Metacognitive Talk

Resources, ideas and prompts for discussion related to Modelling

Narrating our thinking

Metacognition relates to an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Successful students tend to have good metacognitive abilities; they plan, monitor and evaluate their progress through a given task. They are also able to think strategically about how to solve a problem and can articulate how that is going to happen. As teachers we can develop this metacognitive capacity in learners if we model it and promote metacognitive talk in lessons. Essentially it involves narrating our approach and thinking. The following five steps outline how we can do this with learners, taken from the ‘Teaching Walthrus’ book:

  1. Set the problem and explore it out loud: Display and read through the question that has been presented to the class. Focus attention to what the question is asking or what the task may involve. How do we model that to learners? We show them that we can find this out by looking for familiarity in the problem posed (looking for recognisable command words, or whether the question is similar to one we have done before). You could annotate it ‘live’, writing out your valuable thoughts.
  2. What do we already know?: Talk through any information that is already available from the question that could be used, or any supporting resources (tables, graphs, text extracts etc.). Make a list of notes as you go in front of the class, of what we know from the question, and what we know from our past learning that might help (you are making your thoughts explicit and visible for the room).
  3. Where should we start?: Now talk through the first steps in actually solving the task, and what the starting point of the answer could be. If there is more than one way to start or solve the answer then point that out too; you are thinking about that so don’t leave it as a mystery to your class.
  4. Planning the answer: At this point you can now model out/draft an answer in front of the class. It could be an essay structure plan, or bullet points of what paragraphs may be, or even a full answer. If it is something to do with a sequence it could be a list of the stages in order that you would have put in the answer. You might list some key data or points from a table or graph.
  5. Have we been successful?: When the task has been completed model the process of self-review. Talk out loud with you looking at your answer and checking if it has answered the question appropriately, asking yourself out loud if key information has been included, whether it is of a good enough standard, whether anything can be improved.

We know as teachers that so many of our students jump in feet first to Step 3 and try to answer questions without thinking out the problem and how it could be dealt with (and too often they then won’t do Step 4 or 5 at all). As you can see from the above, all you are doing is simply articulating your own thoughts that now come ‘naturally’ to you as an expert when you see a problem posed from your curriculum area. This approach can be really effective to take the fear out of a tricky task and it completely fulfils the essentials of modelling discussed in the introduction:

  1. Never assume that students know how to do something that they have never been taught how to do.
  2. Model ‘high’, always use modelling to set the benchmark for what is excellence.

Furthermore the impact of building metacognitive capacity is well recognised. The Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit places associated approaches as having the second highest impact behind Feedback (considered elsewhere on this site), for relatively little cost.

Exam Prep / WTMs

Metacognitive talk and modelling can be very powerful with exam preparation, not only in terms of improving student capabilities to answer questions but also help lower their stresses and make them feel more comfortable with the process. You may be familiar with the term ‘Walking Talking Mock’ (WTM) or ‘Walking Talking Exam’ which was popularised a few years ago. Essentially it relies heavily on the techniques of metacognitive talk already discussed on this page but applied to exam papers or questions. These can be completed in exam halls with the room set out as it would be on the exam day to help simulate how things may be in advance, or they can be done in more targeted environments and classrooms. The teacher will then usually display a copy of an exam paper on a projector screen for all to see using a document camera or visualiser (an invaluable piece of T&L technology!) and proceed to model how they would approach and answer the content within. Not just getting the class to watch what they write in terms of answers but articulating, narrating and annotating what they are thinking about and how to answer the questions.

The video clip below is from a blog post by John Tomsett (‘This much I know about…what really works when preparing students for their examinations’) and shows a maths teacher making highly effective use of metacognitive talk:

Modelling the Metacognitive Process – video linked from a blog post by John Tomsett

The image below (also from John’s blog) shows the actual copy of the teacher’s workings and annotations that she produced while talking through the process – and it is this that she expects her students to be able to replicate as an end product in future with this problem and similar problems.

Lisa worksheet

Associated further reading and references:

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