Develop your learners’ metacognitive skills to aid their independent learning and boost outcomes
Think of a class you taught this week. Can you name a student who just seems to get it? A student who finds ways of learning from experience, even if they don’t get things right the first time. These students are self-regulated learners, who are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and can motivate themselves to improve their learning. Wouldn’t it be great if every student was like this?
It’s tempting to think some students are just like that. Deep down, if we’re honest, we might believe they’re naturally good at chemistry or they’re simply more motivated and resilient than those around them. But whatever characteristics they may have been blessed with, they will also have been shaped by experiences, both inside and outside of school.
Perhaps they live in a house where science is discussed, so they have a decent background knowledge in the subject, and feel more motivated to study it. Maybe they play in a music group or for a sports team, so they regularly reflect on their performance and learn from mistakes. It might be that when they ask for help with homework, they are prompted to think of something similar they’ve done before, and are encouraged to use this to solve the problem they have.
By explicitly teaching metacognition and scaffolding students’ thinking, we can help them develop into resilient, independent learners
Students come to our lessons with a range of prior knowledge, which we take into account when we teach them. They also arrive with a variety of skills. We need to meet them where they are and help them to develop further.
An important aspect of self-regulation is metacognition – the ability to use prior knowledge to plan a strategy, monitor and reflect on results, and modify your approach as needed. The most successful learners have well-developed metacognitive skills.
Importantly, these skills can be explicitly taught. This teaching is likely to have the most impact within a subject-specific context. Evidence cited in the metacognition guidance report (pdf) from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) suggests that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to use metacognitive strategies, so are most likely to benefit from this explicit teaching.
The EEF’s questioning habits tool (pdf) helps teachers support pupils in planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning with a set of prompts. We can explore how these might be used in science lessons.
Importantly, these skills can be explicitly taught. This teaching is likely to have the most impact within a subject-specific context. Evidence cited in the metacognition guidance report (bit.ly/3MmhLbK) from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) suggests that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to use metacognitive strategies, so are most likely to benefit from this explicit teaching.
The EEF’s questioning habits tool (bit.ly/3GmeG7K) helps teachers support pupils in planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning with a set of prompts. We can explore how these might be used in science lessons.
An important aspect of metacognition is planning how you will carry out a task. For example, one prompt from the tool you might use is: have you seen a task like this before?
This might seem like an obvious starting point. Some students will ask themselves this routinely. But others will take a while for this to become an automatic self-prompt. If a student is stuck on a question, a simple nudge to consider similar problems can be enough to set them on their way again. By incorporating these prompts into our teaching, we can help students build this self-questioning as a habit.
For example, in a question about bonding, prompt students to think about their starting point last time, rather than just asking them to answer it: last time we looked at the periodic table to find where the elements were and what this tells us about their properties.
This article is part of our Teaching science skills series, bringing together strategies and classroom activities to help your learners develop essential scientific skills, from literacy to risk assessment and more.
Once students begin a piece of work, it’s very tempting for them to rush to the end to see if they got the answer correct. But it is worth getting them to pause and think, using this prompt from the tool: is my chosen strategy working or do I need to try something else?
For example, when balancing combustion equations, a student might start by counting (and balancing) the oxygen atoms. But they might quickly discover this doesn’t lead to a useful point. They might use a trial-and-error approach to choosing atoms to balance. It might be useful to prompt them to pause and reflect: which element worked better as a starting point? Why might that be?
The most successful learners automatically reflect on what they’ve done. They use the lessons they’ve learned to develop their thinking further. This is a tricky aspect to teach, especially when pushed for time. But we can help students to develop this way of thinking by structuring reflection after finishing a piece of work. As suggested in the tool, you might ask: what will you do differently next time?
For example, when setting an automatically marked online homework quiz, you could set an additional question, prompting students to reflect on what they’ve done: which question(s) did you get wrong? Why? What will you do next time you’re asked a similar question?
We should use prompts like these regularly. Explicitly teaching students to think like this within a science context will help them to do it when we’re not there. These prompts can all be incorporated into lessons without additional planning or physical resources. The more we use them, the more automatic they become – for us as well as our students.
We cannot control the prior experiences that students bring to lessons. But by explicitly teaching these skills and scaffolding their thinking, we can help them develop into resilient, independent learners.
Recommended reading and resources
- Help students direct their own learning with the ideas from rule 2 in Seven simple rules for science teaching, inspired by the EEF’s Improving secondary science guidance.
- Our Assessment for learning lesson plans are designed to actively involve students in their learning, with prompt questions and reflection time built-in. The activities deal with a range of chemical concepts and span the age ranges 11–14, 14–16 and post‑16.
- Problem solving tutor is an interactive tutorial that encourages students to break down the steps and try different models to solve problems in quantitative chemistry.
- Remind students that learning is important for future careers too, like Layla who uses AI to improve drug discovery.