on improving the work, not the approach to the work.

But I wanted examples of interventions that had been successful. Searching online, I came across an interesting case study by Marsha Lovett (2008), who developed a metacognitive tool at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.

Lovett’s intention was “to teach monitoring and adapting as a habit of mind” – a crucial part of the learning-to-learn cycle. She wanted to help students to identify poor learning strategies, combat over-confidence and challenge the belief that effort is more important than strategy.

Wrappers were her way of doing it, and she demonstrated that they had a positive impact – the majority of learners reported using new strategies and understood why they worked.

Of course, just one study in a single institution cannot be widely generalised. However, the recent Education Endowment Foundation guidance on metacognition and self-regulation endorses the use of exam wrappers, stating that they allow teachers and students a way “to evaluate and analyse errors, and revision patterns for a given exam”. “This can help improve pupils’ accuracy of judgement,” the guidance says.

Moreover, exam wrappers are a way of explicitly teaching students how to plan and manage their learning.

Put simply, wrappers help them to see what works – and what doesn’t.

Wrappers delight

I started with my key stage 5 classes, as they have half-termly assessments. I wanted to focus on how students learn to process challenging content and attempt to produce exam responses.

Prior to an assessment, we modelled some study strategies, and discussed how they might help to organise their thinking. Then, when they got their marked work back, students listed what they had done to prepare and complete the task.

The students also had to reflect on areas for improvement and write down different approaches that could help them. Crucially, they were adapting their learning.

Some students, for example, had struggled to evaluate challenging theories. They decided to write a one-sentence summary of each and peer-assess their responses.

Others realised that they needed to go back and summarise their own notes in a more visual format.

One student admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the information in his file – he didn’t know where to start.

But after a nudge towards some peer support and a chat with me, he soon had a few tactics under his belt.

The next step was to ask the students to implement their new strategy right away and use it to improve their piece. I asked them to hand in evidence of their work alongside the redrafted sections.

Meanwhile, with my KS4 class, I wanted to focus on successful revision strategies. We spent time thinking and doing – starting with the basics, such as flashcards, and practising retrieval techniques. Related homework was set, another exam practice taken.

When the students completed their first wrapper, they took it really seriously. There were encouraging responses around the room. But there was also a red face or two, and some uncomfortable shuffling.

That’s a wrap

So, wrappers worked for me, but the danger is that this tool can become a mere paper exercise. To avoid this, I try to set some immediate follow-up work, partly to get students using their new tactics and also so they can see results quickly.

In the long term, wrapper support should gradually fade as students become more independent. However, this will happen only if they get regular practice in adapting their learning in multiple contexts – meaning that similar approaches need to be embedded throughout the school.

Might there then be a risk that the technique will become stale? To avoid this, a strategic deployment could be engineered across exam classes so that not every teacher is doing them in every lesson.

Used well, wrappers do have a positive impact. My students were able to see that the way they go about a task affects the outcome. They became much more willing to act on feedback and they really liked having the choice of how to go about tasks. After all, typical feedback tells learners what they need to improve (“include more of X”, for example), but rarely focuses on the how. And lower attainers especially need this help the most.

Interestingly, experimenting with wrappers also gave me insight into the challenges that individual students face. For some, learning seems to be like juggling spaghetti: messy, slippery and difficult. To improve, they need practice.

And I wasn’t expecting that wrappers would also teach me about my own teaching. Before, I thought I was helping my students to organise their thinking. Now, I know there is much more I can do at each stage of the learning process.

Clare Feeney teaches at St Thomas More Academy, North Tyneside

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