Metacognition is the cognitive aspect of self-regulated learning: it is characterised by a continuous cycle of planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating the learning process.
Science teaching and learning are complex processes, both because of the content and thinking skills required to understand science at a deep enough level to be meaningful and useful. Metacognition helps science teachers think about how they manage curriculum, instruction and assessment, as well as systematically reflect on what they teach, why and how. Metacognition helps science learners develop and use effective and efficient strategies for acquiring, understanding, applying and retaining extensive and difficult concepts and skills. Good science teaching requires teaching both with one’s own metacognition and for the development of one’s students’ metacognition.
This article hopes to provide science teachers with some useful tips and tricks to help foster metacognition in their science lessons.
1. Ensure that students respond to mistakes (marking) using metacognition
‘Error detection’ is a particularly important component of metacognition in both mathematics and science education. It can be useful to have students write a sentence explaining why a particular answer is wrong, a process that can be facilitated by peer-discussions. Some teachers use ‘WTIW’ (why this is wrong)
In general, activities that ask students to evaluate and improve their learning process in response to feedback should be emphasised. This process may culminate in the setting of targets for improvement: targets can be specifically ‘metacognitive’ in nature if they refer to the learning process itself (or the thinking behind it) as opposed to the work; so, for example:
a) I need to include more details in my answers [is a non-metacognitive target]
b) I need to adjust my approach to research so that I retain more information [is a metacognitive target]
Target-setting should already be an established part of your practice as a teacher: why not have students include a target that refers specifically to how they can better regulate their approach to learning?
2. Modelling Metacognitive Thought
Teachers can model metacognitive thought by thinking aloud. An example of this technique is described in ‘Making Every Science Lesson Count’. Instead of just projecting a diagram onto the board, you draw it instead. But you start with only the briefest of outlines and then slowly build up, explaining what you are doing as you go. This enables me to make explicit the implicit, reveal your thinking and show how the whole is structured from the parts.
Some examples of thinking aloud so as to cultivate metacognition, using the above example:
Before you start drawing the diagram? [Planning]:
“So the big issue we’re exploring with this diagram is…”
“What I intend to show is…”
“The thing we need to explain is…”
“What are the main ingredients we need to include in this diagram?”
Early stages [Monitoring]:
“So I’m asking myself: ‘What are the most important forces at work here?’”
“I’m always monitoring my work to think about how I can make it clearer… always trying to improve…”
“It’s important that I clearly understand these basic concepts before I move forward so…”
Mid-End stages [Evaluation & Regulation]
“What important details have I left out?”
“What needs to be added before this is a complete model?”
“How could I improve my work?”
“How could my approach by improved?”
“To what extent does this diagram really explain X/Y/Z?”
Afterwards [Evaluation & Regulation]
“How could I have represented this information in a more useful way?
“How can I ensure that I actually remember the learning from this diagram?”
3. How did I reach my answer?”
According to Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ students should be able to get about 80% of the work correct. However sometimes individuals don’t necessarily know if they are right or wrong, and can then embed mistakes. When covering numerical topics in the science classroom one can give students the correct answer and expect them to show all the correct working to get there. This allows them to monitor their steps and, if they are wrong, go back and really think about how to better proceed.
This is an approach to metacognition due to its emphasis on evaluation and planning. The student looks back on their work, evaluates if it is correct, then has to adapt and find a new route if they have failed to achieve the correct answer.
4. Use of Assessment Wrappers
Assessment wrappers (such as those found here) are a useful way to enhance metacognitive reflection in any school subject.
Chew et al (2017), whose research focused on students of engineering, found that wrappers had a significant impact on learning: "Quantitative findings highlight several bright spots demonstrating positive impact of wrappers while qualitative findings present a strong argument for the use of wrappers in teaching and learning." and also note that a key benefit from using assessment wrappers is that they provide the teaching team with information about students’ understanding of content and level of skills so that appropriate measures, interventions and actions can be taken to help students who are struggling in the course.
More recently, LaCaille et al (2019) found that students who used the exam wrappers reported higher levels of metacognition, perceived learning competence and enjoyment with the course material.
Assessment wrappers (or “exam wrappers”) are a fantastic way to promote student reflection and can address each stage of the metacognitive cycle (planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating): for advice on how to design the perfect assessment wrapper – read this article.
5. “Why did we do this?”
This simple questions is a perfect example of metacognitive questioning: you can download our free set of metacognitive question prompt cards for teachers here.
By asking “why did we do this?” with an emphasis on how the learning connects with previously studied topics you students engage in an evaluation of the material’s significance to the wider course. Helping them to see the bigger picture, perhaps with reference to the basic units/themes/topics covered in a course is useful in helping them to evaluate and regulate their progress.
6. Creating Metacognitive Conflict
Metacognitive conflict is a process where students are encouraged to consider their perceptions surrounding what it means to be a good science learner, before having these ideas discussed (and potentially challenged) by their teacher (or classmates), causing them to reflect on their processes and methods of learning.
Research by Thomas (Metacognition in Science Education: Past, Present and Future Considerations , 2012) suggests that this metacognitive conflict can be initiated by asking students to note down what good science learning looks like for them. This allows them to conceptualise what they consider to be proficient techniques for science learning, whilst also giving teachers a good opportunity to challenge their students’ ideas and encourage them to consider new concepts.
We’ve created a number of resources that can facilitate such discussions, perhaps the simplest approach is to use our ‘Metacognitive Debate Generator’ to get students thinking deeply about what a good learner is (or does!) exactly.
7. Student-Centred Approaches to Revision Strategy Planning
The principles of metacognition and self-regulated learning more generally can be easily applied to the challenge of long-term revision strategy and exam-preparation.
