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The Importance of Metacognition in Learning

How often do you ask your students to think about thinking? If I am honest with myself, I have done it far less in the past than I am doing in the present. Metacognition is critical for the learning process.  It’s teaching the why, not just the how. It helps students to be active readers and critical thinkers. What’s more, it increases confidence and empowers students to transfer the concepts they learn in the classroom to other disciplines and to real life.

Let’s take a look at five important ways to incorporate metacognition in the secondary classroom:

Metacognition with Reading 

Explicitly teach comprehension strategies. In other words, when asking students to approach a text for comprehension purposes, give them some direct instruction on the skill(s) you want them to be honing during that particular reading. To illustrate, perhaps you are preparing to read “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst. Before doing so, present a brief mini-lesson on the concept of inferring. Teach students how to make inferences, what types of inferences readers can make, when to use the strategy, and (most importantly) how it will lead them to deeper understanding of the text.

Content area teachers can do this just as easily as ELA instructors. Teach students to recognize the text structure and features of your course literature. Help them think about effective ways to approach and comprehend stories, articles, and textbooks for your science, math, or history class.

Metacognition with Writing

Before beginning an essay, teach students multiple methods for how to complete their prewriting or brainstorming. Model examples, and discuss with students how each approach benefits the writer differently. How does a graphic organizer help a writer to prepare for writing? How does it contrast with an outline approach? What are the benefits of freewriting as a prewriting tool? Teaching students to recognize modes of brainstorming as well as to analyze how each strategy empowers and positions writers slightly differently will help them to write their papers more efficiently.

Teaching students to think about thinking in all secondary content areas empowers them to be confidence, successful students. Read about simple ways to teach metacognition in the secondary classroom in this post from Reading and Writing Haven.

Metacognition with Vocabulary

When students are learning new words, they often resort to memorization. It’s easy, but it’s not effective. Even when we ask students to interact with their words meaningfully on a daily basis, we should also be teaching them why the strategies we are suggesting are effective. Case in point. Let’s say you want to engage students with differentiated vocabulary instruction. Good for you! They’ll enjoy it. But…do they understand the brain benefits?

Engage students in a reflection activity that focuses on metacognition. After completing the activity, have a meaningful discussion with your class regarding how our brains learn new information. Discuss the process of associations and kinesthetic learning. Talk about learning styles. Then, reflect on the tasks they completed. Ask students how the differentiated vocabulary practice brought them to a deeper level of retention than surface-level memorization.

Metacognition with Research

All teachers should prepare students to think about thinking when it comes to research. We shouldn’t assume they’ve already been taught how to approach, for instance, bias in a text. It’s helpful to prepare a brief lesson where educators compare multiple texts on the same topic. As students read each article, ask them metacognitive questions.

What might the author’s ulterior motive be in this article? Is there any reason we as readers should be hesitant to trust the writer? As active readers, what types of questions can we be asking of this text to determine whether or not it would be beneficial to cite it in an essay? Try to approach this text through a different lens than your own. What messages might this text send through someone else’s perspective that you can’t see from your own?

Metacognition with Visual Texts

Instead of simply asking students to respond to a set of questions for an educational video clip, begin by teaching them how to approach a visual text. Sure, teenagers in the twenty-first century are surrounded by technology, but have they ever considered how to read them? Probably not. The strategies students use for comprehending and analyzing social media outlets, video games, and movies are different than those needed for reading a visual text.  Teaching students to think about comprehending visual texts is a best-practice in any subject area.

Ultimately, when students think about their thinking process, they grow, acquire more knowledge, and learn to adapt their study habits to maximize learning. The role of metacognition in learning and achievement is unquestionable. As secondary teachers, we can support students through metacognition in purposeful ways in order to build their confidence and self-awareness.

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