An example of making metacognition more explicit

One of the most frustrating things I encounter in being an English teacher is to hear students say that they aren’t very good at the subject. My answer is resolute: “It’s simply not true“. It’s frustrating because I know it’s not true, and that their feeling of disempowerment is rarely due to ability at all. One of the causes of such an evaluation by students may be due to a lack of awareness in their own metacognition.

LEARNING TO LEARN – Helping students to realise that thinking about how you learn is useful.

There are different contexts where teachers can increase student awareness of metacognition. The first opportunity is to develop student self-talk during the modeling process. Alex Quigley provides an excellent example of this in the EEF podcast (17 minutes in) where he describes a skillful art teacher talking students through the drawing process, with the intention of students internalizing the dialogue for the next attempt. But in this post I want to focus on what messages students tell themselves prior to assessment, and the messages they tell themselves when they get their results.

Having just completed an initial assessment on Macbeth, It became clear who had not revised. This sounds obvious, but before the task was assigned, I wanted to design it in such as way that poor performance could only be due to two factors: an obvious lack of preparation, or the total inability to sequence information into the essay format. To facilitate such derivations, the students were provided with multiple scaffolds, but most significantly, being able to take notes into the assessment, and having opportunities before the assessment to practice writing responses that teachers would give feedback on.

The results were mostly good, but there were some whose lack of preparation sorely stood out. It seems desirable to simply say to the students that they didn’t revise enough, and that if they do revise their results will improve the next time. However, I don’t think it is as simple as that. For the majority of students in this category, there is a hidden barrier to their motivation to revise. For this majority, summative assessment has consistently meant failure, and when that becomes ingrained, busting out of it is not so easy. The reasons for this outcome could be many, from a previous ironic overreliance on summative assessment to check for learning, to an under resourced teacher who doesn’t fill the gaps along the way. Whatever the reasons, the pernicious outcome is a deep-seated belief that some students indoctrinate: ‘I’m no good at English/math’s/science/art etc.’ The natural defence mechanism is to withdraw, or attribute the failure to external sources. The message students tell themselves is that there’s no point in trying in the assessment, as the result will always be the same. This is why even when you set up an assessment with the greatest of care, and have scaffolded it to almost spoon-feeding degree, that some students still won’t achieve. The student has lost the ability to differentiate between their own possible involvement in their low outcome and the influence of external factors. Metacognition has been blocked, progress similarly so.

Knowing that my assessment is carefully designed, the thing to do then for these learners is to increase their awareness of their involvement. The thing to do is to help them see that they do have control over the results.


To show them how much control they had in their assessment outcome I shared a presentation with the whole Yr. 11 cohort at their assembly.

The presentation included:

  1. Collation of the frequency of important quotes tested in quizzing and discussed in class.Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 10.02.55 PM

Students who didn’t have these quotes in their prep notes missed an opportunity. Why didn’t they have them if they had heard the teacher mention them so many times? Ps – this process had the added benefit of helping me realize whether my retrieval quiz questions were designed well.

  1. Awareness of the advantages they had for the assessment, including knowing the essay question a week in advance, being able to take quotes in with them, how many lessons they had to prepare the quotes and essay, and how much access they had to modelled responses.

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 10.05.43 PM

All of these suggest a great deal of advantage before the assessment, again highlighting that poor performance was likely due to poor attention in class, or work ethic.

3. Awareness of supported study opportunities to act on feedback provided by teachers on tasks in class, and in the drafts for the assessment (if they did one).

Poor discussion of points in the essay was likely due to the student not getting feedback on a draft as they likely didn’t do a draft, so the assessment became the first attempt at formulating their ideas. This is another metacognitive area that I will focus on: making students more aware of the power of drafting. Total inability to produce a written response was resolved before the assessment in assessment for learning. 


The evidence was a surprise to lots of students, even those who had done very well in the assessment. But their surprise was a good thing. Students had received every possible support they could have had before the assessment, and this made them start to think about their levels of participation in their results. It helped them to focus on and isolate the reasons for their low or high result. But still, I wanted to provide one further thing for students to understand the part they may have played in their assessment outcome.

As we are studying Macbeth, I presented slides of the dagger scene, a scene where Macbeth is hallucinating the dagger because his mind is so corrupted with thoughts of killing the king. The dagger becomes a justification to continue, with both the handle toward his hand and it marshaling him the way a convenience for Macbeth. The visions allow Macbeth to externalize his blame. The metaphor was used for students to see how they dealt with such temptations. But I aimed it more so for those who didn’t achieve in the assessment. Had they allowed their mind to present excuses for not revising sufficiently based on past experience rather than present conditions? However, in hindsight it wasn’t a fair thing to do. As explained above, the ‘excuses’ weren’t really excuses, but more a blocking of the metacognitive process. I hadn’t given students any time to alter this blocking. I hadn’t begun to retrain their thinking about learning.

But I have now!


I’m Paul Moss. Follow me if you like, on Twitter @edmerger.







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