Students should be given opportunities to plan their approach to revision, monitor their rate of progress and evaluate the effectiveness of their revision strategies (e.g. by using a ‘personal learning checklist’ which lists all topics and asks for self-evaluation) and make adjustments to their revision strategy over the long-term.
It can be useful for students to create a list of different revision activities and evaluate how useful those activities actually are for them personally.
We’ve created a printable' Revision Strategy Battle Planner' workbook that incorporates all of these considerations here.
8. Bring the Metacognitive Cycle to Classroom Activities in a Structured Manner
There are a number of straightforward ways to ‘make metacognition visible’ and really embed the metacognitive process into the minds of students. Two simple approaches you might want to try out in unison for maximum effect are:
a) Using ‘Metacognitive Activity Enhancers’ such as these. These small strips worksheets clearly divide the metacognitive process up in relation to the specific activity being set: Dye & Stanton (2017) found that students show greater improvements in their learning when they are given a specific self-regulation structure to use.
b) Using exercise book inlays (such as these) as a continuous resource to facilitate regular metacognitive reflection; making use of this resource manifests student autonomy and can be one of the students’ self-regulated learning strategies.
9. Developing Scientific Thinking Skills with the ‘I DREAM of A’ Approach (Hartman, 2001) One way to improve students’ scientific thinking skills is to teach them the “I DREAM of A” (Hartman, 1996a) method to help them think systematically about how they plan, monitor and evaluate their approaches to solving problems, thereby using their metacognition for self-management or self-regulation. I DREAM of A is an approach to developing metacognitive aspects of scientific and mathematical problem solving skills by using thinking aloud and questioning strategies, and is derived from Bransford and Stein's (1984) IDEAL problem solver.
Each capitalized letter stands for a component of the problem solving process, so the acronym represents a systematic guide to problem solving. These components involve executive management skills for planning, monitoring and evaluating the problem solving process. The first four letters are all planning steps (identify and define, diagram, recall, explore alternatives) which may be performed in different sequences. The next two letters (AM) focus on applying and monitoring the plan, and the final A stands for assessment, where students evaluate their solutions to the problem, both before and after getting someone’s feedback.
The I DREAM of A approach is not a rigid, cookbook, rote formula; rather it is a method of remembering to plan, monitor and evaluate one’s problem solving. For example, problem solving often begins with "D", diagramming the problem, which sets the stage for "I, identifying the problem. The method addresses both cognitive and affective aspects of students’ performance and it must be personally adapted by the problem solver to fit the specific needs of each problem-solving situation.
As a teacher you should model the I DREAM of A approach as much as possible so that students can internalise this approach to metacognition and self-regulation.
Sometimes referred to as as cognitive mapping, mind mapping is a powerful metacognitive tool. For example, Novak (2015) has reported high school biology students using concept maps were more on task in laboratory experiments, and reported being very conscious of their own responsibility for learning. Novak also reports that some teachers are teaching "how to learn" short courses designed to teach students metacognitive strategies. Novak suggests that using cognitive maps as a metacognitive strategy increases meaningful learning over rote learning for students in a variety of science situations.
Mind-mapping isn't just a great study-skills to cultivate through your lessons: it can be directly applied to metacognitive and self-regulated learning issues as students can use mind-maps as a means of exploring and expressive metacognitive issues. For example: students could be asked to keep a mind-map with four central branches: planning, monitoring, regulating and evaluating – which they should add to before, during and after a particular activity. A simple example of metacognition in action! Read more about how to cultivate mind-mapping skills in this article: Mind-Mapping for Metacognition: A Guide for Schools & Educators.
Hopefully you've been inspired to try out at least one of these metacognitive strategies for the science classroom!
At the heart of metacognition in science education is the cyclical 'plan, monitor, evaluate and regulate' structure which can be used alongside complex calculations and evaluations, allowing students to be systematic and strategic in problem solving. Using this to compliment techniques which are commonly used in classroom; leading students through exam questions and working with peers to share strategies, will hopefully provide a measurable impact on attainment.
Bransford, J. & Stein, B.. (1984 ) The IDEAL Problem Solver: New York: Freeman. Chew, K. J., & Chen, H. L., & Rieken, B., & Turpin, A., & Sheppard, S. (2016, June), Improving Students’ Learning in Statics Skills: Using Homework and Exam Wrappers to Strengthen Self-regulated Learning Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25633
Dye KM, Stanton JD. Metacognition in Upper-Division Biology Students: Awareness Does Not Always Lead to Control. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2017;16(2):ar31. doi:10.1187/cbe.16-09-0286
Hartman, H. (1996a). Cooperative Learning Approaches to Mathematical Problem Solving. In: The Art of Problem Solving: A Resource for the Mathematics Teacher. Alfred S. Posamentier & Wolfgang Schulz (Eds.). Corwin Press, Inc. Thousand Oaks CA (1996) pp.401-430
H. J. Hartman (Ed.) 2001 Metacognition in Learning and Instruction: Theory, Research, and Practice. Chapter 9 Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 173-201. METACOGNITION IN SCIENCE TEACHING AND LEARNING
LaCaille, R. A., LaCaille, L., & Maslowski, A. (2019). The Effect of Exam and Quiz Wrappers on Metacognition, Learning Perceived Competence, and Course Performance in Online Undergraduate Psychology Courses. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.
Novak, Joseph & Cañas, Alberto. (2015). The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them. Thomas G.P. (2012) Metacognition in Science Education: Past, Present and Future Considerations. In: Fraser B., Tobin K., McRobbie C. (eds) Second International Handbook of Science Education. Springer International Handbooks of Education, vol 24. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9041-7_11