Metacognition and Self-Regulation in the Classroom

In her latest guest post, Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner), Director of Improvement & CPD and English teacher, explores how the principles of the EEF’s guidance report on metacognition and self-regulation looks in the English classroom.

Metacognition and self-regulation are without a doubt some of the latest buzz words in education. The 2018 EEF report on this area told us that ‘self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weakness, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning’ and developing this ‘is an effective way of improving pupil outcomes’. This sounds like the holy grail of teaching. Of course we all want students to regulate themselves, take charge of their own learning (and behaviour), so enthused by wanting to know more about our subject that they skip into our classroom filled with questions, ideas and wonder. It’s about independence (something I wrote about here) and a high level of self-awareness, something which I unfortunately isn’t always in abundance in the adults I meet.

But the research is clear and it is especially clear in relation to disadvantaged students; this is the group who may disproportionately not have these abilities and therefore this is the group who may disproportionately benefit from a focus on them. This sounds fantastic, especially in my context, but what might this actually look like in an English classroom?

‘Explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning.’

The most difficult part of this for me was probably linked to my own ability to do the above. This is due both to the curse of the expert and a lack of explicit dialogue around this in my own early learning experiences.

On the one hand I generally find doing things in relation to English easy. Analysing a text, writing an article, giving a presentation, are all things which I, quite rightly, find easy. I have practised these things for a number of years and the reason I pursued my studies in this area in the first place was intrinsically linked to the feeling you get from being quite good at something. I was good at it, so I felt successful, so I did it more. Nobody therefore had to talk to me about planning (I managed to do well without doing any), or the different knowledge I might need to apply to a task or how successful something had been. I am my own worst critic anyway. This however, turned out to be my first hurdle in becoming a teacher who taught metacognition in my classroom.

I have had to go back, slow down and really consider the processes I employ. Rather than just letting, what is now second nature, happen, I need to plan what I will share with students and how this can be broken into steps or stages.

Demonstrating this with planning was probably the easiest starting point for me, as that was something I would already often do on the board with students, but now I needed to spend more time explaining the thinking behind my choices. This, I learnt, is not always something which is immediately apparent, even to the writer. It’s a bit like when the students say ‘but the writer didn’t sit down and think about their writing like this’, and they are correct in part. Ideas may or may not be written down by a writer in a plan, they may place more focus on allowing a stream of consciousness to emerge and editing and refining later. This tended to be how I worked as a writer myself. However, students in the classroom are not ‘writers’, at least not yet. They are ‘students of writing’ and, in order to get better at it, they need to go through these processes. Once they have explored what has or has not been successful (the evaluation part), they can decide whether to discard this stage or not. Indeed, I have met two students in the last few years who appear to miraculously produce a text which would not be out of place amongst a published book of short stories. They can do this with just the merest of pauses for thought. These students are few and far between though and so most of us need to spend time planning, and that includes me. But I not only have to plan, I need to explain why I am planning in that way and what I am wanting to achieve. The same goes for the planning into writing process, the reviewing and editing process and pretty much everything I had once taken for granted and just got on and did.

This is of course only the writing element. The reading element, again something which I just can ‘do’, is a whole other issue.

‘Teachers should support pupils to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning.’

Remember the days when we were encouraged to say ‘who has met the learning objective today’, or ‘who has learnt something new’? Well I can see the intention here, but this just doesn’t really cut it in terms of developing metacognition and self-regulation.

This is something which I have found to be increasingly essential when looking at revision.

In order for students to really make the most of revision they must have a plan of action. They need to reflect on what they have learnt, understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie and evaluate the best way to address this. Once again I have some students who do this almost naturally and I am very lucky to work with them. One in particular was so on the ball in regards to finding planning tricky he sourced some advice from a Tom Bennett blog, something which has now ended up embedded in our team across the two key stages. For others they need significant support, and here is where I have had to increase my input.

Most students need us to devise their plan or programme, give them opportunities to monitor how their learning is progressing and make explicit where the gaps may be. Quizzing of past topics in the classroom, talking about what has not stuck and why, and tackling those tricky bits again is a process which I have taken much greater control over. In Cleverlands Lucy Crehan talks of students in the States verses their counterparts in East Asia and how they dealt with those ‘tricky bits’. Students were tested, given results and were then told to go and revise. Students from the States frequently concentrated on revising the things the test had shown they did well on. This made revision easier and the students felt more successful at the time. The other group of students focused on the questions they had got wrong and, unsurprisingly when retested, did much better than the first group. Cultural attitudes to learning and education in the UK are more closely aligned to those students from the States and as a result I see this desire to go over familiar ground more frequently in my students. I use this example with them when I am talking about revision and I also talk about them ‘eating the frog first’ (doing the bit they find difficult) at the start of the session so it is covered when they are feeling fresher, is over and done with quickly and they can end on a ‘high’ by finishing in familiar territory where they feel most successful. Revision thereby become less of a hardship when they consider returning to it. Despite being laborious they finished feeling good. 

When I do quick recap quizzes at the start of some of my lessons I get the students to swap pens and write in the correct answers in a different colour. This quickly shows both them and me, which parts they are retaining lesson to lesson, week by week, and which areas need to be the focus for their revision session. There is no escaping the evidence in front of them and they are building up a picture of what they need to revisit.

 ‘Set an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition’

Challenge and high expectations in my classroom are something I pride myself on, expecting excellence regardless of students’ prior attainment. However, tasks which are either too challenging or too easy do little to promote self-regulation and metacognition, something I have learnt at my cost.

