“Am I a good learner?” How can I improve my learning and its implications on my students

“In a world that is ever more complex and rapidly changing… learning how to learn is the ultimate survival tool” (Bjork and Bjork, 2006)

Introduction

A confession. On a couple of occasions, I have introduced my classes to metacognition without really knowing much about it. My information has mainly come from CPD sessions and the occasional twitter post. I now realise that this could have been very detrimental to my students. By not communicating the research effectively, I could unintentionally cause students to develop poor study habits which could lead to poor attainment. This was shown in a paper by Harting and Dunlowsky (2012) who suggested that learners who use worse learning strategies got worse grades. I wouldn’t teach physics like this, so why would I teach anything like this?

Research can become convoluted when passed on from teacher to teacher and therefore with every little slight change the effect of the technique may be reduced. Furthermore, step 1 in the EEF Guide to Metacognition clearly states that teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils' knowledge — something I did not do. Oops…

I hope I am not alone in this. If you have not taken something that you have been taught and implemented this into your class without truly understanding the benefit, then you are a better person than I. I feel like this is evident in the dual coding and icon debate that has engulfed Twitter, where people have not really understood the point of using the icons as a learning tool and not just a design improvement. I am beginning to feel like implementing educational research has become a big game of telephone.

So whilst I was sitting down for the second stint of Mandarin this week, I began to question if my learning was effective and decided to explore whether a better understanding of metacognition can improve my own learning. The question: How can I be a better learner and more importantly how can I implement the research into my teaching?

The Concept of Metacognition

Through my PGCE, when asked, I always thought of metacognition of “thinking how to think” or thinking how to think about how students think they are thinking. But I now realise it is more than that. Metacognition is the ability to control, monitor, plan and evaluate one’s thinking in order to develop and progress. Interestingly, Pablo Torres at the University of Cambridge, suggests that metacognition is what makes us humans different from other animals. It has allowed us to adapt to our environment and thrive better than our competitors.

In terms of education this arguably should be a vital part of our teaching. Studies by the Education Endowment Fund and other researchers have shown that students who have better metacognitive strategies, generally perform better.

When a learner with poor metacognitive strategies, faces a problem they are more likely to struggle. They may give up or they may revert to what they have done in the past, whether it has been successful or not. They may not have the right tools to succeed

In comparison, a learner with good metacognitive strategies faced with a problem or a challenge will thrive. They will forensically examine the issue, how they have struggled in the past, and work at ways to improve. They may seek information from the teacher or from other sources. They will continue to challenge their approach, tweak, and develop it.

These skills are important for university, where contact time is limited, but also in other jobs and in wider life when there is no support around and you have to do things for yourself. It can help you take a step back from a challenge and work out the right way to a solution. The ability to employ metacognition can also lead to you questioning the information that is in front of you and challenge your own beliefs and those of others — something that is increasingly important in these times. Maybe this is the true philosophical purpose of education?

Implementing Strategies in my Learning and Implications for my Classroom

So after I briefly researched metacognition and its benefits, I wanted to explore ways that could help my learning of a new language but also ways that I could implement this into the classroom.

  1. Challenging my mindset

Firstly, I have started to view my learning in a slightly different way. Learning is meant to be difficult. I can sometimes pick up subjects quickly but not Mandarin. The progress I am seeing is not what I would have liked at the beginning but I need to realise that this is a totally new topic for me. It is going to take time. I have on multiple times stopped my learning when I have found it too difficult. But this is not going to make me successful.

I can see a lot of parallels with this to how many of my own students feel when studying physics. “Physics is too hard”, “I’m going to fail physics” etc… It is tiring and demotivating when you spend a lot of time working with a class for them to say these things but we need to know that this is normal and that most of us do this. We need to believe in Dweck’s Growth Mindset and that intelligence is not fixed. We need to instill this into our students so that they have the confidence to tackle tough problems and get better. By first regulating your own emotions you can then start to develop your learning.

