George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Easy Ways to Build Metacognitive Skills

Learn strategies to increase student engagement and stop students from asking, “Why are we doing this?”

December 5, 2019
High school students working on a laptop together
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

Many teachers have designed an engaging project or lesson only to be faced with the initial questions “Why are we doing this?” and “Is this going to be on the test?” 

Helping students develop metacognitive skills is critical for learning. Studies have shown that students believe they learn less during active lessons like projects as opposed to passive lessons like lectures. One study found that students incorrectly identified the cognitive difficulty of engaging assignments to be a sign that they were learning less. 

Students can reframe their perspective on their progress through a few simple strategies.  

Use Clear Objectives 

Directions and objectives are one of the most important tools for successful teaching. Often, the objectives of project-based lessons use sophisticated vocabulary and words that students find difficult to connect to concrete skills. They should be written in such a way that students can understand and easily see the transferable nature of the skills learned. 

Meet students where they are in terms of vocabulary. For example, an instruction such as “Use incontrovertible evidence to express your perspective” may be confusing for some students. The term “incontrovertible evidence” is likely intended more for a teacher than for students. Rewrite the directions to give students a clearer vision, such as “Students will practice making an argument using evidence that the other side will have a hard time denying.” While this objective is longer, the revision makes it more accessible to students and more clearly defines the skills they will acquire. 

Connect the objectives to the lesson or activity. At the end of an assignment, I ask students to match where in their work they achieved the original objectives. Students use the comment tool on Google Docs to label the different parts of the assignment with the number of the objective that a given activity accomplished. This follow-through, while time-consuming, is critical to helping students start using their metacognitive skills. 

Explain the Why

Begin or end an activity by discussing expectations for the outcomes to create buy-in from your students. If students understand the function of the assignment, they are much more likely to follow it through. For example, my seventh-grade world history class created a travel blog as if they were traveling across the world. At the outset, we discussed how I used these same skills to plan my first trip to Europe. Connecting the assignment to real-world activities reinforced the reasoning for the assignment. Thinking about real-world implications can lead to deeper comprehension.  

Another activity where I stated the purpose at the beginning was a political cartoon project as part of a unit on the Gilded Age. At the beginning of the lesson, I explained the objective of becoming better interpreters of social media. First, students unpacked political cartoons from the end of the 19th century. After we were comfortable with that task, we looked at memes aimed at tycoons of our era, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. The modern connection propelled students through the difficult phase of interpreting the older political cartoons. Because the purpose was explained at the outset, students saw the relevance of the historical material and were excited to discover connections. 

Ask Questions 

Throughout a project or lesson, offer questions that encourage students to reflect on their learning process. For example, in my eighth-grade history class, after we have finished reading about the Boston Tea Party, students complete an assignment where they have to determine a punishment for students who defaced school property following an unethical action taken by a principal. The primer question that precedes the activity asks them to define private property and identify three examples when the rules respecting private property could be broken. After the assignment, students are asked a more specific question about both the implicit and explicit things they will take away from the assignment. In the Tea Party example, students are asked how the principal’s decision relates to their view of the Boston Tea Party and also what they learned about making difficult decisions.

Another lesson to probe students about implicit skills is one about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Students learn to identify cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, where we look for evidence that suits our purposes. At the start of the lesson, students are given a definition of confirmation bias and are asked to identify instances of it that they have observed. The lesson guides students through how President Johnson looked for a way to justify his invasion plans. Students connect Johnson’s actions to modern examples of confirmation bias by looking at Russian involvement in the 2016 election through social media. At the end of the lesson, students are asked to reflect on ways that confirmation bias can affect them while using social media. The project framing moves students from historical comprehension to digital literacy and intellectual honesty.

Explaining the purpose behind lesson objectives helps students practice metacognitive thinking that reinforces learning. Students are more receptive and engaged with projects when they understand the ways they learn. 

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School