How formative assessment boosts metacognition—and learning

How formative assessment boosts metacognition—and learning

In a June 2018 BOLD blog post, Annie Brookman-Byrne describes metacognition this way: “[M]etacognition is ‘thinking about thinking,’ but metacognition also encompasses the regulation of these thoughts—the ability to change them. It is a step further than simple awareness of thought processes, incorporating the ability to alter thoughts and behaviours.”

Metacognition is a way of noticing our thinking that can lead to improving upon it. Metacognitive practices offer us ways to refine and expand on our range of skills, especially those in our areas of automaticity, which comprise a lot of what goes on in our brains on any given day.

Think about the steps you take when you get behind the wheel of a car and drive. Now try to recall your first time behind the wheel, the amount of energy and attention that you gave to backing out of a parking space, making a left turn, changing lanes. Big difference, right? We develop automaticity as a means to free up energy and attention for other things. And that’s usually good. Except when it’s not.

For teachers and students, many of their daily behaviors in the classroom fall into the category of automatic activity. But the bad news about unexamined automaticity is that we may not recognize our opportunities to change for the better. Enter metacognition: thinking about our thinking, about what we notice, how we react, where we go next. When we give our attention to otherwise automatic functions, we have a chance to notice what’s not working so well, and also to embrace and amplify the things that are helping us to meet our goals.

Formative assessment, reporting for duty

One of the best ways to bring metacognition to the classroom is through the practice of formative assessment (FA). When educators develop and implement FA, they build awareness in their own practice and demonstrate for students the habits of mind that are conducive to learning. When those habits are embedded in the routines of teaching and learning in the classroom, the classroom culture is changed.

When we give our attention to otherwise automatic functions, we have a chance to notice what’s not working so well, and also to embrace and amplify the things that are helping us to meet our goals.

All of this is well supported by research on improving learning outcomes. Across content domains, FA techniques in the classroom are associated with some of the highest achievement gains for students among teaching strategies. This is especially true for students who begin at the lowest levels of achievement. For students whose backgrounds have not included modeling patterns and structures that are foundational to the learning process, FA can add transparency to what might seem to them like a game with hidden rules. As a former middle school teacher, I can attest to the fact that when such students see themselves “losing” that game repeatedly, they frequently declare it stupid and irrelevant, and opt out entirely. It’s our job to change that.

A key benefit for these students, early or even later in the educational journey, may exist within the transparency that is inherently a part of the FA cycle. When teachers give voice to steps in the process of learning—planning, monitoring, and continuous improvement—and invite students to co-own them, students can see how the game is played, so to speak, and better understand their role in it. These steps are central in FA and are often shared in student-friendly language, such as, “Where am I going?” “Where am I now?” and “How will I get there?” Articulating this metacognitive process can be a first step in promoting an independent continuous improvement cycle for students, which, for some, may be a turning point from disengagement to empowerment. Explicit modeling in the classroom during learning can provide a bridge for students to awareness of steps in the learning process that are implicit, that is, often assumed to be known and understood by all.

Moving from theory to practice

So, what does all of this look like? When FA is practiced in the classroom, the teacher is developing student metacognitive skills by helping students recognize where they are in their learning as well as what aspects of the learning process work best for them.

Let’s say that I realize I do best when I use a visual organizer to break down complex ideas. When listening to a lecture or reading dense text, I may create a T chart to graphically arrange my notes. But some students haven’t assimilated that as a strategy for learning. A formative discussion can change that.

What if I, as the teacher, model this on the board during a lesson, and explicitly invite students to self-assess their results using the T chart? Upon completion of the lesson, I’ll ask them, “What do you remember about X, Y, or Z? Did the T chart we created help you remember? If yes, add that to your learning toolkit.” If the T chart didn’t help, I can suggest other strategies for students to test within this or other lessons. Perhaps a read-aloud with a partner will help to make the learning “sticky” for some students.