2. Learning About Learning Strategies

The next step is to teach about explicit learning strategies and why they improve learning. During my attempt at learning Mandarin, I have tried to stick to the 6 strategies outlined by the learning scientists in their wonderful book Understanding How we Learn — Spacing, Retrieval Practice, Elaboration, Interleaving, Concrete Examples, and Dual Coding. Although I have found some particularly difficult when learning Mandarin, research clearly states that these are beneficial to teaching and learning so I am trying to work them in.

I make sure that I use these in my lessons however I rarely explain why I use these. I am now starting to think that this may be a bad thing. In The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nutall suggests that it takes at least three times of exposure to a topic for students to begin to understand. Although his research looked at concepts in classwork, I believe that this can be applied to learning strategies. For example, no matter how many times I have told my students to practice retrieval and go over exam questions, there are always a few who still think that rereading the textbook is the best option. If we say that retrieval practice is the best form of studying, we should show the students the evidence, providing a concrete example of why it is a successful way to study. Interventions in study skills have shown to improve performance, however even a couple of minutes during class time every so often may help students to reevaluate their work.

3. Recording my progress

The next strategy is to identify what you find difficult and look at strategies to help you deal with this. Zimmerman recommends keeping records of learning and monitoring my progress, then subsequently setting goals to address these.. This reflection also allows you to identify areas of weakness and suggest ways of improving. As well as writing this blog, I have also started to keep a learning diary that highlights what I am thinking, and where I am being successful or finding hard. For example, I am really struggling with the pronunciation of the four tones in mandarin so I know that I need to look into ways that I can improve. I have searched for extra information to help and started listening to Chinese songs to listen to the pronunciation of words.

Reflecting on your progress is also important so that you can plan out future learning and where to go next to improve. We as teachers should be aiming to be reflective practitioners (evaluating and improving our teaching) but we also should strive to instill this in our students. Getting all students to write a learning diary is a bit delusional but if we can keep getting our students to reflect on their learning and reflect on their revision it may help them to think differently moving forward.

It is important to say that we should be careful because we don’t always know what we know and that performance does not always equal learning. Research from Bjorg has shown that despite initially using flashcards when learning words, students dropped them too “early” as they had false confidence in their ability. In terms of my own learning, over the past few weeks, I have made an effort to revisit words and phrases that I thought I was comfortable with. By realising that I don’t know as much as I think, I have been able to consolidate on basic Chinese words. Again this is important to relay to the students. I didn’t know this research before writing this so I very much doubt my students will.

Final Thoughts

Without teaching, this extra “down-time” has allowed me to explore my own learning and relate this to my own students. I am dying to implement this in school however I know that going back to school is a long way off. I believe the most important way to improve our students’ learning is by teaching them not just the learning strategies but why they should do them. I am now starting to think that metacognition is even more important in remote teaching. We need our students to be thinking about their learning so they can become better independent workers, especially as the face-to-face time due to COVID-19 is minimal. This is an area that I will explore this topic in my next post.

What do you think? Feedback and thoughts are welcome as always. I want to improve my writing and explore different ideas in teaching so please comment with any tips and ideas. Please question what I write as I am constantly questioning whether I actually make sense.

Thanks!
Mr Re-Wise

References

  • Bjork, E.L. and Bjork, R.A., 2011. Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 2(59–68).
  • Cambridge-community.org.uk. Getting Started With Metacognition. — https://cambridge-community.org.uk/professional-development/gswmeta/index.html
  • Hartwig, M.K. and Dunlosky, J., 2012. Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement?. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 19(1), pp.126–134.
  • Metacognition And Self-Regulation | Toolkit Strandhttps://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation
  • Nuthall, G., 2007. The hidden lives of learners. Wellington: Nzcer Press.
  • Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M. and Caviglioli, O., 2018. Understanding how we learn: A visual guide. Routledge.
  • Zimmerman, B.J., 1989. A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning. Journal of educational psychology, 81(3), p.329.

Physics teacher with a passion for teaching and learning.

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