Why you should use metacognition in the classroom

Get students to go beyond memorization.
By Dawn Wotapka

David Timony, Ph.D., doesn’t particularly like writing things down, but there’s something about putting pen to paper that helps him learn better. “As I’m writing, I’m reviewing what’s going onto the paper,” said Timony, an assistant professor and chair of the education department at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pa. “There’s a sensory-immersed experience.” 

By identifying what helps him learn best, he practiced what’s known as metacognition, or “the reflection in thinking about our process of learning,” said Timony, an educational psychologist who studies metacognition as a core skill.

Practicing metacognition can benefit students in various ways. According to the Brookings Institution, it’s a vital step toward adopting skills such as problem-solving, decision-making, and critical thinking.

Metacognition helps students become “lifelong learners” and break the habit of “memorizing things and not understanding the meaning, purpose, and application” of the information they learned, explained Gail Hoover King, who recently took a new position as an accounting professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. King and co-authors Maureen Butler, Kimberly Swanson Church, and Angela Wheeler Spencer encouraged students to practice metacognition in their AICPA Mark Chain award-winning master’s level assignment.

One of the greatest benefits of metacognition is that it helps students shed received notions of who can — and can’t — learn and tap their true potential. “I firmly believe that intelligence can grow and that how smart we are depends more on what we do than on who we are,” said Saundra Y. McGuire, Ph.D., a metacognition expert who spoke on the topic at the 2018 Conference on Teaching and Learning Accounting at the AAA Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Here are some tips for using metacognition in the classroom:

Introduce the concept. Discuss learning style preferences and methods in class. “It’s up to the professor to open the door to thinking about how we learn,” Timony said. Otherwise, he said, students may “miss out on opportunities to learn better and deeper.” 

Test early and talk about both learning strategies and study strategies. McGuire suggests giving students a test or quiz early in the semester to get a baseline idea of what they know how to do and where they could improve. The test should require skills beyond memorization, she said. It could use scenario-based questions that test concept mastery, for example.

Discussing this first test or quiz in class can also serve as a springboard for introducing metacognition concepts. “This is the best time to talk to them about memorizing versus thinking,” McGuire said.

King recommends using Bloom’s Taxonomy in class to help students see that being able to memorize information doesn’t mean they’ll be able to use and connect concepts or to think critically about a problem to develop solutions.

Ask students to think about how they prepared for the test or quiz and evaluate what worked and what did not. “Stress that the idea that their performance is due to the strategies they use to learn the material, not to how smart they are,” McGuire said.

Suggest learning techniques. Let students brainstorm and practice different ways of learning and retaining material. (You can find descriptions of different techniques at HowToStudy.org.)

One technique students can try, Timony said, is paraphrasing or rewriting the notes they take in class so they can see what they do — and do not — understand about the material.

Another idea is to have them pretend to teach the material to themselves or to someone else, allowing them to spot knowledge gaps. They can continue “teaching” until they understand most or all of the material, King said.

A second idea King suggests is to propose a business scenario and ask students to explain how the current concepts they are learning in class would apply to it.

Assess progress. Instructors should check with students early and often to see how the learning is going, and make adjustments as needed, Timony said.

Have students assess their strengths and weaknesses as future accountants. In their assignment, King and her co-authors asked students to fill out a grid assessing their technical and personal competencies as aligned with the accounting profession’s professional values. They then instructed students to discuss their findings with a partner or group to identify gaps. Then, students put together a competency development plan for skills improvement in both the long  and short term.

“They don’t even realize it, but this assignment is setting them up to think about how they learn and how they’re going to continue to learn,” said King.

To learn more about metacognition, check out the books Teach Yourself How to Learn and Teach Students How to Learn, both co-written by McGuire, and Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching.

Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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