Metacognition is defined as thinking about one’s thinking or learning. More formally, “metacognition was originally referred to as the knowledge about and the regulation of one’s cognitive activities in learning processes” (Veenman, Van Hout-Wolters, & Afflerbach, 2006, p.3).

The ability to think about what we are learning, how we are learning, what we want to learn in the future are important skills that must be explicitly taught in classrooms.  Too often, students receive objectives, information, instructions, and grades without ever being asked to think about learning.

Teaching metacognitive skills that encourage students to become more aware of their learning can help them shift from passive to active participants in the classroom. If the teacher is the only person thinking critically about learning goals, progress, skill development, and assessment, that is a missed opportunity. Teachers must help students become active agents in the classroom who can make key decisions about what they learn and how they learn.

Here are 4 strategies teachers can use to encourage students to think about their learning:

1. SMART Goal Setting

Just like adults hoping to advance their careers, goal-setting is a powerful practice for students. That said, they need structure and support in articulating goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Too often, the goals students set for themselves are too general or too lofty to achieve in the foreseeable future. Students who do not set goals may lack focus or the motivation to persevere in the face of challenges. Students who set unattainable goals may get discouraged or frustrated.

Starting the grading period with a SMART goal-setting session can help students focus their energy on specific goals they want to accomplish or work toward–academically, personally, and/or behaviorally.

2. End-of-the-Week Exit Ticket

Exit tickets are great for collecting formative assessment data and checking in with students. Teachers can also use exit tickets to create a routine that encourages kids to think about what they learned, how they learned it, what questions they still have, and how they might teach a peer. End-of-the-week exit tickets can encourage a quick, reflective practice while also providing teachers with invaluable information about what their kids think they are learning.

3. Flip: Describe Your Process 

Flip is one of those tools in education that can be used for just about anything! Teachers often give students a task and ask them to complete that task but do not ask students how they went about completing it.

  • What was their process?
  • How did they think through the task?
  • What strategies did they use to complete the task?

Math teachers can ask students to explain in detail their process for solving a problem. English teachers can ask students to explain why they selected a piece of textual evidence to support a claim or why they organized a piece of writing in a particular way.

It can be challenging for students to articulate their process and why they made the decisions they made, so asking them to record a 90-second explanation helps them build this vocabulary, develop a metacognitive practice, and learn from their peers’ explanations.

4. Ongoing Self-Assessment Documents

For each unit, I identify specific target standards/skills that we, as a class, will focus on. I share an ongoing self-assessment document with my students via Google Classroom. The document asks students to:

  • Rewrite the standards in student-friendly language they can understand.
  • Select pieces of work from the week and reflect on the skills they are developing.
  • Assess where they are in relation to mastering specific skills.
  • Provide documentation to show their work.

Each week I dedicate time in class for students to sit and reflect using this ongoing self-assessment document to think about their learning. Building time into class for this activity is invaluable because students begin to connect the work they are doing with the skills they need to master. It also encourages them to be advocates for themselves as learners, articulating what they need to make progress in relation to specific skills.

Ultimately, our classrooms are a training ground for life. To be successful beyond high school, students must hone the skills necessary to continue learning. That will be exponentially easier if they have been taught how to think about their learning and given time to practice concrete strategies designed to help them develop metacognitive skills.

10 Responses

  1. Thank you for these great ideas! I plan on using this online exit ticket during this period of home learning, as well as the flipgrid tool for presenting an explanation of their organizational process.

  2. Hi there. I love these resources but I am skeptical about how to approach these tasks with younger students. I teach grade 2. I am definitely open to trying these but am asking how do I go about it as many of these metacognition exercises are rigorous to pose to second graders…or am I wrong? Are there any resources that I would find helpful or is there a resource that you can show me that is more geared to a younger clientele. Thank you so much Catlin!

    • Hi Madonna,

      Children can begin the early stages of developing metacognition as early as 3 years old, so second-grade students are capable of beginning this work. Like any skill, it will need to be modeled and scaffolded for them at their age. I’d start small by guiding them through a goal-setting activity, using the thinking routines out of Harvard (“I see, I think, I wonder”), and onboarding them to simple self-assessment exercises. It will be a slow process, but it will get them comfortable beginning to think about their thinking and learning.

      I have chapters dedicated to metacognition in my books Balance with Blended Learning and UDL and Blended Learning if you want to do a deeper dive!

      Take care.

  3. Hi Catlin: Do you have a link to the goal-setting template listed above? Your work is so helpful. I’d like to incorporate this idea into my work with 8th graders.

    • Hi Cathleen,

      I’ve included a short link below the image of the goal-setting sheet. If you copy the short link and paste it into your URL, you can make a copy of the resource.

      Take care.

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