Getting started with metacognition theories

Written by: Kate Sida-Nicholls | Published:
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Many trainee teachers will have been introduced to metacognition theories and strategies for learning. Kate Sida-Nicholls looks at how we can begin to filter these into our teaching

Using evidence as a tool to support specific teaching and learning strategies has become easier with the research now being shared by a range of organisations, including the Chartered College of Teaching, Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), Institute for Effective Education, Research Schools Network, and the Learning Scientists website. Not to mention all the research and articles you can access online and via Twitter (including, of course, from SecEd).

However, what do you do if you have been introduced through your teaching training or NQT induction to evidence-informed approaches, but you do not know how to start incorporating these into your teaching?

A good and common example are metacognition strategies, which the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests have a high impact for very low cost. The EEF states: “Metacognition approaches aim to help pupils think about their own learning more explicitly, often by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning. Interventions are usually designed to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from and the skills to select the most suitable strategy for a given learning task.”

So, how might you begin with metacognition approaches in your classroom and how can you show their impact? First, remember that you might have some false starts initially, but if you follow the small steps in this article then hopefully you will have the confidence to keep going, even if you encounter scepticism from students (or colleagues).

Small steps

The key point is to start small and not be disheartened if there is resistance from students or if your strategies do not work immediately.

Plan the introduction of your chosen strategies into lessons gradually, do not overwhelm students with new ideas, and regularly return to them in your teaching.

Among the small first steps that you could take are the following:

Do some reading from the sources I have listed above so that you are well informed about the cognitive science behind your strategies. It is easy to be put off even at this early stage due to the amount of information available, but essentially you need to be aware of the main ideas. I would perhaps begin with John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). This relates to the fact that the amount of mental effort to complete a task is finite and teachers should be aware of this when planning lessons and tasks (see further information). Professor Dylan Wiliam says that it is the “single most important thing” for teachers to know (Ashman, 2017).

Read about the six key learning strategies taken from cognitive psychology: spaced practice, interleaving (for more on these two, see Helen Webb's April 2019 article for SecEd:, elaboration, concrete examples, dual coding and retrieval practice.

Prepare yourself to explain to the students the purpose behind these approaches and how it will help them be successful at their exams (some slides about how to introduce these strategies can be found on the Learning Scientists’ website).

It is tempting to include all the six strategies into your teaching at the same time, but the best advice would be to start with one or two and then build from there. I would suggest that you and your students practise and engage with retrieval practice and spacing before trying to incorporate the other strategies.

It is probably a good idea to start with one or two classes too before rolling out the strategies to other students you teach.

Retrieval practice and spacing

Retrieval practice involves bringing information to mind from your memory. The process of retrieving makes information easier to remember at a later date compared to simply studying your notes. This is because the act of retrieval strengthens memory. It also increases your ability to use and apply the information to new situations (SecEd, 2017).

So, instead of encouraging students to re-read information, teachers could ask them to recall information from memory by drawing a concept map, explaining from memory, or taking a low-stakes quiz. It is easy to get disheartened with retrieval practice, however, as it may appear that initially reading and then recalling does not have much impact on the learning of students.

The crucial step is to ensure that the students achieve success at the reading stage – e.g. through scaffolding which might be via completing concept maps with books in front of them and then having to finish partially completed concept maps. Another strategy could be to use multiple-choice questions after reading. Remember, retrieval practice should be challenging, but students need to be accurate too.

Meanwhile, spacing learning over time helps people to learn more quickly and to remember better: “When you space your learning, you take that same amount of study time, and spread it out across a much longer period of time.” (Weinstein & Smith, 2016)

Spacing has implications for the curriculum but within your context as an early career teacher, it is possible to introduce the strategy on a small scale in your classroom.

For example, create homework tasks that are not based on the current lesson but on topics covered two or three weeks ago. Or start a lesson with a review of the previous day’s learning via some simple questions or a short quiz. This can help with both spacing and retrieval practice.

Essentially, teachers should develop strategies that encourage students to briefly revisit previous material at the start of the next lesson, the following week and the following month.

Consulting your students

If you achieve some success with your foray into metacognition strategies then consider sharing this with colleagues. But remember to base your findings on evidence from your practice.

Sharing your ideas in departmental meetings is a good idea, but it has to be based on the actual strategies you used and how you implemented them, rather than anecdotal stories. Collecting data of an improvement in test/exam results is definitely part of this, but it might not be possible to have lots of data in that area, especially if you are only implementing these strategies with one or two classes.

My advice is to use the students in your classes – they are your best source of evidence. Furthermore, if you engage with them before you even begin implementing the strategies then your students can help you to tailor your introductory sessions and approaches more effectively (there is going to be more buy-in from the students if they know you have consulted them). For example, ask students simple questions about how they revise:

  • How do they look back over information learnt at the start of years 9 or 10?
  • What do they struggle with when trying to recall information?
  • Do they use cramming as a revision strategy and do they think that works?
  • What are they concerned about when thinking about learning the material required to be successful at their GCSEs?
  • On a scale of one to five, how confident do they feel about learning all the material needed in this subject for GCSE?

Once you have been using these learning strategies for a couple of months and you feel it is making a difference to students’ confidence, knowledge retention and learning, ask them some more questions related to the initial survey and compare the answers. Hopefully, there will be some notable and positive differences!

  • Kate Sida-Nicholls is the secondary PGCE course leader for Suffolk and Norfolk SCITT. She was a secondary teacher for 18 years before working in ITE and has written two books, one on behaviour management, the other about teaching English.

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