If learning is to be truly empowering for our students, they need to understand how to use what they have learned. I have found that bringing metacognitive reflection into the feedback process can support this.
Since the EEF published its report on the high positive impact of metacognitive strategies last April, I have been reflecting on this a lot. Metacognition is not really a new concept and there are few techniques I’ve seen suggested that are entirely new. However, the report did reawaken my interest and drive home the potential value of building metacognitive reflection as a habit in my students. A number of strategies and suggestions fit well with the idea of developing a “growth mindset”. And like many good growth mindset strategies, one of the great challenges has been developing metacognitive reflection as a habit – in myself, let alone my students. I have yet to crack this, but I have found some strategies and areas of teaching where it has had particular impact. The first of these is in feedback.
With the current focus on knowledge-acquisition (a very important goal) it can sometimes be easy to overlook how important it is that students know what to do with the knowledge they have acquired. My experience of the new qualifications has been that they seem far from friendly towards rote-learned application strategies and simple, formulaic answers. The qualifications rightly seem to demand that students can apply domain-specific knowledge to quite complicated problems and challenges, using it flexibly and effectively. In helping them to develop these skills, metacognitive prompts and questions about their process can be very useful in supporting them to reflect on what they did with their knowledge and how they went about deploying it.
There is some great material out there on ways to support students’ thinking along these lines with major assessments. I am a particular fan of exam wrappers which I first learned about from Alex Quigley’s blog: https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/01/top-10-revision-strategies/. The metacognitive modelling of exam technique (the ‘walking talking mock’) is another strategy I favour and John Tomsett has frequently advocated this, not least in his most recent blog: https://johntomsett.com/2019/01/06/this-much-i-know-about-how-to-use-research-evidence-to-improve-both-my-teaching-and-my-students-outcomes/.
However, I do think that for something to become a habit of thinking, it needs to be deployed regularly and so I have also been working with prompts I can use in my regular teaching and feedback. Below are some of the questions I find myself using most regularly to encourage students to think about how they prepared for, planned or researched a task and how effective that process was. One thing I have learned during the process is that these questions can produce interesting answers that give me better insight into where my students are struggling than simply “marking” an end product. Another learning point has been that they can be deployed even when students have done well – they don’t always understand why they have done well. Too often students think the key is about the amount of time spent on the work, rather than strategies used. With these questions I try to move students’ thinking from focusing on “hard work” to “smart work”. The last one is therefore particularly important!
What did you read to research for this essay?
What search terms did you use to find material?
How did you then select material?
Which reading was most influential on your thinking?
What revision strategies did you use to prepare for this assessment?
Why did you choose these strategies?
How effective do you think they were?
What gaps did they leave?
How did you plan this answer?
What were your key priorities?
How effectively do you think the [essay/narrative/work] reflect the plan you created?
Review this suggested content and identify which of these you included in your answer. Did you leave any of the suggested content out? Why was that?
Did you include anything not on the suggested content list? Was it more significant than the material on the suggested content list?
Why did you include X but not Y or Z?
How would you approach this task differently next time, now that you have had feedback?
What strategies helped you to do so well in this task, that you can deploy next time?
The use of “metacognitive feedback strategies” is not a replacement for all the other feedback and marking strategies I use or have blogged about. These represent an additional tool I can deploy to support students’ development. They can work as part of whole-class feedback or individually. Often these questions will form the basis of an oral discussion whilst students are working on feedback tasks, to avoid the labour involved in a “purple-pen-style” dialogue which can take some weeks to complete! I still give students targets, redrafting work and further reading as a form of feedback. I wouldn’t only use these questions as I don’t believe that feedback needs to follow a single format – in fact, that could be detrimental to the main goal of creating a meaningful dialogue. However, I am increasingly making use of the metacognitive questions above to encourage students to reflect on how they approached their planning or delivery of a task, and how they sought and deployed the knowledge and skills needed to achieve success. If learning is to be truly empowering for our students, they need to understand how to use it. I have found this approach to support this outcome.
Questions that help me to reflect on my feedback choices:
What is it I most wanted the student to learn from this activity and what type of feedback will best help them to understand and reflect on that?
How confident am I that I have understood the process by which the student has ended up at this point? Is there anything more I need to understand about their work or planning process to help them improve?
How can I support my students to reflect on their own learning journey, rather than simply telling them what to do differently?
How will I know if the feedback has really helped the student to make progress; what different will I see in the future?
The EEF’s report on metacognition is well worth reading and can be found here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation/