Metacognition is a big word, but it doesn’t need to be intimidating! It simply refers to an awareness or understanding of one’s own thought process in order to learn more successfully. In other words, developing your students’ metacognitive skills is the same as giving them skills and tools to learn more about how they learn.
While teachers pour years upon years and hours upon hours learning how to teach, learning must always begin with the learner. If the learner isn’t engaged, open, and committed to learning, the teacher can only do so much work. We, as teachers, spend time learning about how people learn. We talk a lot about visual learners and kinesthetic learners, but many students don’t know how they personally learn best.
Most individuals pick up learning skills and strategies in their schooling experiences, but when working with adult learners, it’s possible your students have limited schooling and may not have had the time or opportunity to pick up these skills.
Today we’re going to be talking more about how you can help your students develop metacognitive skills, so that they can better understand how they learn best! While this article is written specifically with beginner-level learners in mind, many of the tips and activities below can be tweaked and used in your intermediate- or advanced-level classes.
There are two main areas that we’re going to be focusing on today that can help your beginners pick up some metacognitive skills: goal-setting and learning strategies.
You’ve probably heard of setting SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. It can be really helpful for your learners to see you modelling this type of goal-setting and to have the opportunity to practice setting their own goals in this way. While we’re not going to get into the specifics of SMART goals today, it’s important to keep in mind that the goals you’re setting with your class should always be SMART.
There are so many different ways that your learners can practice goal-setting in the classroom in order to be confident enough to set their own language learning goals in the future. As always, it’s important to start with modelling.
Introduce Your Goals
One of the best ways to teach anything is to model it. If you want your students to become more familiar with setting language learning goals, show them how you make goals and what goals you’ve set that they’re working towards.
Many teachers have to set lesson plan goals or objectives for the year, unit, or lesson, but students never see these. Sharing these goals with your students can help them better understand why they’re learning what they’re learning and why they’re doing specific activities.
At the beginning of your lesson, unit, or new class, write your goals on the board and discuss them with your students. Do they have the same goals for their own learning? Which goals do they find most important? Ask your students to arrange the goals in order of most to least important with a partner and share with the class. Not only will this give you a great opportunity to see what your students value and what they want to learn, but it helps them to better understand what goes on in the classroom
At the beginning of the day, write your class agenda on the side of the board. You can get as specific or as general as you’d like. When I was teaching in Mongolia, I always wrote down a checklist of what we’d be focusing on in class that day. It helped my students see when they’d have a break, as well as what to expect next.
Before you begin teaching, introduce your topic and/or focus for the day and what activities or methods you’ll be using. If you’re going to focus on talking to your doctor about being sick, share with your students whether they’ll be doing a roleplay, what vocabulary they may need to remember, etc.
After teaching a concept or a new vocabulary term, be transparent with your students. Tell them if they’ll be using that word in class later that day and what is most important for them to practice.
Start Naming Routines
Reusable routines are a great way to teach your students metacognitive skills. Once your students are familiar with a specific activity that you use often, you can discuss what that activity helps your students to practice, what strategies those activities employ, and how they can use those types of activities on their own at home. Plus, they’re just a really great way to eliminate the hassle of teaching a new activity constantly!
There are a lot of different strategies for learning a second language, in fact, I had to start a brand new Pinterest board to house all of the resources I found! Many of the intricacies of these strategies may be difficult for your beginner-level learners to understand in English; however, there are plenty of ways that you can teach your students to use these strategies to help them develop more confidence and more autonomy when it comes to second language learning!
Self-assessment is one of the best tools that an individual can use when learning. Formal, written tests can be good indicators of progress for teachers, but students can easily give themselves “checkpoints” to make sure they’re on the right track. Not to mention, many students find tests stressful and, therefore, actually perform worse when given time to study and prepare.
Have your students pair up and recall what they just learned, what they feel confident about, and what they may still have questions about. Consistent self-assessments or check-ins can help you gauge your students’ progress, but it can also help them develop the habit of intentional learning.
Opportunity to Explain
Similar to a self-assessment, an Opportunity to Explain is a great routine to use to give your adult learners autonomy and to give them the opportunity to help one another learn. After filling out a worksheet or answering a few questions individually, have your students pair up (or get into small groups) to share their answer and how they arrived at that conclusion.
This routine is a great way for students to check or edit their answers before turning in a worksheet, and it makes sure your students have thought through their answers. While students will change their answer to match their partners in some cases, if your students are sharing their reason behind the answer, it’s still a great learning opportunity!
Before & After
Before & After is another routine that you can use in class to help your learners become more aware of the strategies, activities, and methods you’re using to teach. Before you begin, make your students aware of the names of the activities you’re using and when they begin and end. After the activity is completed, hold a class discussion. Have your students recall what they did, what the steps were, whether they liked it or not (and why), and why they think you used the activity.
Likewise, at the end of class, recap as a group what you learned, what your students’ favorite activity was, why that activity was used (or what the activity helped them practice), and what your students would still like to practice.
Not only will the activities and tips above help your students develop metacognitive skills, but it’s a great way to show respect towards your adult language learners. Students who have more choice when it comes to lesson plans, activities, and classroom routines are more likely to be more engaged and more receptive to your expertise as the teacher!
If you find that your students are struggling with a specific topic, be sure to check out our Supporting Struggling Students series below!
I Want to Hear From You!
How do you help support your learners in the classroom?
What’s your favorite way to involve your students in goal-setting?