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Metacognition and students’ mistaken beliefs about learning

| March 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

Given the way that our schooling system works, it is fair to say that most of what students believe and “know” about studying and the process of learning is a result of how and what they are taught at school.

Although there are some instances where they are explicitly taught about how to study and master content, a lot of this learning about learning actually happens implicitly, i.e. in the actions of their teachers and way that the content is conveyed. Their first encounter with this implicit belief system about learning happens when they are initially taught how to read and master the alphabet. Depending on how much their parents are involved in helping them with their schoolwork, they are also shaped by the implicit and explicit belief systems of their parents – which, in turn – were for the most part formed by their very own schooling.

As they move into Grade 4 and beyond, where assessments become more formalised with a bigger focus on results, they inevitably get to a point where they have their own belief system about learning in general, but more importantly, about their own learning, intelligence, and capabilities.
Students, therefore, end up with (mostly non-verbalised, or implicit) beliefs about learning, the brain and memory based on “feedback” from the system, e.g. how they are taught, how their teachers react to their good or bad grades, how their parents react to their report cards, adherence of adults to neuromyths, etc., with only this implicit framework of learning as their point of reference. The result is that by the time they get to high school they “know” they are “good” at certain subjects and “bad” at others and probably have a fixed mindset – all as a result of a fairly ingrained but flawed learning framework. This is obviously a problem – one which primarily arises from the fact that students have to form their own framework of learning “on the go” rather than it being done explicitly. Of course, this can be rectified if schools and teachers take the time to reflect on their current, implicit learning frameworks, evaluate these against current best-practices, formulate a research-informed framework and then make this learning framework “explicit”.

Making teaching and learning
frameworks explicit
An obvious starting point for schools is to agree on their teaching and learning framework and to make this explicit. For this to have the desired outcome, it has to be based on sound research and include proper training and implementation practices for teachers, students and preferably parents. Because of the nature of belief systems and how they entrench themselves in our thoughts and actions, there is no short term quick fix to the problem of implicit, outdated and “common sense-based” teaching and learning frameworks. It calls for a measured approach that concerns all stakeholders to ensure long term alignment to one of the most important tasks of a school – to prepare students as lifelong learners who are ready to face the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, where self-regulation and agency (both closely tied with metacognition) will play a vital role.
There is no need for teachers to wait for a school-wide intervention. There are various ways in which they can start addressing students’ implicit belief systems about learning right away.

Start fostering healthy belief-systems in your
Based on research published by John Hattie (and many others), metacognition is an extremely effective predictor and an indicator of academic success (it ranks as number five on his top ten teaching strategies scale). The term literally means “thinking about thinking” – and as such, it is the perfect antidote to students’ implicit belief systems about learning.
Metacognition refers to one’s ability to think about how you learn. It is the ability to critically evaluate what you are doing while you are studying and trying to figure out ways in which to do it more effectively.

The Nelson and Narens model explains metacognition as the extent to which students are actively monitoring and evaluating (on a meta level) that which happens on an object-level, for example, their study and learning activities. It is within our own ability to not just “go through the motions” so to speak, but to be active observers of our own study and learning practices.
Should we expect our students to monitor and direct their learning and exhibit such a sense of awareness while they are studying? And if so, do we include primary school students in these expectations? Given its importance in evidence-based research which points to the fact that it is a powerful booster for learning, there really is no choice. Teachers simply have to address this as part of their teaching. While it is true that metacognition is not quite as well developed in primary school children as in older students, research has nonetheless shown that they are capable of doing so.

Metacognition in the classroom
We need to establish a common and explicit language and framework for learning – familiarise students with basic information about their brains, memory, neuroplasticity, growth mindset, metacognition, etc. It is important that these concepts become part of the daily classroom conversation. A simple example is asking students to think what they already know about a particular topic and how the new material ties into that, or asking students to list study strategies that used to work for them before and asking to what extent they are relevant for what they are busy with now.

Metacognitive tips and tricks:
1. Make a habit of tying every lesson to the overall theme/topic you are busy with, as well as to the previous lesson. A good exercise is to ask students what they know;

2. Explain and encourage the use of exam wrappers by letting students answer the following questions separately after each test or exam:
a. How did you prepare for your exam?
• I made highlights.
• I completed worked examples.
• I created and studied from mind maps. I read through the study material.
• I used flashcards.
•Other tools/methods you used….
b. How will you change your preparation next time to make it more efficient?

c. Which questions did you find the most difficult?

d. Were there questions that you got wrong that you either
misunderstood or did not answer properly? (After the exam/test memorandum was discussed.)

3. Regularly have students create “self-assessments” as homework. This will assist with retrieval practice if they are then asked to answer these in class.

4. Make use of interleaving during homework assignment as this will force students to think about what they are doing rather than just mindlessly applying a “recipe”.

5. When you hand out or discuss homework and worked examples, have students answer the following questions: • What is the actual question?
Is this problem similar to one I already solved?
• What is the best way to solve this problem?
• Does my answer/solution to the problem make sense?

Getting students to question their implicit assumptions about learning and their brains is a much needed first step if we want them to become students who take responsibility for their own learning. An easy way to start with this is to help them develop their metacognitive skills. As they become more adept at monitoring and reviewing their own learning activities, their self- regulation will improve and so will their sense of agency – all of which play a significant part in their journey as lifelong learners.

Dr Lieb Liebenberg is CEO of ITSI and Research Fellow at the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria.

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Category: Autumn 2019

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