Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Inspiring Progress Toward Learning Goals

Note: This post originally appeared on Edutopia on May 22, 2015.

by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

The topic of metacognition can seem quite abstract—a complex concept for students to embrace. But it is worth the effort to develop a metacognitive mindset in setting goals for learning and in monitoring progress toward achieving those goals. For teachers empowering students to think about their thinking with the aim of improving learning, it can be truly inspiring when they see the resulting changes in students’ motivation, resilience, and learning gains.

A 2014 study by Veenman and colleagues suggests that metacognition, or “cognition about cognition,” may account for some 40 percent of the variation in learning achievement across a range of outcomes. One of the major benefits of guiding students to become more metacognitive is in the context of goal setting and the impact on their motivation when they take charge of learning goals.

Let’s consider a common scenario.

Learning With—and Without—Metacognition

A student of average motivation (he understands the importance of academic performance and wants to do well in school) has set a goal to get a good grade on an upcoming test. In preparation, he spends 30 minutes the night before the test reading the textbook. He is disappointed when he scores poorly on the test. The student might interpret his low test results to mean that he lacks the ability to learn the material, and consequently begin to disengage from the subject. Discouragement and declining motivation could set in.

Instead, let’s say his teacher uses the test results (the student in our example was not the only one who did poorly) as the foundation of a lesson on metacognitive and cognitive strategies to improve study habits. The teacher suggests that, instead of just reading the textbook the night before the exam, the students will spend class time brainstorming strategies for more effective test preparation. From this discussion, the student in question begins to incorporate these new practices into his study habits:

  • Reading key material before the classroom lesson and discussion on the topic
  • Reflecting on his thinking as he reviews his notes to identify what information is clear and what might be confusing
  • Creating index cards with concepts that he wants to retain for additional review
  • Checking his understanding as he reads, and rereading to clarify
  • Reviewing the index cards in different locations—at home, in the school library, and with friends in a study group—to tap into “location memory”
  • Noticing how his understanding of what he read the night before evolves during a classroom discussion
  • Asking for clarification from the teacher
  • Thoroughly reviewing his class notes, index cards, and the textbook again the night before a test
  • “Rehearsing” his developing knowledge by explaining key concepts to himself or to a peer (in effect, thinking from the perspective of a teacher as well as a student).

As a result of thinking more consciously about his learning and setting, and more effectively working toward a learning goal, the student will be much more likely to achieve or even exceed his aims. That success in turn fuels motivation to continue employing metacognition and honing the use of metacognitive and cognitive strategies that will serve him well in school and beyond.

Goal Setting and the Brain

When teachers help students connect to classroom goals in a way that has personal meaning for them, there is a much greater chance that they will be motivated to engage in the sometimes hard work required in learning. As we noted in a previous post, the prefrontal cortex has been identified as the seat of metacognition, but this area of the brain relays input to another region in the basal forebrain (at the front and lower part of the brain) called the nucleus accumbens. This region is known as the brain’s “reward circuit,” part of a pathway that stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in response to rewarding experiences—such as celebrating success in achieving a learning goal. Dopamine is involved in many brain functions and is known for its role in important aspects of learning, including motivation, memory, and attention.

In our graduate studies and live events, a central concept is never question ability, always improve strategy. By communicating that learning ability can be improved, teachers can emphasize how monitoring their thinking during learning will help students to:
  • Set learning goals
  • Choose the most effective learning strategies
  • Reflect on what they know and what they need to find out
  • Adjust strategies accordingly
  • Learn from experience.
This process can be quite inspiring for students. Marcus recalls an interaction with a student while he was leading a statewide initiative in Florida on brain-based teaching. As part of this project, Marcus spent time in classrooms modeling thinking strategies. During one of these sessions, a student said to him, “Thanks for helping me to see that it’s up to me to get smarter and smarter.” This has been our experience as well on both a personal and professional level: Becoming more metacognitive has been a game changer for us as learners, speakers, and authors!

How might setting learning goals underscore that students are in charge of their thinking and learning? What metacognitive strategies have proven useful for your students? Tell us in the comments below.


Veenman, M. V. J., Hesselink, R. D., Sleeuwaegen, S., Liem, S. I. E., & Van Haaren, M. G. P. (2014). “Assessing development differences in metacognitive skills with computer logfiles: Gender by age interactions.” Psychological Topics, 23(1), 99–113.

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