Pedagogy 3.1 (2003) 109-113
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From the Classroom
Metacognition in the Classroom:
Examining Theory and Practice
I meet my colleagues in the English department's faculty lounge, a cozy room with dull institutional furniture and large windows overlooking one of the university's parking lots. The lunch routine is simple: Some open brown bags, while others microwave Smart Ones. Someone may peel an orange or pass around a bag of low-fat chips. And the conversations start. Sometimes lighthearted and sometimes intense, our topics range from contemporary television and films to current scholarship in Victorian studies. Inevitably, though, pedagogical issues surface. We debate how thoroughly writing can be evaluated without duress and insanity in a large section of "Introduction to Literature," and we talk about ways to induce our students to analyze rather than summarize when writing papers for 300-level literature courses.
These conversations are not limited to the faculty lounge; we discuss and debate during meetings and in hallways and stairwells—actually, anywhere we can stop for a few minutes to listen, explain, or encourage. Through these interactions we explore what we are doing and how it is working, recognizing that reflection—a tool for challenging and clarifying thinking—brings growth and expertise.
As professional educators, we use metacognition, the mental process of analyzing our own thinking, to advance intellectually and personally. We acknowledge the value of self-critique, an empowering exercise that encourages us to ponder our practices and set our standards. In fact, recent research examines the link between professors' self-reflection and their success in the classroom. Lynne McAlpine and Cynthia Weston (2000: 364) note that "reflection operates as a metacognitive process for evaluating and improving teaching." Now, here is my main concern: Do we encourage our students to be reflective? Do we provide them with opportunities to analyze their learning? Do we explain that introspection is a valuable tool that they can carry from course to course and into their professional and personal lives?
How often have you paused, in reading a student's paper, to puzzle over where it was going? Have you ever wondered whether the waywardness could have been avoided if you had stimulated metacognition in the student's thinking during the writing process? A paper's weaknesses may be traced in [End Page 109] part to the inadequate time and effort spent on it; however, most writing problems stem from a lack of reflective thinking, without which student writers overlook poor content, illogical statements, and missed connections. My point is that any course, in English studies or any other area, should include elements of metacognition. According to the College Board Review (1997), metacognition is a relatively new area of education research that recognizes the value of self-reflection in evaluating, monitoring, and planning learning strategies. This process produces powerful knowledge that enables students to control their own learning.
It may seem that there is no time for anything "extra" like this in a course; it is something that the students should do on their own or in a study skills course. Many students, however, do not think on a reflective level without guidance in a specific task, because this type of processing is not in their cognitive repertoire, even if it is vital to their achievement in college. Robert J. Sternberg (1998: 127), a professor of psychology at Yale University, notes that education research has made a strong case for the role of metacognition in student success. In the same respect, educators recognize that an absence of metacognition leads students to become passive learners, disengaged from their education.
Some students, of course, do use self-analysis to process information. For example, a student changes the focus of her project because the class discussion of the text on which it is based has prompted her to reread the text and to consider her project from a new point of view. She analyzes the assignment, determines what she needs to know to prepare a good paper, and so indicates that she has moved beyond the "What does the professor...