Tips for Building Metacognitive Muscle - ASCD
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December 12, 2019

Tips for Building Metacognitive Muscle

Thinking is something we do constantly, even as we slumber. Continuously seeking to make connections, meaning, and sense of stimuli, the brain is never at rest. Because the brain is always in a state of activity, one of our responsibilities—as educators—is to teach students how to think and how to regulate this activity. The process of being aware of and manipulating one's thinking is defined as metacognition. Throughout the school day, there are many opportunities to develop students' metacognitive skills.

Let Students See and Hear It

There is power in providing students with a think aloud that includes a clear model. Why? It gives students insight into your thought process. Similar to the writing process, a think aloud gives teachers an opportunity to demonstrate how to plan (prewrite), carry out (draft), monitor (proofread), and adjust (revise) thinking. Coupled with a clear model (showing students how to do it), a think aloud provides students with the experience necessary to approach similar situations appropriately. Students can practice think alouds to bring awareness to their own thought processes. Not only will the students benefit, you—the teacher—can use the information yielded as formative data to determine subsequent instructional steps.

Math Talk

Considering there are often multiple pathways to arrive at a solution, math activities create many opportunities for students to showcase their thinking. One way to do this is by creating a culture of learning in which students explain and demonstrate their thought process; they can do this while they are solving a problem or even after. Be sure to allow multiple students to share. If their thought processes are disparate, great! Students will be able to hear and see the diversity of thinking among their peers.

Monitoring Reading Comprehension

An effective reader demonstrates understanding of what he or she reads. For comprehension to take place, however, the reader must be cognizant of his or her understanding of the text. Monitoring and clarifying—a metacognitive skill—is a reading strategy that a good reader naturally applies. This strategy focuses on two aspects: awareness and regulation. The reader monitors and regulates his or her comprehension by

  • Noticing when something does not make sense;

  • Realizing that he or she is confused;

  • Knowing when to slow down and reread.

Teachers can showcase these strategies by—you guessed it—providing a think aloud model of monitoring and regulating comprehension while reading. You can also ask students to share instances when they have applied these strategies and how it helped them understand the text.

Experimenting and Thinking in Science

Like math, science experiments are ideal for building metacognitive muscle, as monitoring and adjusting thinking are an integral part of the scientific method. While students are investigating and conducting their experiments in class, teachers have ideal opportunities to ask questions:

  • What new questions do you have? Why?

  • What was an initial thought you had that changed? Why?

  • What do you need to do next? Why?

  • What do you need to do over? Why?

  • Would it be a good idea to change variable x? Why or why not?

In asking such questions, students must think about their thinking, revise their thinking, and even consider the effects of their decision-making.

Self-Assessment and the Independent Learner

Developing and creating independent learners is a common phrase found in the mission of schools, globally. For students to be effective, independent learners, however, they must have metacognitive muscles. Why? He or she will have to constantly self-assess and make decisions in order to reach learning goals. For example, the independent learner will need to continually

  • Monitor where he or she is in relation to the goal;

  • Monitor what is working;

  • Monitor challenges he or she has experienced and think about challenges he or she will likely experience;

  • Monitor gaps in learning;

  • Think about the resources and supports that will be needed to attain the goal.

The brain is always doing one thing: thinking. As educators, one of our responsibilities is to teach students how to think when they are in academic situations. Throughout any given school day, we have many opportunities to teach metacognition and to provide students with metacognitive practice. If we do, we can help students strengthen the muscle that can lead to better decision-making and increased learning.

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