The Mutual Benefits of Metacognition for Faculty and Students

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by Dr. Marc Napolitano, U. S. Air Force Academy

I recently hosted a faculty discussion circle that was meant to serve as a capstone to the 2016-17 school year. As such, I thought that structuring this discussion around the theme of “reflection” would be most appropriate; after all, what better time than the end of term to reflect upon one’s teaching? Still, even as I announced and planned this event, I wrestled with the question of whether I was doing a disservice to the all-important process of reflection by framing it as an “end of term” activity (as opposed to framing it as a perpetual activity that one undertakes on a continuous basis over the course of a long period of time.) Reflection invariably involves turning inward, but it does not necessarily involve looking backward (despite the fact that the literal meaning of “reflect” is “to bend or turn (something) back.”)

Upon reviewing several readings to share with the faculty in the discussion circle, I noted an excellent blog post by Maryellen Weimer on Faculty Focus. In this piece, Weimer stresses how carving out time for reflection benefits college faculty in four overarching ways:

  • Integration: reflection can help us to “connect the dots” between different experiences that define our teaching.
  • Taking stock: reflection can help us to put things in perspective (especially in the case of challenging experiences).
  • Lifelong learning: reflection is intimately connected with lifelong learning and allows us to continue growing.
  • Private space: reflection allows us to turn inward and carve out a place/space for ourselves.

None of these four examples is restricted to contemplating the past (indeed, 2 and 4 deal with the present, and 3 looks toward the future.)

In light of my concerns, I was very pleased when the faculty who constituted our discussion circle steered the conversation toward sustained metacognition, as opposed to restricting the discussion to retrospective reflections. Not only did this strategy allow for a more dynamic discussion about past, present, and future, but it likewise reinforced the importance of taking a process approach to both teaching and learning. As a group, we agreed that the by taking the time to plan out what we are doing in the classroom, monitoring our own progress, and assessing the results of our endeavors, we invariably grow as teachers; students who take a similarly deliberate approach to learning often cultivate a parallel sense of progress and development.

Indeed, as our conversation progressed, I was fascinated to note how what was being said about metacognition seemed to apply equally to both faculty and students – teachers and learners. For example, on the most basic level, one faculty member pointed out how metacognition prompts him to strive toward better teaching because it promotes his cultivating an analytical insight into what he does well and what he needs to improve upon. Such insight is likewise vital to students regarding their learning processes, though as a group, we agreed that it is oftentimes necessary for faculty to carve out time for (and to model) metacognition for our pupils. Students rarely gravitate toward it instinctively. One professor noted that she frequently asks her students to explain to her “how are you trying to learn?”, and that most of her pupils are struck dumb the first time they consider the matter, for they have never before taken the time to consider learning as a process. The professor’s insightful “how?” question again made us think about the overlap between teaching and learning, and we discussed the value of asking ourselves “how do you explain this subject to someone with no familiarity or understanding of it?” Again, if we do not turn inward and think about processes, we run the risk of skipping vital steps that our students will need to take – steps that we, as experts, may take for granted – as they begin their journey in the discipline (and their journey toward lifelong learning).

One final parallel that we noted during our discussion was that metacognition promoted a vitalizing adaptability in both us and our students. By utilizing metacognition and considering how different contexts require us to employ different processes, we can develop a wide repertoire of pedagogical skills and methods for imparting the knowledge/aptitudes that constitute our disciplines. Similarly, students must be given opportunities to consider how different contexts shape and reshape the methods and processes that define their learning; they too should be encouraged to develop a broad set of learning strategies that they can utilize in a variety of contexts.

References

Weimer, M. (2011). Making time for reflection. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/making-time-for-reflection/