Many students arrive in our classes with relatively little understanding of how they learn. In this episode, Dr. Judith Boettcher joins us to discuss how well structured project-based or problem-based learning activities can help students develop their metacognitive skills so that they become more successful as learners.
Dr. Boettcher is the author of many books and articles on higher education and has long been a leader in the field of online education. The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, co-authored by Judith has been an important resource for faculty transitioning to online teaching. At Oswego (and many other institutions), many faculty have been using materials that Judith has developed for ACUE (the Association of College and University Educators).
- Designing for Learning – Dr. Boettcher’s blog.
- Boettcher, Judith (2019). “’Trust Grandma’: Strategies to Promote Reflection and Curiosity” An August 22, 2019 ACUE blog post discussing related concepts.
- National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.
- Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
- Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M. (2016). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. John Wiley & Sons.
- Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
- Past Tea for Teaching podcast episodes referenced in this episode:
- Allen, D. (2015). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin.
- Kandel, E. (2006). In Search of Memory:The emergence of a new science of mind (Paperback ed.). New York Norton.
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
- Hussman, Polly R. (2019), “Metacognition v. pure effort: Which truly makes the difference in an undergraduate anatomy class?” Improve with Metacognition blog. April 10, 2019. (the study referenced near the end of the podcast)
- Tanner, Kimberly D. “Promoting student metacognition.” CBE-Life Sciences Education 11, no. 2 (2012): 113-120.
John: Many students arrive in our classes with relatively little understanding of how they learn. In this episode, we examine how well structured project-based or problem-based learning activities can help students develop their metacognitive skills so that they become more successful as learners.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Judith Boettcher. She is the author of many books and articles on higher education and has long been a leader in the field of online education. The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, co-authored by Judith has been an important resource for faculty transitioning to online teaching. At Oswego many of our faculty have been using materials that Judith has developed for ACUE (the Association of College and University Educators). Welcome Judith.
Judith: Thank you very much, Rebecca and John, it’s great to be here.
John: We’re really pleased to have you here. Our teas today are… are you drinking tea?
Judith: I actually… yes, made a special point. Here’s my cup, which you can’t see. But I chose one of my favorite teas, which is a lemon and ginger tea from England, of course,
John: the Twinings version.
Judith: No, this is a Hamptons tea from London.
John: We have the Twinings version of that in our tea collection.
Rebecca: I’m drinking Jasmine green tea today.
John: And I’m drinking oolong tea today.
Judith: Sounds good.
Rebecca: Judith, your mug looks really interesting. Is it abstract art. Is that what was on it?
Judith: It’s actually pears.
Rebecca: Okay, I only saw the bottom part of it. I can see it now.
Judith: Yeah, right. Well, I will confess that at some point, I finally decided to clear every vendor cup out of my cupboard.
Rebecca: That sounds refreshing.
John: I have vendor cups all over… in my vehicles… in my offices, everywhere.
Judith: Well, that was part of my retirement process that I went through. I said, “Okay, that’s it.”
John: One of the things we had trouble with is picking a topic because you’ve worked on so many topics, but we settled on having you talk a little bit about how students can work to improve their metacognition using project-based or problem-based learning. But before we do that, could you talk a little bit about what metacognition means?
Judith: I would really like to John, partially because I had this book with the title of metacognition that I was reading when I was with a family event. And one of my relatives said, “What in the world is this? Meta what?” [LAUGHTER] So, an easy way I like to think about metacognition is the definition of just it’s thinking about thinking. It’s a definition, I think. that we can all just really grab on to and we can really use. But then I kind of like to expand that definition into one that’s in the How People Learn report that I go back to pretty regularly and that is that “metacognition is the process of reflecting on and directing our own learning.” And I really like that one, because it’s got the two steps, I think, what we want to really kind of focus on with metacognition, and that is reflection… really stopping thinking, pausing… and then actually directing our own thinking, because that leads to action. So then we have reflection and action, which I think is the core of metacognition skills.
Rebecca: One of the things I think we often talk about in education context is this reflection piece. And we always tell students to reflect, but we don’t always give them the time and space to do that.
Judith: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] Very much.
Rebecca: So can you talk a little bit about project-based and problem-based learning and how metacognition connects to those rather than standard ways of operating in the classroom?
Judith: Yes, I would love to do that. In fact, that was one of the first things when we’ve got into online learning, was that there was a real struggle as to how do we maintain the security and everything of people taking tests. And so it turned out that we decided that one of the best ways of gathering evidence of student learning was not by doing these tests… that we would actually have the students do projects. And that kind of evolved into the following process. And that is that in some of the work I’ve done for ACUE, and also in the book, I’ve mentioned that I really like to design a course that starts with the students selecting and doing a project, actually in week one or two of the course. And then that students actually focus on that project throughout the entire course. And that’s the mechanism by which we gather evidence of student learning. It kind of also avoids this whole process of buying papers and buying other kinds of things. Because you really have milestones along the way.
