Meta-Cognition Strategies

Meta-Cognition

[Updated 27 November 2018]

Before meta-cognition…

When I was a student, I remember staring for hours and hours at folders full of notes, trying desperately to memorise and understand them. It didn’t work. It probably didn’t work for you either. The problem is that memorising information is insanely difficult unless you employ the right methods. For most people, “reading notes” just doesn’t cut it, but whenever I ask students “how do you revise for exams?”, their first answer is almost always “I read over my notes”. I had never heard of meta-cognition and until recently, neither had my students.

The results were predictable. Students would leave their exams devastated that they couldn’t remember everything they supposedly “revised”. I vowed never to allow this to happen again and began my search for “the answer”.

Reading (and most importantly implementing) this post will help you teach more effectively and will help your students learn more. It’s a bold claim, I know. But trust me on this one, the evidence for using meta-cognition strategies is overwhelming.

What is meta-cognition?

“Meta-cognition” is best understood as learning how to learn. It’s a self-reflective strategy that allows students to understand how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Once mastered, students can memorise facts, understand concepts better and make connections between pieces of information with greater ease.

Why is meta-cognition so important?

When students are genuinely reflective about their learning ‘methods’, they improve quicker than their peers.

The Education Endowment Foundation (formerly known as the Sutton Trust) published research in 2012, highlighting a number of strategies that could be employed by schools, to raise the performance of their students. Meta-cognition strategies came out as second only to Feedback as the most impactful strategy. Not only that, but it cost virtually nothing to implement, unlike other (less effective) strategies. More recently, the EEF published guidance on meta-cognition which gives further advice to teachers on how to implement it in their day-to-day practice. You can read the April 2018 update here.

The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive-psychologists studying the effects of meta-cognition on learning, have also published a variety of strategies, some of which my students have trialled with great success (read on to find out my favourite one). Their work has been picked up by a wide audience of teachers on Twitter, on both sides of the Atlantic. Have a read about the benefits of using meta-cognition strategies which strategies are the most effective! You can follow them on Twitter at @acethattest.

Which meta-cognition strategies should I use?

I’ve trialled a wide variety of meta-cognition strategies, both for delivering content and for helping students revise for exams. I’ve written below about the three strategies that in my experience have made the biggest difference to my students. I would advise you to try them all. What you will probably find, as with most teaching strategies, is that some work better than others for “your students”, or fit better with your preferred style of teaching. Just give them a go!

Whatever you find though, leave some feedback for me (and all the readers) so we can see which ones work best across a range of subjects. Don’t forget to mention your subject!

Meta-Cognition Strategies:

Spaced Retrieval Practice is, in my experience, THE way to teach students to memorise information. In essence, you teach your content however you choose and then quickly follow up with a set of questions. The questions should range from short to extended answers and should cover as much of the information as possible. Ideally, this should happen within the same lesson that you taught the content. You can then use the same quiz questions in the following lesson, once the students have had a chance to forget some of the information.

Going back through the answers helps students to get used to ‘retrieving’ the information, thus improving their memory. Using the same questions again in another lesson a few days later will not only aid students’ memories further, but it will draw out the information that students struggle with the most, allowing you to plan for further teaching on that topic.

Spaced Practice
Image by Oliver Caviglioli. Source: (An excellent blog by) Carl Hendrick https://chronotopeblog.com/2018/05/05/how-should-students-revise-a-brief-guide/

Interleaving is an excellent companion to Retrieval Practice and they make a huge difference to your students. Students focus on Topic A, then Topic B, then go back to Topic A, then Topic C, then back to Topic B, then Topic D, etc, etc.

It doesn’t really matter what order the topics are in. Just keep going back and forth between them. By doing so, much like Retrieval Practice, you allow your students to forget. Then, simply get them to practice bringing the information back to the forefront of their mind.

I teach my students that memory is much like a muscle. It must be put under strain, regularly, if you want it to become significantly stronger.

Interleaving
Image by Oliver Caviglioli. Source: (An excellent blog by) Carl Hendrick https://chronotopeblog.com/2018/05/05/how-should-students-revise-a-brief-guide/

Self-Review Questionnaires are a completely different type of strategy to Retrieval Practice and Interleaving. This involves getting students to rank their topics in order of perceived difficulty. They then have to speak for one minute, without repetition, hesitation or deviation. It quickly becomes evident to the student whether the perceived difficulty matches up to their actual knowledge of those topics. They can then begin to address the areas where they are evidently weaker. This removes unnecessary revision from the equation and focuses on what’s truly needed.

