Mayhem and Metacognition

Forget March Madness, its end of semester mayhem! The time of year when I question my assessment methods, mostly because I am swamped with final essays, culminating projects, and exams to mark, in addition to writing report card comments and tabulating final marks — all in a very short timeline. Invariably I ask myself, “is all of this really necessary, or am I just doing it because it’s what has always been done?” I know I’m stressed, and then I consider the students: what sort of undue stress is put on them? Does it all really serve a purpose? Are culminating projects and exams the best way to measure a student’s learning? Probably not. So why do we do them?

As opposed to answering why we measure learning in the aforementioned ways, I’m going to flip things on their head and look at what we should think about doing instead. Traditionally, I have shied away from student reflection, mainly because whenever I did it I didn’t get very good results. But was that because the teenagers I teach are essentially unrealistic and really bad at reflecting, or was it because I didn’t prepare them to be reflective in the first place? I’ve been thinking about this a lot these past few years, especially since I have been reflecting more myself and know what an essential part of learning and improving it is.

Metacognitive skills encourage students to understand how they learn best and develop self-awareness skills. These skills are important, especially as students get older because people with well-developed metacognitive skills are, generally speaking, more successful. Students who learn how they learn, remember and process information more efficiently so they are better able to retain information. It also helps them create learning conducive situations. As a result, students also adapt to new situations better – always a plus. All of these combined equal greater success in personal and professional life.

I’ve spent some time immersing myself in methods that would help students improve their metacognitive skills. A good first step is to explicitly teach students how the brain processes information, how it forms knowledge and memories, as well as the impact stress has on these abilities. A great resource I have found to help me do this is The founder, Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal, is an expert in the field of cognitive science and the site aims to be a hub of resources, research, and teaching strategies to help educators “bridge the gap” between education and the science of learning. I regularly add this sort of information to my lessons. Given that I teach English, I have lessons about what happens to our brain when we read and how to handle that stress before an oral presentation. 

Other strategies include making time for students to reflect so students can see their growth and change in thinking. Higher order thinking tasks – like essay writing – can help activate these learning processes for students. Furthermore, tasks that have students consider their beliefs and that require them to figure things out on their own all support a student in becoming more reflective and developing stronger metacognitive skills.

So, having built many of these strategies into my program, I have decided to change my exam focus this semester and I am asking students to reflect on their learning over the course of our time together instead of regurgitating tidbits of information. Hopefully, this marks a new beginning where students are able to consolidate their learning thoughtfully through this reflective practice and I am, in turn, challenged to also reflect on their thoughts and how I can also improve.

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