Focusing on Metacognition in Undergraduate Classes
Undergraduate faculty who teach large introductory lecture courses frequently ask me about how to engage students in the learning process. Faculty members often have little training in education but want to present the material in an engaging way that helps students learn. Although student engagement is a key factor in learning, the students themselves have entered the classroom from a different environment in high school, and some have little practice or experience in how they need to approach learning at the university level, particularly in large classes or classes that meet infrequently.
Structuring the class as a lecture exacerbates this issue. If the class is designed as a lecture, students struggle with how to learn so much “information” when they only meet three days a week. They do this at the expense of losing sight of how the details fit into the bigger picture, which diminishes the transfer of knowledge to applied or theoretical models.
Using Metacognition to Help Students
One key to helping a new undergraduate is guiding their development of skills to be a reflective learner. Students often perceive learning as just attending class and reading the book — both of which are important, but do not focus on some of the difficulty with learning at the university level. So I use class time to focus on learning how information is connected — big picture to details — with a particular emphasis on ways that the material can be learned. In other words, I address students’ metacognition of the material.
Metacognition is critical awareness of one’s thinking and learning, and an understanding of oneself as a learner who can plan, monitor, and assess one’s own understanding and performance. In other words, students addressing metacognition can identify their strengths and weaknesses as learners, writers, readers, test takers, group members, etc., and can identify ways in which to approach these roles. They recognize the limits of their knowledge or ability, and then figure out how to expand that knowledge or extend their ability. Metacognitive practices increase students’ abilities to transfer or adapt their learning to new contexts and tasks by gaining a level of awareness above the subject matter. Students who know and practice these aspects think about the tasks and contexts of different learning situations, and think about themselves as learners in these different contexts (Bransford, et al., 2000; Pintrich 2002, 219-225).
Using BioInteractive Materials in the Process
In my undergraduate biology introductory course (foundations of cell biology and genetics), I utilize many of BioInteractive’s short films and animations to not only help students understand the material, but also to help students reflect on how they are learning the material. I use clickers to pause at moments in the BioInteractive videos where we address metacognitive aspects as well as what is being learned. (Clickers can be purchased, or there are a number of smartphone apps.)
For example, I use several BioInteractive videos in the central dogma section of my course, focusing on the processes of DNA replication, transcription, and translation. Students come to the lecture class having been assigned readings and having watched flipped videos concerning the details of the processes. One of the key metacognitive aspects I ask about is how students are focusing on the information, and if the information to be learned is detailed or big picture. I show this Selective Attention Test video at the beginning of the year and address that students need to see both the big picture and fine details, but that it’s difficult to do both at the same time. Just like in the video, we need to pause and understand what and how we are learning. How do the details link or associate with the bigger picture or with other information? Are there known analogies or metaphors that could help you understand the materials? How are you organizing or classifying what you are learning? Let me provide some examples from BioInteractive’s videos on the central dogma.
DNA Replication Example
I use two videos of DNA replication from BioInteractive:
- The DNA Replication (Basic Detail) video describes the complex model of replication by highlighting only that DNA is copied and that helicase unwinds DNA in both a continuous and a backward way to create two new DNA molecules.
- The DNA Replication (Advanced Detail) video describes the process in much more detail than the basic model. It describes the separated strands as templates and shows copying occurring at a replication fork where new DNA molecules are synthesized by a multienzyme complex. It visually highlights the parts it is describing as it explains the separation of the stands. It also describes the 3’ and 5’ aspect and the leading and lagging strands.
I introduce the activity by showing the “Basic Detail” video first. As students watch the video, I ask them to write down what the point of the video is, as well as two times they have questions, points of confusion, or ideas. This focuses the students on identifying parts of the video they want to understand. Focusing is a metacognitive function, and the process of focusing should be highlighted as the metacognitive process that they are practicing.
I then have students share the times in the videos they wrote down, as well as the questions or points that they wanted to make. Having students share gives them multiple ways in which to learn. I also ask them what helped them to focus, and to think about both the material and their motivation.
Other questions that students can be asked include:
- What ideas would you like clarified?
- First, how do you start to understand?
- What do you already know?
- Is this information part of the big picture or a finer detail?
- What should we approach next?
- Can you relate it to what you already know?
My initial focus for them on the “Basic Detail” video is to have an overview picture first and not to focus as much on the details. Some of the questions initially help to tie the video with the homework and flipped portion that has already occurred.
One of the key aspects of metacognition is recognizing misconceptions. I ask several questions concerning misconceptions such as “When does DNA replication occur in the cell cycle?” or “Does replication begin only at one end of the DNA?” Students respond with their clickers so that all can see answers that are not associated with anyone by name. When they acknowledge their misconceptions, I ask the students why they think they had those ideas.
After working through these questions, I show the “Advanced Detail” video. I break it up into the following sections, stopping at the end of each section to ask questions that explore the process and students’ metacognition in more detail.
- 0:00–0:10 (template strands)
- What do we know so far?
- How is this different from or related to the “Basic Detail” model?
- What triggered your understanding of the previous question?
- What has happened so far?
- What do you find confusing?
- How does the “Basic Detail” model help us understand what is happening here?
- How do we connect the parts? How did you connect the parts?
- What was a misconception you needed to correct? How do you recognize this?
- 0:50–1:19 (leading strand)
- What is a key detail that helps you understand this part of the process?
- What engaged you into wanting to understand it?
- 1:19–2:01 (lagging strand)
- What is the most difficult part of this process to understand?
- Is there a model that helps explain it?
- Can you draw a model with your neighbor that can explain it?
Students are instructed to make the connections and share them with the class. Some of this occurs in small groups, and other parts work by using clickers and asking group questions. I ask students to focus both on learning and on how they learn. A few questions that can help them focus are “How can you extend the information to new questions?” and “Can you make predictions with or model the information presented?”
I end up with students working in groups of four drawing models or writing descriptions about the process of replication. I also have them share with each other how they are doing the organization and modeling for understanding.
DNA Transcription Example
Two BioInteractive videos showing the process of transcription are DNA Transcription (Basic Detail) and DNA Transcription (Advanced Detail). These are like the DNA replication videos in that one provides more of an overview and the other is much more detailed.
Now come several questions for you as the reader of this blog. Go through the “Basic Detail” video and ask yourself the same questions you would want to ask your students, questions that deal with both the big picture and details. Reflect on how you learned them, and how you organized them. What questions would you think of to ask students about the learning of the material? What are ways you have put it together? Write them down and share with your students how you have learned things.
Observations and Assessment
Although students initially struggle with the focus on “learning” of biology, not just what biology is learned, they have embraced it by the end of the semester. They find that they have the ability to approach questions and information differently, and their exam essays demonstrate that with the depth and breadth of how they have approached their learning. The students the following semester often reflect on seeing what we learned last semester together.
I’d love to discuss this and other biology education resources in our Facebook group!
Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann L., and Cocking, Rodney R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Pintrich, Paul R. (2002). The role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory into Practice, 41(4): 219-225.
John M. Moore is a professor in the Department of Biology at Taylor University in Upland, IN. He also serves as the Director of Academic Programs for Taylor’s global center in Cuenca, Ecuador. After 20 years of secondary teaching and 26 at the university level, he is currently teaching Introductory Cell Biology, Principles of Genetics, Evolution and the Nature of Science, and Senior Capstone to biology majors and the Nature of Science to nonmajors. He serves as a Faculty Mentor at his institution at the center for teaching and learning. His favorite hobbies include long-distance hiking, gardening, traveling, and visiting with his children and grandchildren with his wife, Cathy.
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