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Modelling and metacognition in a secondary classroom

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This case study was written by Elizabeth Mountstevens, a secondary science teacher. 

As you read this case study, consider how the teacher uses a variety of modelling approaches in her lessons and the reasons she uses each. Take some time to reflect on what the teacher does, how they do it, what they might do differently and how this might influence your own practice in your own subject. 


A Metacognitive Approach to Problem Solving in Secondary Science

Metacognitive regulation is often described by a plan, monitor, evaluate cycle (Quigley et al. 2018). This is very similar to the mathematical approach to problem-solving described by Polya (1957), which involves 5 stages: getting acquainted, working for a better understanding, hunting for the helpful idea, carrying out the plan and looking back.    

It is possible to adapt this strategy to one which is more easily remembered, called the ‘5Ps of Problem Solving’. These are:

  1. Problem: Familiarising yourself with the problem
  2. Parts: Breaking the problem into its constituent parts
  3. Prior Knowledge: Activating the prior knowledge that is related to the problem
  4. Proceed: Monitoring the plan as it is carried out
  5. Post-mortem: Reflecting on the success of the strategy

This problem solving process can be used for answering exam questions or solving quantitative problems in science. The approach to use when using this strategy with students will depend on the extent to which they are self-regulated learners. Peters and Kitsantis (2010) describe four levels of scaffolding: modelling the process, providing a checklist for a specific task, general metacognitive prompts and linking to scientific thinking.



Modelling the use of the 5Ps of problems solving can be illustrated using a GCSE 6 mark exam question (see Figure 1 below).  When doing this, it is important not just to write an exemplar answer (implicit teaching) but to talk about the decision-making process i.e. why a particular strategy has been chosen (explicit teaching).  The difference between implicit and explicit teaching is important because explicit teaching is much less common but significantly more effective (Kistner et al. 2010). Annotating an exam question using a visualiser or iPad is very useful, although it can also be done by animating the comments in a slideshow.

The following script could be used to talk through this problem:

‘So first of all I look at the problem. I’m looking for key information that is going to help me. The first thing I spot is that the question is about Len’s ideas so I don’t have to consider Mack’s ideas at all. The second thing I notice is that the question asks for examples and data from the table, so I know I need to be really specific and refer to the numbers.

Then I look at the different parts of the question. Well here down the bottom there’s only really one question so how do I structure my answer? I’m going to look at what Len says in more detail. OK, here he refers to the bonds in elements and compounds. So perhaps I could have one paragraph on the bond energy in elements and one paragraph on the bond energy in compounds.

Then thinking about my prior knowledge, I know the order of the halogens: fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine. I know that elements only have one type of atom and compounds have two. Perhaps I could make a note of these things in the margin. I’ve answered 6-mark questions before so I know a good strategy is to highlight key facts in the data. So here for the elements I can see that the energy gets weaker down the group but here I can see fluorine doesn’t match that. And here in the compounds I can see that the energy gets weaker down the… Hang on a minute, bromine and chlorine aren’t in the right order so that means that HCl is an exception.’

There are several important points to highlight when modelling the question. Students often write vague answers, without quoting the information given.  Highlighting the part of the question that requests this can help them to spot similar phrases in future. The second important point is to encourage students to plan their answers by considering how they will group ideas together. Some of the marks in these questions are for the quality of written communication and therefore it is important to structure them well. The final point is the importance of considering prior knowledge when looking at the question. Connecting ideas together and to an unfamiliar context is something students find particularly challenging and encouraging them to pause and reflect on this will help them practise.

After all that discussion, the students could be asked to write down their answer. In order to complete the process they could then reflect on the success of their answer and discuss the strategies they used.



If the students are more familiar with the process, then the following checklist could be used to help them analyse the question before they write their answer.

Table 1:  Checklist for use with the above six mark question


Whose ideas am I focussing on in the question?

Do I need to use any information from the tables in my answer?


How many parts are there to the question?

How could I divide my answer into two paragraphs?

Prior Knowledge

What do I already know about the halogens?

What do I already know about elements and compounds?

What do I already know about answering six mark questions?


Do I know what to write next?

How can I ask for help?


Did I include all the points in the mark scheme?

Did I make any mistakes in spelling or grammar?

Did my structure work well?


Metacognitive Prompts

As students develop better skills in self-regulation and are more confident with a model such as the 5Ps of problem solving then the prompts (Table 1) can become more general so that they can be applied by students to unfamiliar examples (see Table 2).  Other examples of prompts can be found in the EEF report on Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning (Quigley et al. 2018).

Table 2:  Metacognitive prompts provided to students for use with the 5Ps of problem solving


What am I being asked?                           

What information is given in the question?


What are the different parts of the question?

Prior Knowledge

What do I already know that relates to this question?

How have I answered similar questions before?


Are my strategies working?


Would I add/remove anything if I answered again?

Could I structure my answer better?



Kistner S, Rakoczy K, Otto B, Dignath-van Ewijk C, Büttner G and Klieme E (2010) Promotion of self-regulated learning in classrooms: investigating frequency, quality, and consequences for student performance. Metacognition Learning. 5(2):157-171.

Peters E and Kitsantas A (2010) The Effect of Nature of Science Metacognitive Prompts on Science Students’ Content and Nature of Science Knowledge. Metacognition and Self-Regulatory Efficacy. School Science and Mathematics. 110(8), 382-397.

Polya G (1957) How to solve it. Anchor Books. Princeton

Quigley A, Muijs D and Stringer E (2018) Metacognition and Self-regulated learning guidance report. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/metacognition-and-self-regulated-learning/ (accessed January 2020)


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