Larry Ferlazzo: Metacognition, Learning Strategies And Student Autonomy

In this post, Larry Ferlazzo looks at activities that can help to raise awareness among students of the concept of metacognition.

Metacognition has the common definition of "thinking about thinking" (see The Best Posts On Metacognition). In other words, it is the self-awareness to know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and how and when to apply the former and compensate for the latter.

Broadly explained, learners applying metacognitive strategies plan in advance for effective learning, monitor and make adjustments during the lesson/activity to maximize their learning, and reflect afterwards about which learning strategies worked and which did not for them.

Here is a Four-step process I use with my English Language Learners to help them apply metacognition and learning strategies in order to develop more student autonomy:

Step One
I first do a short explicit lesson on metacognition. After writing the word "metacognition" on the overhead projector and asking students to repeat it. Then: 
The teacher crunches up a piece of paper, throws it, and intentionally misses a garbage can. The paper falls to the right (of course, students will love that the teacher misses it). The teacher tells the class, “Okay, now I know that I have to adjust my shot. I’m thinking about it, and maybe I need to adjust to the left. I’ve seen people shoot free throws underhand, so maybe I’ll have a better chance if I throw it that way, too, because it would have a higher arc.” 
The teacher crunches up another sheet of paper, throws it, and it lands just short, hitting the rim of the can (again, the teacher probably receives great cheers or catcalls from the class). He or she says, “It looks like I’m getting closer. I think I’ll just have to throw it a little harder and it should go in.” 
The teacher gets another piece of paper and throws it—bull’s-eye! He or she says, “Now, the next time I want to try to make a basket here, I’ll know to throw it underhand and aim better. That’s the kind of thinking I go through on the basketball court, and how we improve in lots of ways. We take the time to think about why. 
He or she then tells the class, “Let’s see how I do shooting the ball without using metacognition.” He quickly crumples up three pieces of paper and just throws them one by one in the direction of the can. None go in. The teacher tells the class, “I’m going to ask a question, and I don’t want anyone to call out an answer. Why didn’t those three balls go in? Tell a partner.”
The teacher calls on one student, who probably responds, “Because you didn’t think about what you learned from trying it earlier.” 
“Exactly,” the teacher says. “If we don’t ‘think about our thinking,’ we won’t learn from our mistakes or from our successes. We’ll always start from scratch when we face a problem. By using metacognition, we’ll be able to more effectively apply what we learn now to the future. That’s what metacognition is..." 
Step Two

Following that exercise, a teacher could tell students that, just like she did when she made changes to throwing the paper, there are things that students can do to help them learn better when they are having problems with English. The teacher gives an example of one - make a list of things you don't understand very well and ask the teacher or other people about them. She writes that on the overhead under the title "Ways To Help Learn." She then asks students to think for a minute - without saying anything - about other things they can do. Then, after a minute, she breaks students into pairs or threes to quickly share what they wrote. Next, she asks students to share and adds to the list, while asking students to copy them down.

Strategies on the list could include - but not be limited to (it would be valuable to verbally provide a student or teacher with an example to illustrate each strategy):

  • Setting goals
  • Drawing pictures
  • Connect what I am learning to things I already know, perhaps through using a K-W-L chart
  • Ask classmates for help
  • Remember what has helped me in the past
  • After I'm done, double-check my work
  • Use Google Translate or a dictionary
  • Plan how I am going to work on a project before I start. For example, creating an outline or some other graphic organizer for an essay or project.
  • Highlight or underline important words in a text.
  • When I don't understand a word, I can use context clues, do a word analysis (prefix, root, suffix), and think if it's a cognate (similar to words in other languages).
  • After I've finished an activity, take a minute to think about what things I did that helped me.
  • Ask my teachers questions to clarify or confirm my thinking and not just to get the answer (Does it look like I'm on the right track? I think this question means __________________ - is that right?)
  • Take notes (see "Tech Tool: Notetaking" below)

(Some of these strategies are adapted from my book, Self-Driven Learning (Ferlazzo, 2013, p. 106)

Step Three
After the list has been completed, students can glue or tape it to their folders or in notebooks, and/or the list could be done on a piece of easel paper and hung on the classroom wall.  The teacher can explain that students can refer to this list when they are having problems, and there will be times when the teacher will ask them to share which of the examples on the list they have recently used. Students should also think about which ones help them the best -- different ones will work for different people.  The teacher can explain that they will also be adding to the list in the future. 
Step Four
Many teachers have students keep "learning journals" where they periodically keep track of what they learned.  Psychologist Marilyn Price Mitchell recommends, instead, that they note how they learned.   I have students regularly write and share short responses to a number of questions designed to have them consider what strategies help or have not helped them be better English learners.  You can see her suggested list of questions here.
What learning strategies do your students find most helpful?

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.  He has written eight books on education, writes a teacher advice blog

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