How Can We Teach Students To Think About Thinking?

Possibly the most useful skill you can teach your students

Written with Maya Bialik.

You overhear a student talking to another student. ‘Hey, I’ll give you my cookie if you give me that gum.’ The other student nods — a successful transaction occurs.

This is a trade-off, a basic economic term often defined by the sacrifice of something to obtain a good or service. I’m in awe as I watch my students play out the concept in real-life and have high hopes for them as I hand out their vocabulary quiz.

But wait! As I grade the quizzes later that evening, I see that the student got the definition for trade-off wrong. He lived the concept! Why wasn’t he able to transfer his knowledge to his work? AHH!

This is where the concept of metacognition comes in. Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking. Since this student had maybe never really thought about why he would have wanted to trade a cookie for the gum- or at least how it might connect to class material- it never occurred to him that he might be playing out a very important economic principle. When students reflect on how they think and learn, they are more likely to be able to apply principles and methodologies in various contexts and to transfer knowledge and skills across disciplines.

As educators, it is important to provide opportunities where our students can become aware of how they individually engage with the process of learning. If we strive to incorporate metacognitive strategies into our instruction, our students are more likely to become better learners and problem solvers, who can apply principles across disciplines.

This isn’t easy, but the results can be profound. By ensuring students learn to set goals, adopt strategies, and evaluate progress, we can help them internalize a growth mindset. Students who understand that they can take charge of their learning by understanding how they think will most likely come to appreciate the power of effort and will embrace challenges because they will have the tools to overcome them.

In the classroom, there are various ways we can attempt to incorporate metacognitive strategies into instruction. First and foremost, we should tell our students about the power of metacognition. If students know to consciously think about how they learn and are asked to identify struggles, strengths, and patterns in their learning, they will become better learners. Awareness of metacognition is the first step in getting students to think about how they think.

As teachers, we can model metacognitive strategies by telling our students our thought process as we explain a problem. We might also ask students why they think we approached a problem as we did. The more we consciously express how we think about our own thinking, the more the habit will become ingrained in our learning. Students can also practice this strategy with one another by explaining the various ways each approached a similar problem.

Metacognition is not just knowing how you learn, it’s also about doing something with the information. If a student knows they suffer from test anxiety or that they have a tendency to procrastinate, they should be encouraged to act on that knowledge and improve. When students have identified struggles, teachers should encourage their students to employ strategies or goals that would help them overcome their struggles. In this way students are not only thinking about thinking, they are employing that knowledge to their advantage.

Finally, we can set up a classroom environment that best supports metacognition by the priorities and expectations we set for our students. If we praise progress and effort — not just superior marks- we demonstrate that mastery can be achieved through hard work and not just through sheer intelligence. By encouraging students to set and achieve goals, helping them to dissect the strategies they utilize as they approach problems, we develop students who can take charge of their own learning.

We want students to get students thinking about thinking. If you have suggestions or approaches that have worked for you and your students please pass them along!