My Recommendations

If you’re a Primary School teacher then there really is no better book you can buy than Metacognition in the Primary Classroom (Affiliate Link) by Peter Tarrant and Deborah Holt. In this book, they go into the rationale and research behind meta-cognitive strategies and explain how you can put them to use. They even break their strategies into age ranges. Obviously, there are clear advantages to using particular strategies aimed towards a specific age group. This book shows you exactly how to do it. Why not take a look?

If you teach Secondary, then I recommend Thinking About Thinking (Affiliate Link) by Stephen Lockyer. He gives a range of strategies you can immediately apply to your classroom and explains the reasoning behind them. You can dip in and out of at your own leisure, making it a genuine must-have for anyone looking to improve outcomes quickly.

Final Thoughts…

I’d like to thank the Learning Scientists for bringing Retrieval Practice and Interleaving (amongst many strategies) to my attention. Please follow them, you won’t be disappointed!

I’d also love to hear how you’ve used meta-cognition strategies to improve your students’ performance. Add a comment and I’ll get back to you soon!

You can follow me on Twitter and on Pinterest too.

And don’t forget to SHARE this with any teachers you think would find it useful!

Andy

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

What is “Black Box Thinking”?

Black Box Thinking is a philosophy which allows learning to emerge from mistakes.

The phrase was coined by Matthew Syed in his excellent book of the same title, where he examines performance and critical self-evaluation in sport, aviation, politics and many other fields. He took the term from the “black box” flight recorders fitted to aircraft, which contain vast amounts of data, to be used to inform future improvements. They are used extensively, but especially following poor performances. These could result from human error, failures of systems and procedures and unexpected events.

How does black box thinking apply in education?

In education, just as in aviation, we continually train ourselves and others, ensuring consistently high performance. But despite the time put into this training, students can still underperform in exams. Schools and inspection bodies collect this data, containing a wealth of information to guide current and future performance. But I’m not certain that we use this information effectively.  After all, which information should we act on and how on earth should we act on it?

When teaching doesn’t work…

A few years ago, Steve, a friend of mine working in another school, called me on A Level Results Day. He was in shock. For the last few years, his students had achieved excellent exam results and he was considered by many to be an “outstanding teacher” (I hate that phrase!). This year, however, a number of his students had “failed”. By “failed”, he meant that they had passed, but had significantly dipped below their expected grades.Steve had to account for this dip in his post-results analysis that he had to present to the Headteacher. But only two months earlier he had predicted much higher grades. How could he have got it so wrong?

In essence, he had assumed that because he had always been right about his students in the past, he was able to draw similar conclusions about his current students. Unfortunately, he was looking at the wrong data or at least interpreting it in the wrong way.

Steve’s current students were not in any way “weaker” than in previous years. Nor had his teaching changed much. But he HAD missed one crucial point. The STUDENTS were different. He had forgotten to take this into account. This caused him to infer that the data he had used effectively last year was just as relevant for this year’s students. Steve was wrong.

When the “data” doesn’t add up…

We are all familiar with the use of assessment results to inform our understanding of how students progress towards their targets. However, those results do not “measure progress“. They are a proxy, something which may indicate progress but which is not synonymous with it. Steve believed his assessment procedures to be rigorous. He used a range of assessment questions from the exam board’s past papers. He was a seasoned examiner and was a competent judge of student responses. But he was ignoring something crucial. Steve focused entirely on improving the skills and techniques used in answers to exam questions. It made no difference in the end.

Steve recalled some of the papers from the exam board to see what had gone wrong. He assumed that the students had ignored the techniques he had taught them. How could they have forgotten the special mnemonics they had constructed together? Had they not written using PEE paragraphs? Did they follow up each of their ideas with a brief evaluation of it? Did their conclusions not follow the highly prescribed formula he had repeated time and time again?

The papers showed Steve what had really happened. The students didn’t know the content.

As much as they had tried to structure their writing, they just didn’t have enough subject knowledge. Steve expected a deep evaluation of quotes and he’d even taught the students how to go about discussing multiple interpretations of keywords and phrases.