I’m going to stop and talk about the first step for just a moment. And that is choosing a project. One of the wonderful things about choosing a project is that then students actually have to stop and then think about the kind of project that they want to do. It gives them an opportunity to actually customize a course to their interests, which starts getting past that big motivation problem that sometimes teachers might say, “Well, how do I motivate them?” Well, we give them the opportunity to choose something that is of interest to them. So they choose a project, and then they actually write up what that project is that they want to do. But that’s not the end of selecting the project. Before the project is really kind of finalized that they’re going to be working on, they actually then sit down and talk with some of their other students and the other peers. They switch and swap their proposed project descriptions, so that they actually talk out loud about the project. And then hopefully, by talking to their peers about it, they get some additional ideas, and they refine it a bit. And then it goes to the faculty member. So the faculty member doesn’t get it right away, but it goes through this first the individual students thinking about it, and then the other students thinking about it, and then the faculty member can take a look at it. And that’s only milestone one that can take up to about the third week of a course. But by then, hopefully, that gives them a real focus of the course rather than having just the topics thrown at them from week one through week 16… that they’ve got a real focus of: “Oh, how is this going to affect my project?” We can come back to that I just want to mention briefly then there’s like four other milestones, five other milestones for every project throughout the course. And the first is that project description, then the second one would be planning how do I plan to do it, which is a really important metacognitive skill. And then another milestone would be some type of other “Just checking in, how are you doing?” …kind of a thing. And then there’s two final things. One is where they actually share their project with the other students, like in a mini conference, whatever. And then the final thing is the actual final thing, which might not be a paper, it might be a video or an interview, it could be one of a number of things that would go into their student portfolio then. But, that gives the student a focus throughout the entire course that way. That’s a lot, isn’t it?
Rebecca: It is a lot. [LAUGHTER]
John: When you have them give feedback to each other, do you recommend that that’s done synchronously or asynchronously If it’s an online course?
Judith: You know it’s actually best, I think, that the students do it somewhat like a brainstorming event. What you and I are doing right now here with Zoom, students can do with FaceTime, they can do it with just an online gathering chat, whatever. If they’re really, really busy online students, and they have to do it asynchronously, that can be done too with email. I mean, that works too. But it’s often really great for the students themselves to talk out loud. We don’t have them talking enough, I think. They read passively, and they kind of think and everything else, but we don’t have ways for them to use their voice to talk about what they’re thinking.
John: It sounds like the project’s really nicely scaffoldied. But how do you bring in the metacognitive development? How do you get students to improve their metacognitive skills? Is that something they’re explicitly thinking about? Or is it something that’s done as part of the structure of the project?
Judith: Well, of course, it depends on how the faculty member wants to do it. As I had the chance to go back and look more intensely at the metacognitive skills, it occurs to me that thinking metacognitively is such a basic intellectual skill in many respects, particularly now in our 21st century. It’s as fundamental as reading and writing. And, you know, I think we need to look at our entire curriculum from pre-K through whatever as to really how do we explicitly teach and model and coach metacognition skills, which includes with that initial project proposal, we can talk about the fact that what they need to do is think and be sure to build on their interest to give them the criteria and coaching as to how that’s going to really work for them. It’s really a problem when they have to select a project. So what are the constraints on that problem? What are the features or benefits that they’re going to get from this? …and to build that into the assignment and actually writing out the initial proposal and then meeting with their colleagues and peer students, that’s all part of the coaching and the modeling of the metacognitive process.
Rebecca: I think your emphasis on talking about things is really interesting. Because I find that students often will passively write something, and it makes no sense to anybody. But as soon as they try to explain it out loud, they realize it makes no sense. Because when it’s in writing, or they’re just reading in their head, they don’t often have that realization. But as soon as you try to say it out loud as a sentence, it’s not structured in a way that makes sense. They catch themselves or they realize, “Wait, there’s a big hole in what I’m talking about here… nobody knows what I’m talking about.” You can tell it by other people’s faces looking blankly back at you.
Judith: And then they realize that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
Judith: So yes, in fact, that’s apart of the power of talking with their peers about the project, because the peers would most likely say, “Well, wait a minute, why did you choose this? Why are you interested in this?” And so that’s when they have to dig more deeply. It almost goes back to that Socratic questioning, “Why do you think that? Why is that important to you? Do you think this is going to make any difference in your life?” One of the things I really recommend in online learning is that the students, when they read and look at the objectives for a course, to stop… and in the first week, actually, to have the students process those learning objectives, and then personalize one or two of them and say, “This is what I really want to make certain I know when I finish this course. This is how I’m going to be a different person.” Thinking “What skill am I going to be able to do when I finish this course?” They kind of set that goal and set those expectations early on. Hopefully, students setting those goals and objectives become again, more personal to them, and something that they can check themselves. And then as they go through the course, “What progress am I making on this particular goal? How is this coming?” …kind of fun.
Rebecca: Are there ways that you would suggest a faculty member model metacognition early on in an online course?
Judith: Well, I think a really easy way for faculty to model meta cognitive skills is… say, for example, in biology or one of sciences, one of the things I love to look at is the biography of a scientist and looking at, “Well, how did they come to this point? What made them think X, Y, or Z as opposed to A, B, or C?” and we find it’s really rooted in their personal lives and their thinking that they’ve been doing. So faculty member can somewhat do the same thing, in fact, very early on in their introduction to the course. Now, what do you teach Rebecca?
Rebecca: I teach web design.
Judith: You teach web design, okay. So in your introduction, then, to your students, you can say the reason I love web design is as follows. And you can go back into your life and your experiences and say, This is what happened to me… and this is what I was thinking… this is how I got to this point. So you really speak out loud, and you share your processes by which you arrived at that point. And we can do that for any kind of thinking… as we’re talking about an experiment. We do want faculty to share their expertise and their dissertation, for example, they say, “Wow, you know, this is why I’m interested in this. And you know, after 25-30 years, I’m still interested in this because of this.” So they share their thinking processes. Another really easy time is when students ask them a question. And obviously, this can happen online in the synchronous activities. And the students might ask them a question about, “Well, gee, Professor, so and so what does this really mean in this instance, or in this context?” And the faculty member can say, “You know, I really am not sure about that. And I would like to, before I answer that, I would like to do a little more research and thinking, and I will get back to you on that.” So it sends the message that the process of thinking is something that we keep doing all the time.
Rebecca: I think that moment of admitting that you’re not always the expert in everything in the moment, is always a good thing for students. And they respond really positively to that.
Judith: That’s right. It also gives them the opportunity to say, “You know, Professor, I would like a little more time to think about that. Let me get back to you on that.”
John: How can we tell that students have improved their metacognitive skills? I like the idea of having the peer instruction do that. Or to work with students to help them recognize what they know and what they don’t know. But how can we measure that? Or how can students know that they’re more metacognitively aware? How can they observe improvement?
Judith: Well, one of the things I did as I was thinking about this was, you know, I was kind of preparing for you asking me the question, “What are the actual metacognitive skills?” and I came up with five thinking skills that we really want to encourage and model for students. The first one is an easy one. And that is, number one, we really want to encourage students to think. I know that sounds somewhat simplistic, but oftentimes think about in the online environment, we give them an assignment and students, they don’t even read it, really, they kind of scan it. And they kind of assume without thinking that that’s what that assignment is going to give back. And so one metacognitive skill is to pause and stop to really take some time to think and process. In fact, I kind of like to think about the assignment as a briefing. You know, we use briefings in business and politics and detective crime solving and all the rest of it we use briefings. Maybe as a faculty member, you want to encourage the students to think of an assignment as a briefing and a briefing is, “Well, this is what we know now, what do we want to know about next? How are we going to find out what that next is? And when you finish this assignment, what do you expect to know or think about or become clear about?” So step number one is really pausing and thinking. There’s a book out recently called, was it Kahneman? It’s that Thinking Fast and Slow or Slow and Fast?
John: Yes, Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a great book.
Judith: Thinking Fast and Slow, right. Well, you know, he makes the point that we live in such a fast-paced world that our first response to anything is that, “Oh, I know the answer to that.” It’s like Jeopardy, and you really don’t stop and pause and think. And so, because it’s really easy, that’s the short-term memory, we don’t have to think about it. We know that in order for learning to occur, that we really have to stop and give time for information going into our short-term memory to get into the long-term memory. The only way anything goes from the short-term to the long-term memory is for us to connect what we know already with the new information coming in. And you know what? …that takes time. So that’s the one thing for all of us. Time is so seriously, we don’t want to take the time. But if we don’t take the time, the only way learning occurs, you know, if we grow dendrites in our brain, and so if we don’t take the time the dendrites don’t grow, and nothing lasts. It’s kind of a fast bullet shot, so to speak. And then we forget it. As soon as we use it in a sentence, it’s gone. So the idea that we have to really discipline ourselves to stop and think and process, what is it that I’m needing to do? What is it that I want to learn? What do I want to get out of this? And when I finish this assignment, how will I know that I’ve really finished the assignment. Which brings us to the next thinking skills. One of the things I really liked, I use myself a great deal. And this is kind of a hard won practice of my own. And that is that, whenever I was given an assignment whether it was at work or wherever, whenever I had a hard time getting started… you know, getting started is sometimes one of the most difficult parts of anything, right? So anyhow, I finally figured out that one of the reasons it was hard getting started was that I didn’t quite know what it was I was going to do. I finally realized that my best practice is that I visualize what it is going to be when I finish. I get requests to review articles for journals, etc, etc. Well, I know now that my visualization works is that I’ll be done when I finish answering all those questions, you know, read the article, finish answering all the questions, I compose my response back to the editor. And that’s when I’m done, okay? So with any kind of a project, we want to encourage the students to say, “Okay, what is my assignment going to look like when I’m really done? When I have finished reading this article, or reading this core seminal research project? When will I really be done? Will I be done when I can explain the research to someone else? Will I be done when I can actually implement these ideas in a web design project? Is that when I’m going to be done? Just what is that project going to look like when I’m really done?” So we just celebrated the Apollo landing on the moon, in July. I just had the recent opportunity to see the Apollo 11 program that they created out of the original footage from everything that was happening at Cape Kennedy and Houston… the pictures, it showed like, literally, a room full… it almost look like 100 guys, and they were all guys at that time… 100 guys sitting at computer terminals, and you think when they worked on that project, how did they envision success? They had to envision success as actually a man being on the moon. How did he get to the moon? What did he land on the moon in? And then how are we going to get him back from the moon safely? I mean, think of all the things that had to be planned and worked on and everything had to be coordinated to make that thing happen.
So thinking skills, we have to think, we have to visualize, and then we have to plan. Once we know what that final vision is, we need to then plan each of those steps along the way. And again, we can model some of that and coach that by building the planning into the assignments for the project. We definitely want the students to give me a plan with the date, the milestones, the resources they’re going to be needing,]… if they need to make appointments or interviews when that’s going to happen. So we help them realize that projects just don’t happen. They happen after all of these various steps. And then, of course, we build in step number four, evaluating and pausing to then debrief each step along the way: How am I doing? Do I need more time? What else might I need? What else do I really want to know, if I do have enough time? I mean, this really does happen with web design, right? We get to a certain point, we think of it’d be great if I did this. Great if I did that. Do I have enough time to do that? Do I have the knowledge to do that? Or do I need to learn a new skill to insert that into that. So those are all questions that we want to ask encourage the students to plan for and to ask along the way. And then of course, the final one is the final debriefing. When you hand something in, you get feedback both from your peers and from the faculty member. And in many online courses, you do have these little mini conferences where you invite alumni or experts or just friends in to say take a look at this and see what you think.
Rebecca: I like your framework of the briefing. And it’s actually one that I use in my classes pretty regularly.
Judith: Oh, great.
Rebecca: When I’m doing long term projects, I have students on a weekly basis do basically a little briefing of what did they do? What do they need to do? What are the planning steps? So not just like that big scope of the whole project, but on a very routine basis, checking in with their schedule and checking in with their plan and what they’re struggling with to demonstrate what they’re doing, and what their thought processes is as they’re working on it. So I asked them, “What were the big design decisions you made this week? And what did you base those on?”
Judith: Wonderful. In fact, I sometimes like to use the example of Mark Harmon, the actor in NCIS. I love those programs, actually. Like every morning, he kind of just drives into the office and says, “Okay, what do we have.” And each one of his team members have to then report “Okay, since we saw you yesterday, this is what we’ve done. And this is what we know.” And then from that briefing, decide on their next steps, “Okay, we need to do X, Y, or Z.” It’s a really kind of a nice example of planning.
John: Building it into the project just seems to make an awful lot of sense. If you want students to improve their skills, have them apply those skills and structuring it so that they’re doing it is a very reasonable way of doing this.
Judith: And I love the fact that, Rebecca, as you were saying is to ask the students to say what have you been thinking for? And what made you arrive at the decision that you’d like to do something a little different there? So yeah, again, verbalizing the thought processes, is part of the metacognitive abilities.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that surprises students with that assignment is that they don’t realize that they’ve made decisions.
Judith: Oh, interesting.
Rebecca: That happens in projects. But also, if they’re writing a paper, whatever, they’ve made decisions, but they don’t necessarily think of it like they’ve made a decision. They’ve just kind of moved forward. So it causes them to stop and pause and do that first thing that you were talking about, and think for a second before they move forward.
