This post is written by VBA.
Metacognition and “thinking about thinking” became a real focus of mine with my Year 10 GCSE class after reading about the low cost – high impact that it can have on a student’s performance in this report from the Educational Endowment Foundation. I followed this up by reading blog articles about teachers who had put metacognition into practice. The ones I found most informative were: Metacognition and academic growth, Developing metacognition through exam practice and …what really works when preparing students for their examinations
This led me to focus on two areas with my year 10 History class:
Understanding how to answer questions
Understanding what they were doing well, and where they could improve
Helping students understand how to answer questions
My current year 10s are a mixed ability A*-C-range group. Early on, I noticed that the main issue they had was not understanding what the question was asking them to do. They demonstrated good knowledge on the topic we had been studying (1919-1945 Germany), but when it came to answering questions, they seemed to want to write everything they knew on a topic rather than what the question actually called for. The History paper also calls for a fundamental understanding of how to answer different question types if students are to achieve well.
Taking all this into consideration, I decided to use metacognition to help them clarify their thought processes, to see if it could minimise the errors they made when answering exam questions.
Initially, I simply asked students to highlight key words in questions, to try and get them to focus on what was needed, but this quickly moved on to them writing what was actually needed to fully address the question. This was more beneficial, because highlighting key words was something that came easily to them, but it still didn’t really emphasise exactly what was needed to do well on that question. Also, the students seemed to benefit from the physicality of putting their thought processes on paper, and using these to guide them in their answers.
At the beginning of the year, I used the classroom visualizer to guide students through questions, talking through my thought processes and using verbal suggestions from the students. This has now moved on to the students doing it themselves without this additional guidance and support.
Examples of student work
The key example I have included below is a students’ first attempt at a full exam paper – the blue pen is their metacognition work before the exam started.
As a result, the pupils’ work was well structured and addressed the question at hand. Students knew the type of knowledge to include as well as how to use it.
With the forthcoming mock season approaching, I am continuing to encourage Year 10 to use this method and will be intrigued to see if there are any variations between students who use a few minutes at the beginning of the exam to think though their approach to the questions as opposed to those who plough straight into them.
Helping students understand what they were doing well and how to improve
In addition to looking at how to answer questions, I wanted my Year 10s to also be able to understand why they were being awarded the mark they were, and to identify for themselves what they needed to be doing to improve their work. Nothing is more frustrating than marking a pile of assessed work, only for targets to be overlooked for the more prestigious grade or result. I wanted my students to engage with the target setting and feedback process, and I wanted them to think about why I had given them a particular mark.
As a result, I varied the way I delivered my feedback to students, to get them consistently thinking about their achievements and areas of improvements. All assessed work was handed back with a copy of the mark scheme for that question, and I had highlighted on it the areas within a level band that the pupils have achieved.
The type of feedback I gave students was determined by the area I wanted them to focus on. In some cases, I identified the reasons why they were awarded a mark, and they had to use the mark scheme and my comments on their work to create their own targets on how to improve next time. At other times, I identified their targets and what they needed to do to move up to the next grade, but they were responsible for telling me what they had done correctly to achieve that particular mark. If a question didn’t go according to plan, I would ask them how they would redo that question now that they had seen their mark.
All of these approaches made the students themselves an integral part of the feedback process, and as a result pupils were more aware of what their strengths and areas for improvement were:
What went well
On reflection, I feel both of these approaches have worked well. Students are much more aware of what to do to answer exam questions, as well as identifying their own weaknesses and strengths. I feel I have had more conversations with them on how to improve things like analysis and explanation because they themselves have identified that this is what they need to work on.
The real test will be to see how the forthcoming mock exams turn out, after a year of trialling these metacognition skills, to see if they have had a real impact. It will also be interesting to see whether the students who continue to use these techniques perform better than those who do not continue use them.
With the idea of the feedback experiment, I am aware that some teachers might reluctant to attach mark schemes to work, in case it increases workload. However, I found myself referring to the mark scheme constantly when marking their work anyway, and would have to read through criteria to work out what level to award them. When I gave feedback in this way, I was actually doing what I would do anyway, but I was just doing it on a separate sheet (the mark scheme), and I didn’t feel it added to my mark load in any way. I found I wrote less on pupils’ work because the onus was put on them to develop targets.
Both of these attempts at metacognition are things I will continue to work on with my Year 10s as they they tackle the new syllabus from September.
Featured image: By innoxiuss (Thinking at Hell’s gate) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons