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Developing metacognition and higher-order thinking in A-level studies

6 min read

Why metacognition in A-level study?

A-levels are simultaneously intellectually demanding, given the range of higher-order skills involved, and extremely challenging, given the vast amount of content that needs to be covered. Our intervention sought to develop a range of metacognitive strategies across A-level subjects. The work was carried out through our cross-curricular community of practice (Wenger, 1998) and underpinned by Education Endowment Foundation recommendations on metacognition and self-regulated learning (EEF, 2018).

Our hypothesis was that if we, as a teaching and learning community, could upskill ourselves to empower students with metacognitive strategies, and then work collectively to provide students with those metacognitive tools that they require to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning effectively (Flavell, 1979), we would have additional curriculum time to focus on higher-order thinking in our subjects.

While teachers need to be subject-specific in their use of metacognitive strategies, the cross-curricular nature of our endeavour was important, as it provided worked examples that could be adapted for different subjects. This provided an impetus and motivation to trial new ideas within a supportive and trusting community of practice (Bogard et al., 2022). Consequently, we designed strategies, took part in reciprocal peer observations and organised student focus groups in history, economics and English literature to encourage ongoing expansive professional dialogue (O’Leary, 2020) and critical reflection on our practice, through adopting multiple lenses on our pedagogical approach (Brookfield, 2017).

What does this look like in the classroom?

In history, we designed a step-by-step process to encourage students to ‘think like a historian’ as a way in which to engage with contemporary sources. For example, before analysing contemporary sources, students considered the following: ‘What kind of sources do you intend to use to help piece together your arguments, and where might you find them?’ This planning exercise enabled students to have a clearer sense of archival evidence and the work of a historian in collating a range of contemporary sources in order to develop differing perspectives.

The next step was to present students with a list of sources and ask them to consider the following for each: ‘Given what the source is and where it comes from, as well as the wider context, what do I expect the source to say?’ This was deliberately designed to encourage students to engage with higher-level tasks – in this case, addressing and evaluating the source beyond face value. By jotting down what they expected to see or hear and monitoring this process, it helped them to encapsulate the essence of what the source might be communicating, and consider wider aspects beyond content such as language and tone (Bogard, 2023).

The final step was to present students with the source material, asking them to consider the following: ‘Was the source in line with what I was expecting? Were there any interesting omissions? And if so, what might explain this?’ This encouraged students to evaluate their process through thinking more widely about issues relating to purpose, audience and motivation as a way in which to understand notable omissions; for example: ‘Given what was happening at the time, it’s interesting that the source fails to mention… this could be explained by the fact that the purpose of the source might be to…’. 

Student and peer feedback has been positive. Before-and-after surveys were used to capture student responses around the handling and tackling of sources. Seventy-one per cent either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: ‘I feel that I have strategies that I can use to analyse sources as a result of this session’, while 61 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: ‘I feel I have a clearer idea of how sources are selected in A-level history as a result of this session’. In peer feedback, one colleague noted: ‘a light-switch moment’ as the purpose and usefulness of the exercise finally dawned on students. Ultimately, the strategy is designed to provide an analytical framework helping to structure self-regulation over thinking processes (Bandura, 1986), enabling greater confidence and mastery of source-work.

In economics, we used metacognitive strategies to actively engage students with the theory behind monopoly firms – in particular, the issues around dominant firms, including the impact that they have on economic agents (e.g. consumers, suppliers, government) and the effectiveness of regulation. One of the authors designed a tribunal role-play, wherein students were divided into key groups and provided with evidence to form arguments. Each group then presented their case and fielded questions, with two students acting as the appeals tribunal, evaluating all the evidence and reaching a final judgement. Throughout the session, students were encouraged to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning, through responding to metacognitive prompts such as: ‘What are my objectives in this role-play?’, ‘Is my strategy working?’ and ‘Were these objectives met?’.

Student feedback was gauged through written responses and a focus group. Creating time and space for structured written reflection was an essential part of the metacognition process, enabling both students and teachers to review its effectiveness and reflect on how it could be modified and applied across the curriculum. Written comments highlighted appreciation for considering different perspectives, especially those at odds with one’s own position, as well as being able to identify strengths and limitations in the arguments presented. In addition, students managed to link this directly to formal assessment by highlighting skills that they are required to show in an economics essay, such as building chains of analysis, application and evaluation.

From the focus group, all students reflected on how the metacognitive process could be useful across their subjects. For example, students identified the ability to ‘get inside the examiner’s head’ through identifying what the exam board wants in an answer, as well as how questions such as: ‘What am I trying to achieve?’ and ‘Have I met these aims?’ are useful prompts for self-directed learning and revision. One student compared the learning that took place during the role-play to the difficulty of learning a language, reflecting that it was important to be reflective and adapt, as well as to consider different and more creative ways in which to approach the subject, such as initiating role-plays in another language with friends and family.

In English, one of the authors used a series of metacognitive questions to build in more time to reflect on feedback. Having introduced and previously practised this kind of self-reflection and improvement on prior essays in class, the reflective questions were set for homework on Google Classroom. The aim was to discover whether asking questions privately in response to individual feedback would also be beneficial to a class where many seemed concerned about speaking in front of others, and whether this would improve their engagement with self-reflection. Some students used the opportunity to ask questions to clarify their feedback, ensuring a better engagement with the marking.

The student queries demonstrated not only that students need to understand their assessment criteria, but also that they need to understand how the implementation of these actions will fulfil the criteria. In response to these students, the ‘private message’ tool on Google Classroom was used to respond as clearly as possible. Typing rather than responding verbally meant that responses became more precise and thoughtful. The student questions prompted further thinking about what the teaching of these skills entailed, particularly the teaching of evaluative adjectives and connectives in order to improve the quality of arguments.

These responses were then followed up in class with targeted checks to see whether those students had read and understood the response, enabling further verbal clarification and discussions. Over the next few lessons, although moving to a new topic, this information was used to inform greater modelling of these features. This needs to remain a focus on the teaching of this course, where the quality and relevance of the argument is key to students’ attainment. Ultimately, the use of these metacognitive questions allowed most students the chance to reflect thoughtfully and, in some cases, vastly improved the quality and precision of teacher–student dialogue around essay feedback. 

Reflections and next steps 

This remains a work in progress. Institutional priorities take precious time away from our ability to develop our craft and grow as effective teacher-researchers. This all requires commitment and buy-in from senior leadership and a shift in thinking from a deficit lens towards a more expansive understanding of teacher professionalism and development. 

Metacognition provides a genuine opportunity for us to empower ourselves to empower our students to have greater agency over thinking and learning. 

We encourage a metacognitive approach to form a central tenet of curriculum planning and design, with meetings at subject, departmental and whole-school level dedicated to this work. This would enable both teachers and students to reflect on their learning at regular intervals, as well as encouraging critical engagement with the curriculum itself, leading to greater interrogation and independence of thought.

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    Author(s): Bill Lucas