Rebecca: I do have to say, that since I instituted that, my students are far more articulate when they’re talking about their projects. [LAUGHTER]
Judith: When they’re doing their own projects, they get their passions involved. There was another thing I wrote recently on curiosity, how important curiosity is and how we want to really build that in. In fact, one of the things when I was doing a workshop, I suggested to faculty, I said, “You know, let’s get the students to stop answering questions. Let’s get them posing questions. And let’s give them problems that, in our discipline, we don’t know the answers to, because what fun is that? Ok, so we set up the situation that we the faculty know the answers, and then they have to figure it out. So switch it around a little bit and say, here are some problems and we don’t know the answers, how am I to approach this? And then we’ll give them the challenge.” And that really, particularly John, I’m sure you’ve seen this with the TIP program, the students come up with things that you never would have expected.
John: It’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.
Rebecca: So one of the things that I think can be a challenge is if you’re doing a big project throughout the semester, we don’t want it to end up being just one big high-stakes assignment. Are there methods or ways or strategies that we can manage bigger assignments to have some lower-stakes moments or ways so that there’s not so much pressure, and that they’re allowed to make mistakes and improve and learn?
Judith: Yes, and I’m glad you asked that. Actually, somewhere in a couple of tips online that I wanted to refer to. It’s, I think, tip… is it 38 and 60, that talk about project-based learning online… that’s something to think about. But I also have a chart that recommends the grading process for an online course. And so you assign points to each of the milestones in the project. So you assign points with the project proposal and selection, but you also then have smaller team-based events where it’s worth a little bit. Also, the discussion board is a really important aspect of online learning. But it’s hard. How do you evaluate and grade that? So I recommend that about 15%, even 20% on the discussion board. And it’s pretty much a given like the classroom discussion is… so long as students are reasonably consistent about following the rubric for the discussion boards. So you’ve got a little bit there, you have also shorter essays and shorter leadership opportunities in an online course where they might summarize a week’s discussion. So there’s other kinds of activities within an online course. At no point is everything dependent on that one big project, but it does require the students to invest time and energy in that.
John: Many people often think of a need to develop metacognitive skills most for our less able students, thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and so forth… that those who know the least often overestimate their learning by the most. But I think those issues may apply for students at all levels.
Judith: Yeah, we assume that great kids, actually, automatically have these skills and think that way, and they don’t.
Rebecca: Which I think is also a really great thing to talk about, too, because we often talk about metacognition, and helping students who are struggling, do better. But it’s also a great way to challenge students who are already doing well, to do better.
Judith: Absolutely, a great point.
John: For the last 32 summers, I’ve been teaching in the Talent Identification Program (or TIP) at Duke University. And one of the things I’ve observed is that many of the students there have generally been able to breeze through their regular classes without ever having to really learn how to learn. So they sometimes face a little bit of a challenge when they arrive at TIP, and suddenly they’re faced with a challenge. But a really nice part about this is that it’s an ungraded program, so that they can develop their learning skills without worrying about what sort of grades they’re going to get in their classes. And it’s much better to do it there than it would be at some future point, perhaps in a physical chemistry class, or a differential equations class, or some other class later in the career, when they haven’t really had to develop those metacognitive skills that are going to be useful in their future. Developing metacognitive skills really are important for students all along the spectrum.
Judith: That’s a really good example too, John, it’s an interesting phenomenon to talk about, really.
John: How can we tell whether students have higher levels of metacognition? Or how can we tell when students have not developed their metacognitive skills?
Judith: Well, you know, this is obviously a great question. And so let me share just a little bit about my thoughts on the students. How do we know when the students are totally clueless about their thinking processes? And I think one really red flag, particularly in online courses, that these are the students who rather consistently post comments on the discussion board: “What are we doing now? What was the assignment about? When is this? Oh, there’s a rubric, I didn’t know that.” These comments often are the ones from students that they really haven’t taken the time to really read the assignment and to make plans on that. These are also the students that we know for online students that they’re trying to do too many things. They’ve got 1000 things going on with their families, and work, very likely. And they just simply don’t take the time. So I think… just simple reminders all the way along the way in an online course from the faculty member. In the assignment, to be really clear about the assignment and to say, “Be sure to think about the following.” For example, if an article has been assigned, that you as a faculty member say, “Okay, this is why I’ve selected this article. Here are some of the core concepts that are really important in this” and guide the reading to say, “Why do you think the person did this? Be sure to be able to answer these kinds of questions?” And then also to be clear about maybe what you want to do when you finish this reading assignment, to talk about it. If necessary, explain it to your 12-year old. See if you can explain it to that person. So being really clear in the assignment would be, I think, super helpful for all students in an online course, because again, it’s the kind of thing a faculty member would do in the classroom, you’d say, “Okay, I want you to read this article. And you know, this is one of my favorite articles. This is why I want you to do it” …and all the rest of it.” I think we need to do more of that in the assignments in the online course. That’s one thing.