But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes.

It got worse. The case studies in the exam were supposed to trigger students to consider socio-economic theories, court cases and historical events.

But the students only understood the ones they were tested on in class and so hadn’t read widely enough to answer the questions in the actual exam.

Why do your students fail?

Your students succeed and fail due to many factors. They may lack knowledge and understanding of a theory, method or event. They might not have ‘memorised’ the information they need. Their skills of analysis and evaluation may undermine the depth of their understanding. Steve considered all of these possibilities but was still at a loss to explain the underperformance. The truth was, that these weren’t the only factors that were at play. It’s often more complex.

Let’s look at why three particular students failed:

Student A had recently been dealing with a bereavement of a close family member. This had taken its toll on the student, who had performed well up to that point. In the final run-up to the exam, Steve had believed that this student would cope well with study leave, having demonstrated for almost two years that he could work well independently. However, in this instance he was wrong. The student was unable to focus at home, in the way he could at school, in part because he was constantly surrounded by distractions relating to the passing of his relative. Whilst his bereavement would not be much easier at school, at least he may have found some space to concentrate a little better, or for longer periods, enabling him to perform better than he eventually did on exam day.

Student B had a poor track record regarding her attendance. But despite this, she still managed to perform well in her assessed essays. As it turned out, she was close friends with a student who had written the same essays in the previous year. She re-worded these essays and in some cases had even memorised them by rote, for closed-book timed assessments in class. By doing so, she evaded the attention of staff who were actively looking for students requiring intervention. Since her grades were good, they didn’t consider her to be at risk of failing. Her problem though, was that in the exam she was not able to adapt those memorised answers when the question changed ever so slightly. She pulled the wool over many eyes, including Steve’s and failed outright.

Student C was a high performer. At GCSE she had achieved all A* and A grades and had done so with little visible effort. Throughout A Level, however, she had not always enjoyed the same level of success. Essay grades ranged from A* to C. Steve had been hot on the case with this student and had accurately identified where marks were being gained and lost. He gave thoroughly detailed feedback to the student, who was able to redraft the essays to an excellent standard, following the advice he gave. But on the day of the exam, her marks were inconsistent across the paper. Why had she performed so well in some areas, but so poorly in others? As it turned out, the detailed feedback had made no difference. Why? The student hadn’t had to think hard enough for herself as to how to improve. In the end, her highest marks came from the topics where Steve’s feedback was much more limited in detail (despite the formative essays being of an equally low quality to others where feedback was detailed). In this instance, the student had performed badly overall because she hadn’t become independent enough. She was still overly reliant on the teacher to help her to improve, even in the final weeks and days before the exam.

Action points for “Black Box” teachers

  • Assess regularly. Balance scheduled tests with unscheduled ones to accurately identify true levels of understanding.
  • Use rigorous assessment methods (past paper questions, etc)
  • Give feedback that strikes the right balance between being too detailed and not detailed enough
  • Create and maintain a ‘culture’ of student independence
  • Reward resilience and genuine effort, rather than high attainment alone
  • Test knowledge and understanding in creative ways, to avoid “scripted” responses
  • Formalise how you will act on the data you collect. Checklists are a time-efficient way of developing set procedures. (More on this in a future post!)

Final thoughts…

Learning from failure is sometimes the only way. I would love to hear your own stories of “Black Box” thinking. In the meantime, you can take a look here at Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking (my Amazon affiliate link).

Please leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching). I’ll get right back to you!

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Improving Knowledge Retrieval

improving knowledge retrieval

Is improving knowledge retrieval possible? Yes!

Watching my students’ faces as I explain to them that they will be sitting a test in a fortnight is something to behold.  I often witness a whole range of emotions, from annoyance, to despair, to completely blank and unreadable expressions. It’s never a good look! So, a priority I’ve been working on for the past few months is improving knowledge retrieval, so that when a test is announced, my students can deal with it in a much more positive way.

I’m not a magician or have super-powers though!

I’m using a tried and tested method for improving knowledge retrieval by my students. They tell me that their greatest fear is that they will forget the information they need in order to perform well in the test. So, I’m teaching them a simple tactic for knowledge retrieval. Now, my students react to news of upcoming tests much more positively. They view them as a way to demonstrate their successes, rather than as a log of their failures.

