George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Students to Assess Their Learning

Teachers can help students evaluate their knowledge and learning processes by guiding them to assess their use of metacognitive skills.

May 23, 2022
Illustration concept for assessing metacognitive skills
Tommaso D'Incalci / Ikon Images

The tricky thing about trying to teach students how to develop their thinking is that you can’t see thinking. The concept of metacognition, or a student’s knowledge of their own thought process, can be a bit abstract and so hard to evaluate. How does the teacher know if students are actively thinking about their own learning?

I have found it helpful to have tools that make thinking visible and measurable. Students and teachers can collect data to track and assess their use of metacognition in the classroom.

When to Teach Metacognitive Skills

Teachers can use the strategies that I presented in a previous article on metacognition to help students begin to think about their own learning.

Students who could benefit from building their metacognitive skills may:

  • Not know when they need help,
  • Continue to use a strategy even if it is not working,
  • Apply the same amount of effort to easy and difficult tasks,
  • Use shallow recall strategies when the task requires deeper critical thinking and creativity,
  • Have trouble transferring learned strategies from one context to another,
  • Fail to use prior knowledge or make connections to previously learned material, and/or
  • Demonstrate overconfidence in strategies that are not working or in their own preparation.

Most students display some of these traits when presented with challenging work. Using formative and self assessment to measure the use of metacognitive skills and cognitive strategies can help the student and the teacher to develop an awareness of what they may need to work on. Here are some ways to assess students’ developing metacognitive skills. Metacognition can be broken into three parts: knowledge, experience, and process.

Assessing Metacognitive Knowledge and Experience

Metacognitive knowledge includes information about various learning activities, a student’s awareness of how they learn best, and information about strategies that have worked well for them on particular learning tasks.

Metacognitive experience describes the way a student interprets, interacts with, or processes a certain learning experience, including the feelings they have while completing a task.

Here are three ideas for assessing metacognitive knowledge and experience that I discuss in my book, The Independent Learner. These tasks allow students to develop an awareness of how they learn, make learning visible, and begin to see how their efforts affect the results they achieve.

Student portfolios: Students include work in their portfolio from the beginning, middle, and end of a unit to show their learning progression for a specific skill over time. They can use these work samples to compare what they thought at the beginning of the unit with how they think now. Having students examine their work samples allows them to see growth and changes in their skill levels. Students can reflect on the progress they have made and what they might need to work on next by tracking changes in their thinking over time with their portfolio.

Student-led conferences: Work samples from student portfolios can be used for personal reflection or presented to a parent or guardian at a student-led conference. In these conferences, unlike traditional conferences, students do the talking. Instead of only showcasing their finished product, they walk parents through their growth during the unit.

Reflecting on how they learn: Students benefit from trying multiple ways to learn and practice a specific skill so that they can discover what works best for them in different contexts. Students can think about a time when they enjoyed learning something new and use a graphic organizer to consider the following questions:

  • How do I learn best?
  • Are there strategies or specific activities that have helped me in the past?
  • What do I not find helpful?
  • What should my teacher know in order to partner with me in my learning?
  • Are there situations where my learning strength presents learning challenges? For example, I may excel at talking with others, negotiation, and interpersonal communication, but when I am required to sit still and be quiet for 90 minutes, I get antsy and get in trouble for talking.

Assessing Metacognitive Processes, Skills, and Strategy Use

Metacognitive processes are employed when students use skills such as planning, monitoring, and evaluating along with cognitive strategies to engage in self-regulated learning. When students self-assess their metacognitive skills, they can determine which skills they need to focus on developing, reflect on whether specific strategies worked for them or the task they were attempting, think about other contexts where the strategies could be useful, and decide how they would modify these strategies for future use.

Metacognitive skills inventory: Psychologists have created ways for students to self-assess their use of metacognition. I have adapted a version of two well-known scales to create a metacognitive skills inventory. This inventory, adaptable for kindergarten through 12th grade, can be used like a diagnostic assessment at the beginning of the year, to set relevant personalized goals. Students can also retake the inventory to monitor progress.

Strategies notebook: Students can use a binder or composition notebook to keep track of strategies they have tried and their reflections on the effectiveness of these strategies for specific tasks.

Assignment wrappers: Students can use an assignment wrapper to assess the effectiveness of particular strategies and methods they used to prepare for an exam or graded assignment. They can examine why they may have missed a question, what skills they still need to work on, and what to do differently next time.

Students’ academic performance is linked to their ability to engage in thinking strategies, especially the metacognitive processes that make self-regulated learning possible. As students learn more about their thinking, they also increase their ability to manage their own thoughts. Students who develop their metacognitive skills may begin to think about learning differently. Instead of viewing learning as teacher-dependent, they may start to understand that learning is something they have the tools to do on their own. Being able to see the connection between their choices and the outcomes they experience in school helps students to develop agency and become leaders in their own learning process.

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