Metacognition and the Language Learner

The teacher walks into his foreign language classroom for the first time and sees a wide variety of students. It is a combination of male students and female students, younger students and older students, and students from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. He thinks he has the diversity of the class figured out. Or does he?  Apart from the obvious diversity lies a less-obvious but highly relevant classroom dynamic. If not noticed and assessed properly it can be a mighty learning inhibitor. What could it be?

One answer is metacognition. Simply defined, metacognition is learning how to learn or thinking about how to think. In the case above, the teacher has a classroom of students with a variety of learning skills. Some students might have poor study and thinking skills while others have good ones. Some students might think they have good thinking and learning skills but in reality, they do not. While others, on the other hand, have much better skills than they realize. The teacher that is quick to recognize each student’s ability can be a more effective teacher as he strives to better prepare his students for their learning journey.

But who is responsible for student learning, the teacher or the student? The answer is most likely both parties. Teachers need to provide a pathway for learning to accommodate all students, while the students must do their part and practice what they have been taught. This needs to be recognized by both parties.

Originally studied to analyze cognitive development in young children (Baker & Brown, 1984), researchers soon realized that metacognitive practices were applicable to everybody (Hatano & Inagaki, 1986). Most notable is its relevance in the classroom, or anyplace there is a teacher and learner dynamic. Intuitively, students who know about different learning strategies, and can better understand their own learning will be better learners. They will be aware of their strengths and weaknesses and adjust their approach accordingly. Students who are not proactive learners, or think they are better learners than they are, will struggle with their learning and become frustrated. This is quite common and something teachers need to address.

To begin the process of understanding the metacognitive process, teachers might begin the class with a pretest, demonstrating how much each student remembers from a previous learning experience. From this point, benchmarks can be set and teaching strategies identified. As the class progresses, teachers can monitor each students progress thereby reinforcing, or not reinforcing their teaching approach. Once students with poor metacognitive skills are identified, teachers must next teach them how to think and study.

An effective way to reduce the impact of poor metacognition is to use formative assessment techniques (Lang 2012). Formative techniques are brief, low-key activities that students can give both themselves and the teacher feedback about their level of understanding. Examples or formative assessments would include: Think-pair-share activities, minute papers, using social media and/or clickers, or self-assessment. These simple techniques can make learning fun and get students excited about being in class. The more passion they have for learning, the easier it becomes to learn new things.

Formative methods allow students to assess their learning in a more comfortable, less threatening manner than summative assessments which tend to be more formal and pressure filled.  Formative techniques help students study and learn more effectively before exams and are less likely to intimidate when the larger, summative exams are administered.  Moreover, they allow teachers to assess how all their students are learning so they can adjust their techniques accordingly.

In my opinion, nowhere is the variety of thinking and learning diversity more pronounced than in a foreign language classroom. This is why metacognition is an important area to understand. People are most likely learning the English language for a variety of reasons. Some might really want to learn as they need it to improve their work standing, while others might not share the same level of importance. The new language might be a casual hobby to them and learning it therefore becomes a lower priority. Some students might be really good students by nature, while others might not be. Some might have college degrees while other might simply have a basic reading level.  The teacher most therefore understand why all the students are there and do what they can to stimulate their learning level. Because each student is in a different “place” in regard to their thinking and learning teachers must work extra hard to insure their students are learning.

A student saying they are not good at something is not an excuse for not learning. It only means that they must have to work hard at it. That means that they must be willing to commit the time. If a teacher can use techniques to improve metacognitive skills by making it easier for the student to think and study, the student should learn more and the teacher will enjoy showing him the way. Watching students learn and become better thinkers is what teaching is about. Above all else, effective teaching is a labor of love.

Baker, Linda, and Ann L. Brown. “Cognitive monitoring in reading.” Understanding reading comprehension (1984): 21-44.

Hatano, Giyoo, and Kayoko Inagaki. “Two courses of expertise.” (1986).

Lang, James M., “Metacognition and Student Learning.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (2012).

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