How do teachers test students’ memory in the classroom?

Typically, teachers give little thought to the amount of time spent between the learning and the testing. We often test students’ memories either straight after teaching them, or months or even years later, if they are studying a two or even three-year long course.

This is a problem, but one with a simple and highly practical solution. Not only that, it won’t add to the ever-increasing teacher workload problem.

I’ve discussed this with a number of colleagues in different schools and they have all had the same experience with their students, regardless of the type of school or the nature of the individual students. More research is needed in this area. Fortunately, teachers and educational psychologists are beginning to pay attention to this issue and develop strategies for improving knowledge retrieval.

The research on improving knowledge retrieval

Recently, I read a post by the Learning Scientists, who have explored one solution to the issue of knowledge retrieval. They call it Spaced Retrieval Practice. I’ll leave it to you to read their blog post on it, but I’ll summarise their research here.

We often deliver content to students, then test their memorisation of that content too soon. Students haven’t had enough time to forget the information. Therefore, when they remember it, we as teachers praise their efforts. We shouldn’t! Remembering something that you’ve just been told is a pretty low bar to clear. By allowing students a little longer to forget some of their knowledge, we test their ability to bring back to their memory the information that has temporarily disappeared. This is what will improve their grades when they sit the test at the end of the course.

The Memory Muscle

I describe memory like it’s a muscle. You need to exercise it in order for it to grow stronger. The more stress you put the muscle under, the stronger it will grow. Similarly, the skill of being able to recall information is improved when a little stress is applied each time. The stress, in this case, is the length of time between the teaching and the recall. Practising knowledge retrieval regularly not only aids students in being able to recall the information, but it also helps them assess more accurately just how strong their memory is. Ultimately, over the long term, students will make more progress.

The results are in…

  1. Students remember more information because they have practised retrieval
  2. Students then become more confident and so worry less about upcoming tests
  3. The lack of anxiety about the test then enables them to REMEMBER EVEN MORE!

When you use knowledge retrieval practice effectively, you create a virtuous circle. Now it’s time to share this information more widely so that all teachers and students can benefit from it. Please SHARE this blog post with as many teachers as you can!

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How To Analyse Exam Results

Analysing Exam Results

So, how did results day go?

I always ask this question with my fingers crossed behind my back. For some teachers and some students, it will have been a day of celebration. For others, it might have been a very different kind of day. Tread carefully!

It’s very easy to take one look at the exam results your students have achieved and let your emotions take control. Many teachers have told me that they immediately look to see who achieved the top grades and also who failed outright. (The middle of the road students being ignored yet again! Aaaarrghh!!) Many of us want to jump for joy when we see our (students) work pay off. However, many teachers also feel deflated and even under pressure to ‘explain themselves’ when they return to school if a student or group of students has not made the progress expected of them.

But now that Results Day has passed, with all of its euphoria, hysteria and emojis, we as teachers need to re-evaluate how we will teach our next cohort of students. This is probably the most important part of my planning for the following year, more important than individual lesson plans, or even marking assessments. Without knowing how to analyse exam results deeply and accurately, there can be no clear strategy for the following year.

As I mentioned in my post on Making Better Decisions, a clear strategy is the key to success. Otherwise, the same mistakes will be repeated and ultimately results will decline. For next year’s strategy to work, we need to make sure that we are fully knowledgeable about what is going to improve students’ chances and how we can avoid the triggers that lead to them dropping below their potential. It’s easy to panic when things don’t go as well as planned and you might have a thousand thought flying around your head. Those thoughts need to be organised if they are to create better conditions for learning next year.

How to Analyse Exam Results

Below are my Top Ten Questions for analysing exam results for your classes. You can answer them with the focus on students, teachers, school leadership, resources, attendance, behaviour, whatever is most appropriate. The most important point though, is honesty. Only a truthful examination of the reasons for the results being what they were, will lead you to a better strategy for next year. If you shy away from the true reasons for a dip in results, then you will never put it right. This means analysing your own performance and the performance of those in your team. Sometimes this can lead to difficult conversations (particularly with yourself!), but they are conversations that must happen and they must lead to action, to build upon successes so far and improve the following year.

Answering the Top Ten Questions in as much detail as possible makes it easier to have these conversations with yourself and others, as you will invariably move from ‘blame’ to ‘solution’, a much more positive conversation point.

