Metacognition & Feedback – Concerns and Questions

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(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

The following are excerpts from Chapter 1 of “How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school” by Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2000)   

A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

In research with experts who were asked to verbalize their thinking as they worked, it was revealed that they monitored their own understanding carefully, making note of when additional information was required for understanding, whether new information was consistent with what they already knew, and what analogies could be drawn that would advance their understanding.

These meta-cognitive monitoring activities are an important component of what is called adaptive expertise (Hatano and Inagaki, 1986).

Because metacognition often takes the form of an internal conversation, it can easily be assumed that individuals will develop the internal dialogue on their own. Yet many of the strategies we use for thinking reflect cultural norms and methods of inquiry (Hutchins, 1995; Brice-Heath, 1981, 1983; Suina and Smolkin, 1994).

Research has demonstrated that children can be taught these strategies, including the ability to predict outcomes, explain to oneself in order to improve understanding, note failures to comprehend, activate background knowledge, plan ahead, and apportion time and memory.

The model for using the meta-cognitive strategies is provided initially by the teacher, and students practice and discuss the strategies as they learn to use them. Ultimately, students are able to prompt themselves and monitor their own comprehension without teacher support.

The teaching of metacognitive activities must be incorporated into the subject matter that students are learning (White and Frederickson, 1998).

So this collection of excerpts all speak to metacognition and its power, its validity and its importance for our students. This has been an area of interest to me from the first conversation I had with Katherine Mann about student journaling in Math. From there, I read other interesting perspectives including this one from David Coffey about “Metacognitive Memoirs” which was based on a keynote he gave at the MCATA (Mathematics Council of the Alberta Teachers Association) conference in Edmonton in 2011. The session description spoke about metacognition and written reflection:

Metacognition is the awareness of one’s thinking. Memoir is a genre usually referring to a piece of autobiographical writing focusing on some problematic event. Together they represent a powerful tool for helping learners experience what it means to do mathematics by thinking about and communicating their efforts to others. In this session we explore how creative writing supports creative thinking in mathematics – certainly a road less traveled.

So for some time, I have had a great interest in helping our students work on metacognition, but struggled with how to introduce it, how to help teachers feel comfortable with it, and generally feeling ready and confident to push it.

This past spring, our school’s Design Team met after our Ed Planning Session for next school year to decide what our focus and goals would be for 2014-2015. After a great deal of discussion we came to the conclusion that a lot of what we want for our students – peer and self assessment, reflection and metacognition, deeper learning – required us to take a long hard look at our ability to provide meaningful feedback. We felt that if we ever wanted students to be able to provide feedback to their peers, they would first need to be shown what strong feedback speaks to, and sounds like. They needed to know that feedback was not a comment on a finished product (i.e. Great work!), but rather meaningful and corrective language that helped students IMPROVE. Students need to be motivated to return to their unfinished work, and inspired to enhance it using the feedback we provide. Only after we know that we are providing the necessary modelling, can we expect students to know what peer assessment or self reflection might look, feel and sound like.

So my comment about these excerpts and to the topic of metacognition itself is that I believe we should aspire to fostering metacognition in our students because, as stated above, it is powerful and it is worth it. My concerns/questions though are that shouldn’t we consider that to model this for our students we need to put in the time and energy to reflect on the quality of modelling we are actually providing? Should we not consider the quality of the feedback we give students on formative and summative assessments, and in our daily interactions?


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded edition). Washington, DC: National Research Council.


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