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Tompkins Cortland Community College

Model A Model for the Creation of
Meaningful Community College Learning Experiences

Construction of individual meaning improves when students think about how they learn (metacognition).


What we know:

Metacognition is thinking about how we think, about how we know, and about how we learn. Robin Fogarty (1994), in How to Teach for Metacognitive Reflection, defines metacognition as "thinking about thinking." She adds that "to have awareness and control over your own thinking one may plan metacognitively, monitor progress metacognitively, or evaluate metacognitively. Thus, the three areas, planning, monitoring, and evaluating provide the appropriate framework for self-reflection." We know that our teaching is improved by careful planning (future), by monitoring our craft (present), and by evaluation (past). Developing these self-reflective practices is at the heart of metacognition leading to the construction of individual meaning. Our students also need to develop metacognitive strategies to improve their learning, and we can help them with this process by weaving metacognitive practices into our classroom teaching.

The support for what we know:

Good teachers strive to create learning experiences that help students develop critical thinking skills. We know that part of critical thinking is the ability to recognize when one has the necessary information to make an informed decision -- or the evidence to support an argument appropriately. Instructors assigning research papers run into this problem often. Students attempt to take a position on a controversial issue, can't find evidence to support their position, but insist on maintaining their position because they just "know they're right." Why is it so difficult for these students to see that they've built a house of cards (that they're arguing a position without support)? It may be that they have not developed the ability to examine their own assumptions. Occasionally, we will see a major "mind shift" as students, during the course of writing an argument, realize that their position is based on shifting sand and actually change their "world view" based on evidence they examine during the course of writing a paper. As we all know, it's a wonderful thing when the "light bulb" comes on! Why is it that students (and instructors) find it so difficult to recognize assumptions?

Stephen Brookfield (1995), in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, describes critical reflection as a process of "hunting assumptions." He defines assumptions as "the taken for granted beliefs about the world, and our place within it, that seem so obvious to us as not to need to be stated explicitly" and classifies assumptions into three categories: paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal. Paradigmatic assumptions are what we use to structure the world around us. A paradigmatic assumption that might be held by a teacher is that, unlike children, adults are self-directed learners. Prescriptive assumptions, as defined by Brookfield, are assumptions about what should happen in certain situations. For example, if you hold the paradigmatic assumption that adults are self-directed learners, you might also hold the prescriptive assumption that good teachers should help students take responsibility for their own learning by designing, completing, and evaluating their own work. Causal assumptions, according to Brookfield, are assumptions "about how different parts of the world work and about the conditions under which these can be changed." Assuming that learning contracts will help students take responsibility for their own learning is an example of a causal assumption given by Brookfield. What so interesting about Brookfield's ideas about how we can use critical reflection to help us go "assumption hunting" is that many of the assumptions he questions are the foundations of what we believe as good teachers. As Brookfield says, "Unexamined common sense is a notoriously unreliable guide to action."

One example Brookfield gives of an assumption is that it makes sense to visit small groups after they have been given a task, showing that you are engaged and attentive. This practice, however, can seem insulting to students. Don't you trust them? Also, when you join a group, there's a good chance that certain students (maybe all of them) will perform, trying to impress you. The total focus of the group can turn from the task at hand to a haphazard attempt to show you what good students they can be. Another assumption Brookfield brings up is the idea that cutting down on lecturing is important because lecturing doesn't foster critical thinking. He pops holes in this assumption by pointing out that before developing critical thinking students might need a foundation in a subject area. A lecturer who models her own critical thinking (assumptions she has questioned, an openness to other views) can model this for students, helping lay that foundation for their own critical thinking. The point is not to tear down good teaching, but rather to help us make sure that the work we are doing is based on reality and not on the assumptions we hold which just might be flawed. The point is that a critically reflective teacher will examine even his most cherished principles of teaching with a critical eye. And isn't that what we are asking our students to do each day when they walk into our classrooms? Modeling our own critically reflective metacognitive strategies will help our students construct individual meaning.

What we are getting at here is twofold. First, we should develop our own critically reflective practices. Second, by modeling our own critically reflective practices for our students and by weaving metacognitive activities into our classroom practice, we can help students with their own metacognition. Students need to develop their ability to think about how they think. In my freshman composition classes, on the first day of class, I ask students to write about what they know about how they learn. Their insights are fascinating, both for me and for them. In other words, they are surprised by what they know about how they learn. In some cases, it's apparent that no one has ever asked them what they know about how they learn. They've been given tests for years, but no one has asked them how they learn. Medical doctors know how important it is to talk to a patient about how she feels because this information, combined with patient history and the appropriate medical tests are all parts of the complete picture. But teachers, while they do administer tests and sometimes look at student records, don't often ask students what they know about how they learn.

We contend that teaching for metacognition means modeling critically reflective behavior (including examining our own assumptions) and developing strategies for the classroom that help students become critically reflective. We should make thinking about thinking an integral part of our classroom practice by embedding it into the complex learning experiences we create for our students.

Much research has been done on the concept of metacognition including Feuerstein's work on the "mediated learning experience." This process guides students through self-monitoring activities designed to help them develop reflective behavior. (Click here to read more about Feuerstein's work in our Valuing the Unique Learner section.)


How does this relate to teaching in the community college classroom?

Critical self-reflection should be practiced throughout the institution. Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick (2000), in an article about institution-wide reflection, offer these strategies: metacognitive reflections (activities that invite thinking about thinking), collaborative dialogues (between teachers, between teachers and students, among students), portfolios and journals, and providing models of reflection (teachers and administrators reflecting on their practice).

Above, we mentioned that along with modeling critical reflection, teachers should embed critical reflection pieces into the classroom learning experiences. One way this can be done is by creating simple reflection pieces for all classroom activities and projects. Make thinking about thinking/learning an important part of each class. Discuss with students why you are using the approaches in the classroom that you are using. Get their feedback about what's working and not working. Encourage students to make critical reflection a part of their day through journals, learning logs, learning communities, study groups, and other activities.

In our classrooms, we've adapted the following questions from Stephen Brookfield's "Classroom Critical Incident Questionnaire" for use as a reflection component for various activities. Brookfield uses the incident questionnaire as a reflection at the end of each week of classes. He uses a two-part form so that students leave one copy with him and take the other with them. The responses are anonymous. He then shares responses with the group the following week and uses the feedback to modify his approaches. Here are the questions: 1. At what moment in class this week did you feel the most engaged with what was happening? 2. At what moment in class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening? 3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most affirming or helpful? 4. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most puzzling or confusing? 5. What about the class this week surprised you the most?

What do we mean by "construction of Individual Meaning?

Construction of individual meaning is improved when students make connections.

Construction of individual meaning improves when students pay attention (and paying attention can shape the brain).

Construction of individual meaning improves when students think about how they learn (metacognition). (You are here.)

Construction of individual meaning is improved when instructors create appropriate assessment (including self-assessment) for complex tasks.  

Construction of individual meaning improves when students develop their creativity.

Construction of individual meaning improves when students develop their ability to identify patterns.

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