Top Ten Questions

  1. How close were my predictions for these results?
  2. Which results were surprisingly high? Why might that have been the case?
  3. Which results were surprisingly low? Why might this be the case?
  4. Which surprising results should be investigated further, via recall of scripts or a re-mark?
  5. What steps should I put in place to reduce the probability of low results?
  6. What steps should I put in place to increase the probability of high results?
  7. Did students in my classes perform to a similar level in their other subjects? Why or why not?
  8. How do my results compare to results in similar schools?
  9. How do my results compare to results in schools nationally?
  10. How do my results compare to previous years? (Does a trend emerge over time?)

What next?

Once your analysis is complete, create an action plan to tackle each of the factors that emerged as being influential, both positive and negative. This action plan should include short-term and long-term tactics to raise achievement. Share this action plan with your team and see what else they can bring to the table. Good practice is to see what other departments are doing too. They may have similar positive and negative points that could be better tackled inter-departmentally.

Finally, good luck for the next year!

Knowing how to Analyse exam results is a huge challenge for all of us every year. I’d love to know what questions you ask, or how you tackle underperformance – particularly of pre-identified groups.

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Marginal Gains to Raise Achievement

apply marginal gains to raise achievement

Marginal Gains: Achieve Olympic Success in the Classroom!

This week’s post on Marginal Gains is a short but highly practical one that you can use with your students. You could use it as a starter task in each of the first lessons with your new classes.

I take my inspiration today from Sir David Brailsford, the man behind the incredible success of the British Cycling team. When he took over Team Sky back in 2009 he set himself the goal of achieving success in the Tour de France within five years. His philosophy, achieving success through marginal gains, was to take every aspect of a cyclist’s life and make a 1% improvement in each of those aspects. This included training methods, nutrition, technology, clothing, etc as you would expect. But he took it even further, looking at things like making sure that the team members had the best possible pillow to sleep on, monitoring how much sleep they got, spending time visualising success and a whole host of other daily habits. He even had the team learn how to ‘properly’ wash their hands, cutting down risks of infection, which could have led to illness and therefore underperformance.

Each of the things that Brailsford tried to improve by 1% would have made a negligible difference on its own. However, when added up over a long period of time, these marginal gains not only led to improved levels of progress on the track but a complete dominance of the sport. Team Sky achieved their Tour de France success within three years, not five. Added to that, British Cycling has amassed a significant number of Olympic medals at London 2012 and now at Rio 2016.

A question to my students at the start of this year:

What can you improve by 1% in order to make a  significant difference to your learning over the next year?

I’ll be getting my students to come up with their own suggestions first and to discuss just how much of a difference they will make to learning, over the course of a year. Then I’ll add in the suggestions below:

  • Go to bed earlier
  • Drink more water
  • Eat less junk food
  • Eat more healthy food
  • Turn screens off for an hour before bed
  • Spend 30 minutes revising each week, even if you don’t have a test coming up
  • Spend 5 minutes at the start of each week organising your workspace
  • Write a to-do list at the start of each week and complete it
  • Spend some time improving your physical fitness
  • Spend 5 minutes organising your files each week
  • Spend 5 minutes speaking to your teacher on how you could improve your next assessment
  • Spend 5 minutes speaking to your parents about what you achieved last week – positive thoughts
  • read a daily motivational quote to help develop resilience in tough situations
  • Read a book for fun to stimulate your imagination
  • Listen to a podcast on a topic related to your subjects
  • Read a broadsheet newspaper
  • Contribute to a forum on the internet related to your subject, e.g. www.thestudentroom.com
  • Keep a weekly or daily journal, related to your learning in school – be honest and periodically read back over previous entries
  • Follow some academically useful Twitter accounts

This task is a nice target setting exercise for the beginning of the year and once completed you can revisit student responses to see how far they have stuck to their plans. Keep the results, or even display them in your classroom!

What About Us Teachers?

Teachers are really busy. All of the time. That makes it difficult to justify spending extra time looking for ways to find another marginal gain. So, free up your time! Here are Seven Ways To Reduce Teacher Workload. There. Now you can spend that extra time planning, giving feedback, or better still, having a well-earned rest.

As usual, let me know of your success stories!

Andy

 

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