Metacognition, or thinking about how one thinks, is a useful skill for improving comprehension and learning. It can be especially useful for review in advance of an assessment. Once students learn how to monitor their own progress and apply specific review strategies based on their needs, they are empowered to effectively and efficiently prepare for assessments.
The Power of What You Know
Before I introduced metacognitive practices in my classroom, I found that students spent most of their time reviewing material they already knew. It did not occur to them to assess their current level of understanding before reviewing.
Students can discover what they already know through a series of three steps. As the year progresses, students may execute the three steps independently and begin applying them to other content areas:
- Students answer review questions that encourage critical thinking about the content. I ask them to think not about the content, but instead about what they will need to know in order to answer the questions. They write or draw everything they know from memory about the topic in pencil. Then they are given time to discuss their ideas with a partner or small group. As they learn new information from their peers, they write that information down in a different color. During this time, I walk around and scan papers for misunderstandings or gaps and provide feedback when needed.
- The whole class takes a few moments to celebrate how many things they already knew before they did any review. In the beginning of the year, I ask, “Should you study the information you wrote first in pencil?” and almost every student says, “Yes.” When I ask them why they should study information they already knew, they realize that they can reduce this part and spend their time on content they have not yet mastered.
- Students take time to determine what else they need to learn before the assessment by referring back to the original review questions. They use these questions to organize unknown information, take note of their misconceptions, and determine if there is any more information they will need to gather before they begin studying.
Once the road map is clear, students identify strategies to deepen their understanding and help them remember key facts.
Make a Plan
Students should establish a plan for how they want to study. Eliminating distractions helps facilitate studying, so I suggest that they turn off their phones, find a quiet space, and use paper and pencil rather than electronic devices. Encourage students to break their study into manageable chunks. Setting up a plan for studying in advance reduces anxiety, so I start reminding students to review for major tests four to seven days in advance.
Using the road map developed in class, students write out all the unknown information. This step not only creates an actionable plan but often calms students’ test anxiety because they have established that they already know some of the information. Laying out a timetable for studying also ensures that students will have adequate time to seek assistance if they need it. By reviewing in advance, they can identify areas where they need clarification and feedback.
Use Specific Strategies
Often students believe that rote memorization is the only tactic for preparing for an assessment. Remind students that many other strategies should be used along with their notes and texts. I provide a list of different methods they can use to prepare, and we practice several of them during class:
- Discussion: Use notes and texts; explain the information to someone else as if he or she has no prior knowledge of the topic.
- Illustration: Create pictures, mind maps, and/or diagrams of the information. Use color and creativity to spark creative ways to remember information.
- Monologue: Tell yourself the information in the mirror.
- Songs: Create a catchy tune to help remember important facts.
- Write it out: Rewrite all unknown information. Using various colors to organize ideas is helpful for some students.
- Connections: Write or draw connections between new information and facts/ideas that you understand. Make connections to your own life or current events.
- Videos: If there are relevant video clips about the topic, I post them on Google Classroom for students to watch as part of their review process.
Encourage students to try each strategy at least once to help decide what works best for them and to use more than one method to study.
Apply the Experience
Once students have taken assessments and received their scores, it is important to celebrate their successes and reflect on their progress, identifying which strategies worked best for them and how they might be more productive next time. Ask reflection questions to prompt deeper thinking about what worked:
- Did you feel prepared for the assessment?
- Were you surprised by your grade?
- Which strategies did you use? Did you feel that any were particularly helpful? Did any not work for you?
- What was your review schedule? Do you feel that you studied too much, not enough, or just the right amount?
- Would you do anything differently next time?
Before they begin reviewing for the next assessment, students can refer back to these reflections and use them to help guide their process.