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Filling in the Gaps: Emphasizing Thinking About One’s Own Thinking

Tamara Rosier, Ph.D.

Cornerstone University

As a child, I sang along with a Kenny Roger’s country song bemoaning the fact that a wife left her husband and children. I remember singing at the top of my lungs as we traveled down the highway, “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, four-hundred children and a crop in the fields.” I wondered how the man had so many children, but still I sang about his progeny of plenty. Had I been the child prodigy my grandfather thought I was, I would have used metacognitive thinking to closely question how I came to my assumptions. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until college that I realized the phrase “four hungry children” made more sense than “four-hundred children.”

“You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, four-hundred children and a crop in the fields.”

Our students often have similar gaps in their learning, places where for one reason or another they have filled in misinformation. Unlike a country song about too many children, these gaps in learning become more important to examine as students are encountering significant learning experiences. We, as their learning guides, can help students examine their thinking, analyzing their own past learning, and preventing further gaps.

What is metacognition?

It has to do with thinking about one’s own thinking. It involves understanding and appreciating the factors that make the learning process possible. People who use metacognition know how to use strategies and recognize when learning has taken or is taking place.

As our students are learning, we coach their processing of the information by providing thinking time, using exercises, and cueing metacognition. As we lead our students’ thinking, we need to provide thinking time – a break in the instruction. Providing a break gives students an opportunity to think about how and why they engage in this process. For example, while teaching a course in statistics, I provide a metacognitive moment after introducing the notion of a p-value and then pause with the question, “How can you remember what to do with a p-value once you find it?” Over the years my students have delighted me with their often very clever responses. One student said, “If the p is low, the null must go!” This is an example of metacognition because the student reflected on how she learned, figured that rhyming works well for her memory, and developed a phrase that would help her.

How can you facilitate metacognition with your students?

Use questions to guide a metacognitive moment such as:

  • Think of three questions that a student could have during this session?

  • Why are you learning this?

  • Why is this important to know?

  • How will you remember this?

  • If your grandmother was sitting in this class, what questions would she have?

There are many exercises that we can use to help students develop their metacognition while learning a new subject. One very simple exercise is a variant of the often-used Think-Pair-Share:

  1. Ask students to write for 2 minutes about their thinking on this new subject. You may need to provide a more specific prompt until your students become adept at metacognitive thinking.

  2. Ask students to share their “thinking thoughts” with a partner.

  3. When the class reconvenes as a large group, ask students to share their paired conversations.

  4. End the discussion with “What insights do you have as a result of thinking about your thinking?”

As an example, while teaching statistics I ask students to spend two minutes reflecting on the five steps to hypothesis testing and which step is most difficult for them or which step could be the most challenging. Students then share their “thinking thoughts” with another and discuss why they came to their conclusions. This exercise has led to increased understanding and better questions from my students.

I developed another metacognitive strategy for my classes called Knowledge Ratings. Knowledge Ratings are quite effective because they evoke a sort of metacognitive dissonance – creating a lack of harmony in one’s mind. Students will work to restore continuity or harmony in their thoughts. The strategy asks students to assess and evaluate what they know and what they do not know. Students often unconsciously spend mental energy resolving their dissonance by attempting to reach a higher knowledge rating. I use this strategy to discover what my students already know and to show them they have increased their knowledge during the session.

  1. To begin, I ask students to rate their knowledge about a specific, well-defined topic on a scale of 0 to 3 at the beginning of the lesson. (0 = no knowledge; 1= little knowledge; 2 = knowledge; 3 = very knowledgeable – test ready) If there is a healthy, safe class environment, I ask students to identify which number they are.

  2. I explain that their goal is to increase their understanding and attempt to get to the next level.

  3. After I teach some of the lesson, I ask students to rate their knowledge again. Again, raising their hands to identify which number they are.

  4. As I see the increase in the mean rating, I ask them to write down questions they still have about the topic. Most of the time students write questions that show they are analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating. By asking them to write questions, I evoke dissonance for the second time. They have acknowledged they do not know all of the information and are motivated to fill in the gaps as we progress through the lesson.

  5. I end class with a final round of asking students to identify their knowledge level.

  6. I explain that I expect them to be at a level 3 before they begin their homework and explain ways that they can revisit the material we addressed in class.

  7. Just for fun – I tempt the most inquisitive in class with a level 4 activity. At least one student per class does the level 4 activity for no credit, but a chance to talk with me about it to further their knowledge.

Metacognitive skills work best when they are over-learned and operate unconsciously. We, as professors, can develop metacognitive thinking skills in our students, helping them to fill in the gaps in their information. We can develop metacognitive thinking in our students and help them solve their own “four-hundred children” mysteries.

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