Science of Learning · Teaching Methods

The Science of Learning Physics: Metacognition Strategies

This post is part of a series on the Science of Learning Physics


I distinctively remember this being a topic in one of my teacher prep classes. I also remember several failed attempts at weaving metacognition into my assignments. I don’t know about you, but trying to get students “thinking about their own thinking” seems really challenging, clunky and too often inauthentic. Students are fantastic at sniffing out inauthenticity, and the moment they recognize something as garbage, they approach it in full B.S. mode.

The challenge with this, of course, is that metacognition is an incredibly powerful tool within the cognitive science toolkit, and is one of the marked differences between expert vs novice thinking.

Metacognition allows students to evaluate their learning and problem solving approach, and focus for studying. Unfortunately, students frequently misjudge their skills and abilities, often confusing familiarity with content for competence. Furthermore, students who struggle may lack enough familiarity to properly identify the edge of their learning. So how do we teach students to be authentic reflective learners?

One of Mestre’s suggestions in The Science of Learning Physics is to provide students objective measures to judge their learning. Specifically, access to old exams and questions. While this is an excellent method, many high school and AP teachers may lack a deep pool of questions to make available to students. Additionally, this is limited to student studying outside of the classroom. What Dr. Agarwal suggests in her book Powerful Teaching is “engagement with feedback” in other words, whenever we have students working in our classroom, they should have the opportunity to receive meaningful feedback on their work in short order so they can reflect on their process while it is fresh, and course-correct as needed. How often do we ask a student to tell us their thought process and they respond, “I don’t even know anymore”

A method I’ve adapted to aid in this task weaves together retrieval practices with metacognition. Recall in the retrieval process students first write. down everything they can remember using only their brain. Then, if you so desire, students can pair and share (I typically do a pair and then have pairs get together into groups of four). Last, you permit students to dive into their notes. In each of these progressive phases, students should be adding the parts they received from. other sources to their papers. Adding the metacognitive level is as simple as a highlighter. Perhaps students highlight everything from their partner in yellow. Then, they highlight everything they added from their notes in green. This produces a very clear visual of what they know and what they do not know. It also produces a visual of how much they can reap from their friends and what topics or ideas were “really hard” for everyone because no one could remember it.

If. you’ve started to dig into retrieval ideas on twitter or on Dr. Agarwal’s. book or website, you’ve. seen that there are so many different ways to do retrieval, from lists to graphic organizers. Any and. all of these can utilize this highlighting method. Not only does this allow for metacognition. and accurate judgement of learning, over. time it demonstrates to students how much they have learned over a time-frame and how their own retrieval improves with practice.

Here is another brilliant idea by Jess Kirby. Not only does this incorporate metacognition and judgement of learning, it also requires students to organize the questions by the big idea (another “expert-level” concept).

For a more complex version of this process as it relates to problem solving I have had students combine retrieval with cornell notes.

In this example I had lectured students on how to solve this exact problem the previous day. I provided them with the following notes sheet

First, I asked students to solve this problem as best they could using only their brain and what they could remember from the previous day. I only asked them to focus on the left hand side where they solved the problem.

Next, I allowed students to pull out their notes and add, edit or correct any of the steps they had missed. I asked them to color code these edits and then write out the steps in words on the right hand side.

Finally, I told students to look over their paper. Anything that needed an edit or addition (especially if “I just forgot that..”) needed to go down in the “reminders to yourself” box.

These three ideas really only scratch the surface of what is possible! If you have picked up Powerful Teaching, head over to chapter 5 for more great ideas and then share what you’ve implemented in your own classroom!


2 thoughts on “The Science of Learning Physics: Metacognition Strategies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s