Lean Forward, but Do It Metacognitively!

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by Lauren Scharff, Ph.D. (U. S. Air Force Academy)

As the Director for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) at my institution, a large part of my job description involves helping faculty intentionally explore new approaches and how they impact student learning. In other words – I work with forward-leaning faculty who are ready to try new things. So, I think a lot about how, when, and why faculty members adopt new pedagogies, tools, and activities, and about when, for whom, and in what contexts these new approaches enhance learning. This work dovetails nicely with the development and goals of metacognitive instruction.

As a reminder if you’re relatively new to our site, one of the premises we’ve previously shared here (e.g. Scharff, March 2015) and elsewhere (Scharff and Draeger, NTLF, 2015) is that Metacognitive Instruction involves the intentional and ongoing interaction between awareness and self-regulation, specifically with respect to the pedagogical choices instructors make as they design their lessons and then as they carry them out.

I was happy to see these connections reinforced last month at our 7th Annual SoTL Forum. Dr. Bridget Arend was invited to give a morning workshop and the keynote address. Along with James R. Davis, she is co-author of Facilitating Seven Ways of Learning: A Resource for More Purposeful, Effective and Enjoyable College Teaching. In her workshop Bridget dug into how to facilitate critical thinking, promote problem-solving, and support the building of skills (3 of the 7 ways of learning), while in her keynote she focused more strongly on the concept of matching student learning goals with the most effective teaching methods. She went beyond the usual discussion of tips and techniques to explore the underlying purpose, rationale, and best use of these [pedagogical] methods.

Dr. Bridget Arend giving the keynote address at the 7th Annual SoTL Forum at the U. S. Air Force Academy

Dr. Bridget Arend giving the keynote address at the 7th Annual SoTL Forum at the U. S. Air Force Academy


Books such as these can help support metacognitive instruction.

While Bridget did not explicitly use the term “metacognitive instruction,” it struck me that her message of purposeful choice of methods directly supported key aspects of metacognitive instruction, especially those related to awareness of our pedagogical decisions. We (instructors) should not incorporate pedagogies (or new tools or activities) just because they are the ones typically used by our colleagues, or because they are what was “done to us as students and it worked for us,” or because they are the “new, latest-greatest thing” we’ve heard about. Rather, we should carefully review our learning goals and consider how each possible approach might support those goals for our students and our context.

We should also be mindful of other factors that might influence our adoption of new approaches. For example, administrators or institutions often reward faculty who are leading the adoption of new technologies. Sometimes the message seems “the more new technologies incorporated the better” or “out with the old and in with the new” so a program or institution can market itself as being the most cutting edge in education. However, while many of us appreciate being rewarded or showcased for new efforts, we also need to pause to consider whether or not we’re really supporting student learning as well as we could with these practices.

Questions we should ask ourselves before implementation include, How will our new pedagogical approach or a new app really align with the learning goals we have for our students? Will all of our choices complement each other, or might they work at cross-purposes with each other? Realistically, there are a limited number of learning outcomes we can successfully accomplish within a lesson or even across a semester.

As we implement these new approaches and tools, we should ask additional questions. How are they actually impacting aspects of student engagement, attitudes towards learning, and ultimately, the learning itself? How might they be adjusted (either “in the moment” or in future lessons) as we use them in order to better support our learning goals for our students in our context? No group of students is the same, and the context also shifts over time. What worked well in the past might need adjusting or more radically changing in the future.

In sum, we know that no single approach is going to work for all learning goals or all students across all situations. But if we build our awareness of possibilities using resources such as Facilitating Seven Ways of Learning (and many other published papers and texts) to help guide our pedagogical choices; if we carefully attend to how our approaches affect students and student learning; and we if modify our approach based on those observations (and maybe using systematic data if we’re conducting a SoTL research project), then we WILL be more likely to enhance student learning (and our own development as metacognitive instructors).

Thus, lean forward as instructors, but do it metacognitively!


Davis, James R. & Arend, B. (2013). Facilitating Seven Ways of Learning: A Resource for More Purposeful, Effective and Enjoyable College Teaching. Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA.

Scharff, L. & Draeger, J. (September, 2015). Thinking about metacognitive instruction. The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 24(5), p. 4-6. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ntlf.2015.24.issue-5/issuetoc

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