The other students that are clueless are the ones that keep thinking that all they have to do is passively read and reread and reread. We hear that all the time from students that “Oh, well, I read it 15 times. I don’t know why I don’t understand it.” Without saying, while giving help and modeling, as you’re reading this, think about the following.
Just as an aside, I signed up to take a course on brain, dendrites, and synapses from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and oh, my gosh, lesson three, they said, “Well, you know, if you’re not familiar with the electrical circuits, you probably need to go into the Wikipedia and get all this information.” I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m lost right here.” But the idea was that there was some foundational content that I didn’t have. And so again, if in an online course, if some of their content is dependent on some of those other core concepts that they might not have, to remind students that, “hey, this is a difficult reading. And you may want to get some further help in X, Y, or Z.” So again, going back to that whole briefing, and using the assignment as a briefing and giving them clues how to do well in the reading. Some of those comments really have to do with whether students are struggling or not. Because we want to emphasize more clearly the reasons for why we make choices. When we design a course, we really make lots and lots of design decisions and selections as to why I want my students to read X, Y, or Z. And I think sharing that rationale and sharing those reasons, I think, really helps give insight into the metacognitive thinking of the faculty member as well.
Then John, you ask the question, where we talked about little bit about how even when students are doing well, they may not be thinking metacognitively. And I think that it’s important to recognize that these explicit thinking skills about thinking, about visualizing, and about planning, etc, that it would be a good idea to build those visualization and planning into the assignments.
Now, one of the challenges with online courses, and I’ve seen this for years, is the fact that some students don’t have good places to study, they can be living in very busy environments, they don’t have an office, they don’t have a really quiet place to go. And so one of the things that we can do is actually ask the students to post a picture of where they’re going to be doing their studying. It kind of gets them thinking, “Okay, where am I going to be doing my studying? Is it going to be a place that I can really concentrate?” There was one study hint… that I actually just pulled it out, because I gave it my granddaughters…. and it was called “How to study” …and the little hint in there was that when you are sitting down to study, what you do is you find, select or design, some kind of a flamboyant little hat… think Cat in the Hat kind of thing, you know… just flamboyant things, design some kind of a flamboyant hat so that when you put that hat on, you tell your brain and you tell the other people around you that you’re going internal now… you’re really going to think… you’re going to work, you’re going to study. We almost do that nowadays… when I go into my Starbucks, or my local coffee shop… that’s where I do my writing, by the way… I put on my Bose headphones, because again, that signals to the people around me that, “Hey, I’m working, I’m really concentrating.” So if we asked the students to really stop and think, “where am I going to study?” If I’m a family person, and I’m working, “When am I going to study?” That I have to schedule my week, and the times and places that I’m going to do my work and do my studying. And oh, by the way, I kind of have to get my family and my friends on board to say “Yes, John or Rebecca, they’re studying now I can tell they’re studying, you got to leave them alone, give them the time and the space to leave them alone.” For online students I think this is super important for them to build a schedule ahead of time. And again, it recognizes the fact that metacognitively takes time and it takes space in order to do it well.