When you talk about assessment as a way to check for progress and understanding about what works in the midst of teaching and learning—rather than solely as a measure of success or failure—you are taking steps that empower students for a lifetime of learning.

Empowering kids through self-assessment

As students self-assess in this way, they grasp their best strategies for learning and recognize opportunities for choice, too. By leading a brief moment of self-assessment in a low-stakes/high-trust situation, you can invite students to identify tools they can leverage for success again and again. When you talk about assessment as a way to check for progress and understanding about what works in the midst of teaching and learning—rather than solely as a measure of success or failure—you are taking steps that empower students for a lifetime of learning.

In student-centered assessment, formative practices are fundamental. Students learn to chart a learning path informed by their specific funds of knowledge, identify areas of challenge, add strategies to their unique learning repertoire, and even learn to ask for what they need in the classroom. That’s empowerment, just one of the many benefits of FA listed in the 2018 CCSSO FAST SCASS Theory of Action publication. As such, FA practices are key to creating the foundation for a classroom culture of learning. Such a culture is built intentionally to create a safe and transparent environment; embrace a growth mindset for all; encourage student voice, choice, and engagement; and empower all learners as active members of a learning team, advocates for themselves, and active resources for each other.

Building a culture of learning

When a teacher plans for many opportunities in which students engage in mindful and productive struggle with new ideas and skills, that leads to meaningful and lasting learning gains. Creating such a culture of learning in the classroom, school, and even at the district level enacts a powerful shift in the dynamics of education that generates engagement designed to reach every student.

Building a culture of learning

Furthermore, when teachers practice FA strategies to develop such a classroom culture, they sharpen their own skills through metacognition. By definition, FA asks teachers to cultivate keen attention to evidence of learning that is exhibited by students during the process of teaching and learning. To tune teaching and learning in the classroom, teachers can develop automaticity in the skill of sifting through ongoing feedback signals from students that come in the form of student conversations in group work, responses in class discussions, and other student activity prompted by informal FA strategies. Through this deliberate attention to student behavior during a lesson, teachers strengthen automaticity in gathering informal evidence of learning, and also gain awareness of the efficacy of their lessons.

As a teacher studies the efficacy of a lesson in the moment and makes deliberate shifts, the entire process becomes easier—because more automaticity is gained—and making adjustments in the moment becomes a habit. These adjustments to instruction can sometimes spare students from more formal remediation, which often removes students from the rich instructional environment of the classroom. These corrections can help strengthen the next lesson as well. Teachers can better anticipate when to include responsive strategies like scaffolding, extension, and support in initial lesson plans, and lesson plans grow stronger.

Never stop learning

By paying explicit attention to student behavior in response to any given lesson, teachers become experts at discerning the leading indicators of learning, rather than recipients of the lagging indicators of learning that more conventional assessments provide at the end of a lesson or a unit of study or, worse still, in the form of a year-end assessment, the autopsy of educational progress. In effect, the teacher has become a more expert and responsive driver of their teaching, while the students have become more expert and engaged drivers of their learning. Students can name their needs and preferences, claim their successes, and adjust their behavior to meet challenges, while their teacher can provide expert guidance from the sidelines. The classroom is no longer built around the unknown rules of a game but offers a more level and well-lit playing field for all. Go team.

Ready to learn more? Here are some additional resources on the power of metacognition and FA:

I also encourage you to explore this topic with your colleagues. Here are some questions to get the conversation started.

Questions for teachers

  • How do metacognitive practices enhance classroom practice?
  • How can talking about assessment empower students?
  • In what ways can students self-assess?
  • How can we build a culture of learning in the classroom?

Questions for leaders

  • What can you put in place to promote a metacognitive culture?
  • How can you model formative assessment strategies in staff meetings, PLCs, and meetings with teachers?
  • How do you build a culture of learning in your school or district?

This is the last in a series on formative assessment. Read the previous post. And read the entire series in our e-book.

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