To use the Goldilocks analogy, if the work is too easy little is required in terms of self-regulation. Students can do the task without really having to think about it too much and at no point do they need to pause and consider what knowledge or past experiences they might need to draw on to achieve it. Equally a task which is too hard is going to mean students won’t have the tools necessary to tackle it and will quickly give up. We need to ensure the challenge is just right in order for students to be able to draw on these skills. That doesn’t mean we err on the side of things being too easy. I always believe it is better to aim high, luckily something that studying Shakespeare at any age lends itself to with ease, and provide students with the metacognitive reminders and scaffolds to enable them to tackle it.

For example, when setting an exam question such as ‘how does Shakespeare present Lady Macbeth in this scene and the play as a whole?’ I get them to begin by retrieving what they already know about this topic. I usually do this prior to looking at the extract itself, starting with the big picture. Where students might be struggling I will ask a few questions to prompt their thinking or get them to write down a few questions about what they want to explore. So for example ‘why does she call upon the spirits? What was Shakespeare trying to say about her here?’ We then check what we know as a class and eradicate any misconceptions which may have made their way in. This is also a good time to consider what we might not need in relation to the question. After all, we have not just been asked to write down everything we know about the character.

Now, when the students look at the extract itself, they are already thinking about the topic and have formulated some ideas about a response. We then use the extract as a way of testing their hypothesis i.e. I think Shakespeare wanted to show Lady Macbeth as manipulative, let’s see if there is any evidence of this in Act 1, scene 7 (yes there is) and Act 5, scene 1 (no there really isn’t). All the time the students are challenged to think deeply by the questions I ask, as well as those I encourage them to ask themselves, which serve as a scaffold for their thinking and an emerging deeper level of understanding of the topic.

Of course ultimately this comes down to knowing your students really, really well. I constantly assess their understanding throughout the lesson, and read students’ work more frequently than I give formal feedback. I will plan knowing what my students have and have not grasped. This is something which English again lends itself to well. Having a class for as many as ten lessons a fortnight means you get to know each other, for good or bad, incredibly well.

‘Promote and develop metacognitive talk in the classroom’

Obviously everything I have written about above links into this. If I am getting all of the above right, I have been modelling my own thinking and learning processes, demonstrated where I have refined my thinking or writing and encouraged students to do the same. I have been promoting metacognitive talk.

I continue though, to try to make this even more explicit, using the terms metacognition and self-regulation with students and providing them some understanding of what we are doing and why (very meta!). I want them to understand why it is that I won’t allow them to look at their notes during a quiz, why I want them to identify gaps in their understanding and why they need to take control of this. Some students grasp this more quickly than others and for some it could become a distraction to the main task in hand, so it very much depends on the group or the individual. However, simply by asking myself questions about a text aloud and encouraging students to follow suite, we are talking about and making explicit our thinking processes and our learning. One of the things which has struck me about the studies relating to metacognition and self-regulation is that it is not something which sits which the highest achieving students or the older year groups. It is something which has relevance from early years onwards and, as with many things in education, the earlier students are encouraged in this direction, the better for us all.

‘Explicitly teach pupils how to organise and effective manage their learning independently’

This stage obviously links back to my earlier points on revision, but it also about how students organise knowledge.

After watching Oliver Caviglioli at ResearchEd Kent talk on how we organise knowledge (schemas), the more aware I have become of the necessity of supporting students with this. A large part of my own curriculum planning focuses on how knowledge in my subject developed over time, and I have always been keen to circle back round to previous ideas and topics to create links. The reality of this in the classroom though tended to be rather sprawling and ad hoc. Oli’s presentation really made me reconsider how my approach could be changed to support students in organising their knowledge and learning further.

Now when I am planning on the board, I think more carefully about hierarchical knowledge and how I can visually present this. This is something I get students to transfer to their own notes, thinking about overarching ideas (as with my earlier point about the Macbeth essay) and then placing information beneath this. I have also used the Cornell note system, whereby students make notes, summarise and add key questions or points down the margin. They create an instant revision resource in doing so and have a clear way to organise their ideas. The summary is crucial to this too as it means students have to revisit and restructure information, making the process active. An effective use of homework time.

 I encourage students to make links between different topics in other ways. Currently my Year 11 are being required to write non-fiction responses (Language Paper 2 AQA) on topics relating to their Literature texts (women and power, making reference to An Inspector Calls and Macbeth) or (power corrupts us all with reference to Jekyll and Hyde and the Power and Conflict poems). This is in the early stages and could prove to be a disaster, but it will be interesting to consider why.

‘Schools should support teachers to develop knowledge of these approaches and expect them to be applied appropriately’

My role in my school is to lead on CPD. The blog post above is the culmination of at least 3 years of thinking about this topic (possibly longer). Some of this may be having a positive effect in my classroom. Some of it may not. There is a lot more to explore.

If we want teachers to effectively tackle this final section of the report, we need to consider this carefully. Step one for me at least was to think about my own metacognition in a more explicit way. Step two was having the time to plan how this would look in my classroom, drawing on examples from other teachers and reading around the topic further. Step three, as always is to consider the impact it is having, preferably with a second or third set of eyes helping me out with this. All of this is requires a significant investment and the temptation to just tell people to ‘do metacognition’ after giving them a copy of the report must be strong. However, if we return to the first points in the report where it tells us ‘self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weakness, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning’ and by developing this it ‘is an effective way of improving pupil outcomes’ then I believe this is worthy of greater investment. I will therefore continue to think about my thinking and learn more about my learning as a way to try to improve those outcomes and build some lifelong learners fully equipped to continue to do so.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The Essential Guide to Effective and Efficient Teaching is available for pre-order now.

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