John: That reminds me of a couple of our previous podcasts, a few episodes back Mathew Ouelett from Cornell, when we were recording, he mentioned that he has a drawing or a painting, I think he did of a tomato, I don’t remember if it was a painting or if he colored it, but he has a big poster with a tomato on his door that he puts up as a signal for faculty to leave him alone because he’s engaged in a pomodoro technique, and he wants to be just focused on this. In a much earlier podcasts, our very second one, Judie LittleJohn was here and we talked about a metacognitive cafe online discussion forum she and I had both used. And one of the things she uses in it, and Rebecca has introduced that in her classes too, is exactly what you suggested, having students describe their study space and perhaps post a picture of it. And then to address all those issues about how well it works, how they deal with distractions, and so on. This ties in nicely to some of our earlier discussions,
Judith: Well great, actually as I was in my Lucky Goat local coffee shop, actually getting ready for this podcast a couple weeks ago, it turns out this young business person came in and he had a briefcase and all the rest of it and I could tell he was kind of settling in… a little too close to me… but that’s okay, there weren’t many seats available. But anyhow, he was talking pretty loudly. And I thought, “Oh, he’s on his phone.” You know, there’s everybody who talks to themselves these days is on the phone, right? And anyhow, we ended up talking to each other partially because he was talking. He said, you know, what he was doing was he was talking to himself about what he was going to do during his time there. And obviously setting his own personal goal. And then he had learned that from his mother. [LAUGHTER] But that does remind me of something else I do want to share. And that is when I do sit down… my own metacognitive practice… when I sit down to do a task… say, I go to the coffee shop, and I got a couple of things I need to do, I write out a mini plan. And list the time I’m starting… list my first subtask, the second sub tasks with approximate time to completion, and everything else. And of course, it doesn’t happen exactly like that. But I do get done, and I do manage to check the pieces off. But then another really important metacognitive practice that I’d like to share is that when I finish that task, I say “What is my next important step?” In fact, David Allen and his book Getting Things Done on Stress Free productivity, thee whole environment, even in business. His primary question is, “What is your next step?” So before you stop where you are, particularly in a writing project, you write down what your next step is. Because it’s totally short circuits, that transition. Because when you sit down, “Yeah, what was I doing now? What do I have to do? What is my next step?” Hey, I can’t tell you the number of hours that that particular little hint has saved me in terms of really making progress and stuff. So that’s another little hint to build into all that project planning. “What is my next step? What do I have to have next?” And sometimes for online learners, particularly, it’s not sitting down and studying, they have to get a resource, or they have to get a book or they have to make an appointment or they have to do something. But then that’s something that doesn’t have to necessarily be done exactly in order. To kind of almost wanting to build a little calligraphy thing, saying “What is my next step?” is a really, really great little hint.
Rebecca: I think experience certainly teaches us that, but it’s something that students who have less experience don’t explicitly know to do. Because we all know that we’ve tried to cut corners and hurry through something. And then if we don’t do that… I know I’ve spent hours figuring out now what was I doing? Like it’s been a while since I’ve worked on this project. Now, where was that? What was my filing system?
Judith: Yes. And what was I thinking? And oh, dear, I wish I bought that along with this other thing with me. Yeah, exactly.
Rebecca: I also wanted to circle back a little bit to the workspaces too. One thing that I found with asking students to talk about their workspace is also to show them professional workspaces. And to talk about the different kinds of environments and how space can help facilitate certain kinds of activities, but also can short circuit certain kinds of activities as well.
Judith: I think that’s really, really helpful. I know, I can’t tell you the number of conversations I had with people when I was in a work environment, and management was making all kinds of decisions that were not conducive to good collaborative work or good independent work. I mean, it’s a real discipline to think about.
John: And you need both spaces, but you will often only have something that’s better for one or the other.
Judith: Exactly, exactly. For any kind of a course, as we’re talking about metacognition, we get overly focused on “what” the students are learning as opposed to the “how.” So just in a capsule comment, that as we are designing online our classroom based courses that we really include in our assignments.. in the design and the various activities… that we include both the “what” of the content and the “how…” How do I get there? And I think we started getting there when they start setting those personal goals. Because some of the courses now are starting to include a goal or a learning outcome that they want their students to think like a scientist. You’re not just learning biology, we want you to think like a scientist. Or we want you to think like an engineer, or an entrepreneur, or whatever. But getting this… it’s a different mindset. You just don’t want to learn what biology is and learn about the content of biology, but I love finding out about the biographies of like Einstein and a few other folks. It’s just fascinating to get into their heads as to the process that they use to do that. Eric Kandle, by the way, is another Nobel Prize winner. He’s got some fabulous book out about his thinking and his processes by which he actually investigated and learned about memory. So… fun.
Rebecca: I think that using biographies is a great way to introduce students to that a little bit.
John: A number of software packages, such as Lumen Learning’s Waymaker package, Norton’s Inquiszitive, and some of McGraw-Hill’s and CENGAGE’s products include attempts at building student metacognition in their products. For example, they’ll ask students questions and they’ll also ask them about their confidence in their responses. The Norton Inquizitive package, in particular, sets it up in a somewhat game-like situation, where they get to bet points on how confident they are. And then it gives them feedback on how they did versus how they perceived they were doing. Do you think this type of approach might be useful?
Judith: I was just reading a research study about that, John, and the students… Who was that by? I would have to go back and find it, I’ll have to email it to you. But the results showed that the students who were less confident…
John: …did better.
Judith: Yeah. Who was that?
John: I don’t remember. I think it was on the POD list, but maybe not, it might have been on an economics list. Consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect, the students who did relatively poorly, had relatively high self perceptions of how well they did that were not reflected in their test scores.
