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Activating Learning: Teaching for Metacognition

L2WritingLogo2The following post is by Jennifer Eidum Zinchuk, Assistant Professor of English specializing in Composition Studies at Elon University.

Much like global citizenship, “Metacognition” is a common buzzword in conversations about student success in higher education. It is one of the eight “Habits of Mind” outlined in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. In Composition and Second Language Writing research, metacognition is often cited as a valuable tool to help students succeed as rhetorically and culturally adept global learners. What many researchers and practitioners take for granted, however, is what the concept fully means and how it might be fostered in our students’ learning lives.

In practice, metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is often conflated with reflection, or the conscious exploration of past experiences. Metacognition includes reflection, often called metacognitive awareness, as well as a series of self-directed practices, or metacognitive regulation. In this blog post, I will highlight a number of practical teaching interventions to support students’ metacognitive development.

Integrated reflection

Reflective writing activities are an essential part of college writing pedagogy: free writes, portfolio reflections, and writing diaries are all normal practice. These are more powerful if they become integrated regularly throughout the course. Instead of thinking of reflection as an isolated and individual task, try thinking about it as a social, active, and habitual classroom activity.

Some easy ways to integrate reflection into everyday classroom practice:

  • Use reflective writing and discussion as a pre-reading activity to activate prior knowledge.
  • After introducing a writing assignment, invite students to reflect back on a time when they had a similar writing assignment, how they attempted it, how successful they were, and what they might bring to this new writing event.
  • As an instructor, incorporate your own reflections into the class, modeling reflective practice and building trust: share stories of your literary, writing, or learning history.

Emotional Engagement

Writing is not only an academic activity; it is also an emotional one. Because many students have had a negative relationship with writing, helping students to recognize and overcome learning challenges is important to building a positive relationship with writing, especially in one’s second (or third, or fourth…) language. Celebrating learning successes and as well as analyzing learning failures is invaluable for students’ continued learning.

Some practical ways to encourage emotional engagement in everyday classroom practice:

  • Invite students to examine their emotional relationship with writing by assigning low-stakes writing, responding with encouraging feedback.
  • Open up discussions of “difficulty,” “failure,” and “resistance” by inviting students to remember moments of struggle, share them with a partner, and then create a list with the class. Then, do the same with “ease,” “success,” and “resilience.”
  • Encourage students to “fail forward” to build resilience: have students describe a moment of difficulty and then brainstorm ways they might solve similar problems in the future.
  • Foreground difficulty in course design: scaffold challenging learning activities early in the term so that students have ample opportunity to celebrate success, learn (and rebound) from failure, and continue to practice effective strategies.

Developing Strategies

Most writing courses encourage students to utilize a variety of writing strategies; however, encouraging students to explicitly describe when and why particular strategies are effective, as well as introducing students to new strategies, broadens students’ support network.

Some classroom activities that help students develop strategies for future learning:

  • Introduce students to campus resources through an academically-oriented scavenger hunt.
  • Encourage students to seek help on their writing through visits to writing centers, utilizing office hours, and group conferences, later reflecting on how the visits were useful.
  • Have students write a Revision Plan essay, analyzing “what worked,” strategizing their revision, and planning for future writing.
  • If you use writing portfolios, invite students to assess what they learned about writing and look forward to their next writing-intensive class, articulating specific strategies they plan to use in the future.

Active Learning

Active learning stimulates students’ awareness of their own role in learning. Using classroom practices such as self-assessment and collaborative learning helps students see the tacit learning expectations that surround them. Self-assessment practices help students know how to deploy their writing strategies and when to seek help. Collaborative learning practices encourage students and instructors to recognize, name, and justify their learning choices, often by negotiating those choices across difference.

Some ideas for building self-assessment and collaborative learning practices into a writing curriculum:

  • Early in the term, have students do a “read-around” of peers’ writing: placing two copies of their essay in a stack in front of the class, each student reads their peers’ writing at their own pace, giving positive feedback. This low-stakes self-paced activity allows students to see how others have handled the writing assignment and get positive early feedback on their paper.
  • Introduce writing prompts along with the evaluation rubric. Have students rate and discuss a sample paper according to the rubric before writing their own papers.
  • Use the paper evaluation rubric during peer review in order to create a vocabulary for both formative and evaluative feedback.
  • When students turn in papers, ask them to note two areas that work well and two that require improvement. Read these comments before reviewing their papers, responding directly to their self-evaluations.

Students who have well-developed metacognitive practices are able assess their own writing abilities, confidently gauge their ability to produce what is necessary for the task, and seek help when necessary. For multilingual students, the ability to engage with and reflect upon one’s past writing experiences helps them negotiate the linguistic practices of new contexts, imbuing their learning with confidence and supporting their future language learning. Most importantly, facilitating students’ metacognitive practices positions students as self-sufficient learners, giving them the tools to shape their own academic futures.