Brain-Based Learning

Metacognitive Talk Guides Students to Discuss Their Thought Processes

Students don’t always speak up in class unless they know the right answer. This strategy encourages them to talk as a way to create knowledge.

June 21, 2022
John Hersey / The iSpot

As teachers, we often ask questions to elicit a specific correct answer. We get into patterns where we ask a question, the student answers, and we evaluate that answer. However, limiting classroom discussion exclusively to this popcorn style of question, response, and evaluation may also limit learning. When we set up a discussion this way, students only talk when they already know the correct answer, and some students never talk at all.

In my book The Independent Learner, I discuss the topic of metacognitive talk. When metacognitive talk is employed as an instructional tool, students learn to use discussion as a way to build knowledge instead of just participating to display what they already know.

Metacognitive Talk in the Classroom

Psychologists have long advocated the idea of metacognitive talk; Jean Piaget believed that children benefited from being active participants in the construction of knowledge, and Lev S. Vygotsky introduced the idea that students can co-construct knowledge through social interactions. Talking with their peers, asking questions, and debating best approaches to problem-solving help students develop more complex thinking and reasoning skills. Conversations can create productive conflict that helps students develop multiple perspectives, leading to deeper learning.

If students are given clear directions and guidelines for their discussions, interacting with peers can be more effective than working only independently and as effective as working one-on-one with an adult.

However, popular techniques like “turn and talk” to your neighbor may not be structured enough to be effective at cocreating knowledge. During discussions students need to do the following:

  • Examine their thinking process and the approach they used in order to identify different ways of solving a particular problem;
  • Explore diverse strategies or varying viewpoints;
  • Use active listening strategies to take in and then test out ideas and methods that are different from their own;
  • Debate or negotiate to reach a consensus in their discussions before presenting to the group.

In practice, this often looks like the teacher talking for a short time at the beginning of the lesson, with students working independently to decide on a strategy and try a skill on their own and then spending the majority of learning time engaged in discussion.

Strategies for Encouraging Metacognitive Talk

Limiting teacher talk time: The teacher should talk to model the thought process necessary for a new skill or to provide direct instruction, but most of the thinking and reasoning work should be left to the students. If students get stuck, the teacher could also provide a scaffold such as a question, concrete manipulative, or strategy to help students begin working again.

Use open-ended questions and encourage problem-solving: Many times we ask questions that have a correct answer, which means that only students who have already learned the information are likely to talk. Instead, we can try to ask more questions that are open-ended and encourage students to find the answer on their own or explore the process to find the answer collaboratively. Closed questions tend to test recall of specific information, such as “What is the capital of North Carolina?” whereas open-ended questions require students to use what they have learned to demonstrate deeper understanding, apply, analyze, evaluate, or create. Students should be taught a variety of strategies and know that part of their discussion time should be devoted to sharing the strategy they chose to use for a particular task.

Explaining the steps or outlining the process: Similarly, when they are working independently, students need to get in the habit of focusing on explaining their thinking process and how to arrive at an answer. There are a variety of ways to do this, such as the following:

  • Students can be prompted to focus on process by using an already-solved example problem to explain in words how to get from one step to the next. Similarly, students could correct an incorrectly solved problem, identify the mistake, and explain the process for arriving at the correct solution.
  • Students can describe problem-solving steps in words next to a visual representation. They can also create thought bubbles next to a text or the steps of a problem to show their thinking process and make it easier to convey to a partner during discussion.
  • Students can compare and contrast their process for solving a problem with their partner’s strategy. This approach provides structure and a way to make thinking visible while they talk with their group or partner.

Generating knowledge and new examples: Have students create their own unique examples and then collaborate with a partner to compare and contrast what they came up with and check each other’s work. This will help them test out new ideas, strengthen recall of learned information, and deepen their understanding. Students can create and solve their own math problems, make their own practice test questions and quiz each other to see what they remember from the lesson, assemble a model to demonstrate or try out something they learned, or write their own examples of a particular type of literary work or device.

Teachers can also have students generate knowledge after listening to direct instruction or a video. Students can do a free recall where they write down or draw a thinking map of everything they can remember. Then pair them up to compare, check, and sort through what they came up with. Have the pair collaborate to create a new shared list of everything they can remember together. At this point, they can use their book or another source to check recalled information for accuracy. Then, have each pair of students share their discussion with the whole group, and let the group discuss how to sort out the correct information and eliminate any misinformation. This graphic organizer can be used to facilitate this process.

Taking on a specific role in the critical thinking process: Talk can be used as a scaffold that allows students to engage in assignments with increased rigor. Students can be taught strategies to use, like reciprocal teaching, where students work in groups to analyze a complex fiction or nonfiction text or sort through a math word problem, each taking on a specific thinking role in order to practice making predictions, asking questions, clarifying, and summarizing.

Partnering on note taking helps students work through specific reading skills and questions as a group. This approach acknowledges that language provides the foundation upon which literacy skills are built. Often students who struggle to process and comprehend text may also display underlying oral-language weaknesses. Teaching vocabulary, thinking skills, and comprehension strategies in spoken language builds a foundation for using these skills during independent reading tasks.

Talking to produce thought, or metacognitive talk, is one of the most effective learning methods. By working together, students collectively develop their language, thinking process, and reasoning skills. They monitor, evaluate, and revise their approach to problem-solving in order to become more strategic learners.

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