Judith: …So important to be asking the question: “What do I know?” and “What don’t I know?” Because that’s a core, isn’t it? If we can answer that question. In fact, one hint that’s in that book called Make It Stick… which is a real good one… one of the key things I took away from that was the technique or practice of having in a textbook, taking the heading and turning it into a question and then seeing if you can answer that when you finish reading something. So again, “What do I know when I start? What do I know when I finish? And am I able to answer that question? Or am I able to pose another good question based on that?” So explaining to ourselves what I know and what I don’t know, I wanted to go back to that study that we were just both talking about, because my question that occurred to me as I was reading this is that, you know, the problem, I think, is that the study really didn’t really give the students an opportunity to verbalize why they felt confident or less confident, which is, I think, a whole missing piece of that. And I don’t know how they obviously would make designing a study… actually, my dissertation, in fact, I will bore you with the title of it is “Fluent Readers’ Strategies for Assigning Meaning to Unknown Words in Context.” And the thing is that, half the time, they didn’t know that was an unknown word, they just assumed they knew the word. So again, if we don’t know we don’t know something, we can be very confident. [LAUGHTER] But anyway, in order to get the answers to that question of the study, I actually had the students talk out loud to me, they verbalized and I would go back and ask them about the word and say, “What were you thinking when you came to that?” …and all the rest of it. So they had to verbalize their thinking. For me, it was a good study, it really worked. So again, going back to the value of verbalizing,”What do I know?” and “What don’t I know?” and “What do I think I know?” And Rebecca, we got that when you said, “Well, you started talking about what to do, and then you realized you didn’t know anything.”
John: As you suggested before, a really good thing with any project is to think about where you’re going next. And we always end our podcast with the question, “What are you doing next?”
Judith: What a great question. Okay, what am I working on next? I did mention that I just finished a little video for the Distance Learning Conference in Madison in early August. On my back burner, and I’ve been saying this for a couple of years, I would really like to write a book on concepts. What I’d like to do is… I mentioned I love working with faculty, and when we design courses it so often on a topic-to-topic basis. And yet, as I started working with faculty towards the last 10 years or so, I started asking faculty to tell me what their core concepts of a course is. And, you know, faculty, that’ve been teaching for 10,15, 20, even 30 years, they would pause and they’d say, “Uhhhh, [LAUGHTER] you know, we just teach topics,…” as opposed to core concepts. And we think about core concepts are what stay with us when we finish a course, hopefully. So the question really is, what do you expect your students to know, five years, 10 years down the road from what you have been spending all this time and energy on? So I’d like to write a book about thinking about concepts and how to design a course, and focus on problems and concepts rather than topics.
Rebecca: I like that, I think that would be really helpful. Can’t wait to read it.
Judith: [LAUGHTER] I can’t either.
Rebecca: You gotta visualize, you gotta visualize. [LAUGHTER]
Judith: Thank you. You can give it right back to me.
John: We talk a lot about backwards design. But a lot of the classes that many of us teach were not designed in that way. They did not start with those major course learning objectives, and then work backwards to get to that point. And they’re just series of topics taught in the same way that they were taught to them when they were students. And they were taught in the same way as their previous generation taught them. And there’s not always a lot of thought going into that. And that sounds like a really good project.
Judith: Well, thank you, I may call you and see. I’ll need faculty to work with on that project. So I may contact you for that.
Rebecca: I’ll sign up.
John: Be happy to.
Judith: I’d be willing, God be willing that I get going on that. [LAUGHTER]
John: I think we all have a few projects like that. But eventually they often happen.
Judith: Yes, well, actually talking about it is a good thing. Because the more things we write down, and the more things we actually talk about are more likely to happen.
Rebecca: And I have just told the world so it’s gonna have to happen, right?
Judith: Oh, dear. [LAUGHTER]
John: Although if you change your mind, we can edit it out.
Judith: Scratch that…
John: I know I come up with some things after a podcast where I say I want to do this in my class next semester. And once it’s in a recording now, I pretty much have to do it. [LAUGHTER]
Judith: Well, John, before we break up here, when you do go to Duke, what do you teach?
John: I teach economics, introductory micro and macro economics.
Judith: Okay. Sounds great.
John: It’s been a lot of fun. I love doing it. The kids are just so amazing.
Judith: Well, kids are amazing at that age. They really are. It’s wonderful to see them evolving to young men and women. You know, I’ve got eight grandchildren. My oldest is now 19 and a half. In fact, she did microeconomics online, both one and two this summer.
John: Thank you for joining us.
Judith: Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed being here.
Rebecca: This is a lot of fun. Thank you so much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.