In the terrific book, How People Learn,  the authors describe 3 key findings about how people learn, what teachers should do with those findings, and what it might look like in the classroom:
- Students come to the classroom, each with their own pre-existing knowledge, experiences, skills, motivations, and resources, that the teacher needs to draw out and work with through student-centered activities.
- Expertise in a field involves a deep foundation of facts, concepts, relationships, etc., organized in a conceptual framework that’s optimized for retrieval. Teachers help their students develop their own conceptual frameworks by deciding what needs to be taught and presenting the same concepts in more than one context so that students can make connections between concepts and to their existing knowledge.
- Teachers need to teach their students a new skill: how to be metacognitive about the concepts being taught. Students need to learn how to take control of their thinking and monitor their own progress towards success.
Of these 3 key findings, I struggle most with the third. How do you teach students to think about thinking and give them opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again . I recently gave a number of presentations to my students and others at UC San Diego and asked this question:
Here’s how my audiences voted:
I asked this question in an episode of peer instruction so after they voted, I had them “turn to your neighbor and tell them which one you picked and why.” Through the class-wide discussions that followed, we arrived at these observations and conclusions:
Don’t just do stuff you’re supposed to do. No one picked E. I’m happy to see that no one is just doing things they’re “supposed to do” but instead, they’re thinking about why they do things in class.
Do you mean the intention or what actually happens? Quite a few students said they had trouble choosing because they weren’t sure if I’m asking about the instructor’s intention of asking,”Any questions?” or what actually happens in class. Many agreed that you most often hear, “Any questions?” in the last minute of class when the instructor is wrapping up (or trying to fill the last minute of class.) This is not the time to ask your students for questions: you just signaled the class is over (choice A above) and they’re all leaving to get to their next class. The room is noisy, no one is listening, and if someone does have a question, the instructor might be able to chat briefly but no one other than that one student hears anything.
It’s all about the instructor. Almost everyone picked B (“Can I continue?”) or C (“Do you understand, so I can continue?”) These are pretty good rationales. You have more to cover today and you don’t want to introduce new material if your students don’t understand this stuff. Excellent intentions. I asked my students how long the instructor typically waits after asking, “Any questions?”
as long as it takes to scan across the room once
We don’t give them enough time. Because standing at the front of a silent room for 3 seconds is uncomfortable. Waiting for 10 seconds is painful. Twenty seconds? By then, the voice in your head is saying, “C’mon, c’mon! I’ve got things to cover!” and you relieve your anxiety with an apologetic, “Okay, well, I’m not going force anyone to talk, so, uh, let’s keep going.”
First, establish that’s it’s okay to ask questions. Here’s what I believe about teaching: I believe it’s my job to make my students brains hurt a little bit. I want to build on what they know and push it further. I want them to have questions, dammit, because if they don’t have any, I wasn’t pushing hard enough. They’re capable of more than I offered. So let’s tell them it’s okay to have questions. Instead of “Any questions?” ask
What questions do you have for me?
Give them time to think. When I ask, “Any ques—“, uh, “What questions do you have for me?” I’m asking each of my students to
- scan back over the last 15 or 20 minutes of notes
- identify any holes in their understanding
- formulate a question whose answer will fill that hole
- build up the courage to put up their hand and ask
Guess what? That takes longer than 3 seconds! So give them time to think. Don’t just stand there getting uncomfortable. Walk around, get a drink of water, take the keys out of your pocket that have been jingle-jangling all class, make sure your phone is turned off. Look away so they don’t feel like you’re staring at them, daring them to interrupt your lecture with a question.
And finally, supporting metacognition. Imagine this: imagine changing your intention for asking, “Any questions?” or “What questions do you have for me?” It’s not about you and whether or not you can continue. It’s about your students. This is when you give them an opportunity to stop and think and monitor their own progress towards understanding (choice D in the question above.) That’s a key to learning. This pause is a critical element of the lesson. You plan for it, you initiate it, you give it the time it deserves. When students ask questions, they’re not interrupting your lecture or preventing you from getting through your slides. No, you are giving them an opportunity to practice their new metacognition skills.
Oh, it will sound exactly the same as choices B and C — you’ll stop lecturing and ask, “What questions to you have for me?” — but your intentions, expectations and reactions will be different. Ditto for your students.
And after class, when you ask yourself if you addressed the 3 key findings about how people learn, you can declare with pride and satisfaction, “yep, yep, aaaand yep!”
I’ll do it (I think)! If you’re still anxious about asking, “What questions do you have for me?” and waiting long enough, have a look at these posts I wrote about the 2-minute pause, think-pair-share, and peer instruction. If you’ve got other approaches to asking questions and/or supporting metacognition, I hope you’ll share it with us in the comments.
 National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. J.D. Bransford, A.L Brown & R.R. Cocking (Eds.),Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
 Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
“Cognition” is another word for “thinking”. Metacognition, then, is thinking about your own thinking. Cynthia Brame at Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has this terrific quote by John Flavell in her post, Thinking About Metacognition:
I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B. John Flavell (1976)
One of the key findings about how people learn is that we need to metacognitive about our learning. Indeed, one of the signs of expertise is an “internal dialogue” — a little voice in your head — that continually questions what you’re doing, how well you’re doing it, why you’re doing it.
If teaching is about making your students more like experts, metacognition should be important. It’s already challenging to draw out and build on student’s pre-existing knowledge and teach the multitude of facts and concepts AND the conceptual framework which link those facts together. (These are the other two Key Findings of How People Learn.) How do you teach students to be metacognitive? It’s not like there’s a switch you flick on (“Everyone, please think about your thinking. Thank-you.”) Like any skill you’re teaching, students need practice being metacognitive before they’re good at it.
My frustration with coming up with metacognition practice made me all the more amazed and pleased by the responses I got when I asked my students to write a blog post. The course I’m teaching, The College Classroom, is about teaching and learning in higher education. My students are advanced Ph.D. students and postdocs about to embark on academic careers. Prior to our class on deliberate practice, I asked them to write a blog post about a time when they’ve engaged in deliberate practice. Write they did, and over and over, their posts progressed from a description of what they did to how well they did it and why they did it. They wrote about time management, aiming high, running, running, learning Zapotec, driving, rodent neurosurgery, entrepreneurship, guitar, math, practice, teaching, coaching volleyball, learning English, piano, math, learning Italian, studying, soccer, tae kwon do, soccer, guitar, learning Spanish, soccer, regret, writing, macroeconomics, writing, piano, Scabble, improv, soccer, crafting conversations, and Vespas.
It’s metacognitive blogging
— meta-blog-nition —
pouring out onto the page!
The moral of the story: if you’re an instructor struggling to create opportunities for your students to practice being metacognitive, get them blogging. As an added bonus, their posts are a wealth of pre-existing knowledge and experiences you can build on. That’s a win for everyone.
What about you? When are you metacognitive? What do you do to get your students to think about their own thinking? Leave a comment to share it with the rest of us!