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Assessment, ENG 1020, Pedagogical Theory, Reflection, Transfer

How did IT get here?

This is the first post of a two-part series written by Adrienne Jankens, Angela Meador, and Thomas Trimble on metacognition’s role in the WSU Composition sequence.

Why Metacognition?

Metacognition and reflection’s roles within the WSU Composition sequence can be traced to two related contexts, one of which was institutionally-specific to WSU, and another connected to theoretical developments in Composition theory and pedagogy.

The first, local context, relates to feedback the Composition Program received from instructors of the University’s Writing Intensive (WI) courses, who via a series of informal conversations and organized focus groups in 2010, communicated concerns that WI students were not demonstrating basic communicative competencies around things like paragraphing, citation, paper formatting, and sentence mechanics.

As a refresher, in order to graduate, every WSU undergraduate must pass a course designated by their department as “writing intensive.” WI courses vary widely from department to department but the stated goal of the requirement is to ensure that students can write proficiently in their major. The WI course is the third written communication requirement of all WSU undergrads, following completion of the Basic Composition (BC) and Intermediate Composition (IC) requirements.

Back to our story…Data from the focus groups revealed that many departments assume the Composition Program’s BC and IC courses are designed to provide students with a set of generalizable writing skills that can be used across all majors. This assumption is problematic, because as work in both rhetorical theory and genre theory has argued, definitions and judgments of writing competency are deeply contextualized within particular rhetorical situations, genres, and discourse community expectations. To complicate matters, when the focus groups convened in 2010, many sections of both our BC and IC courses were centered on assignments featuring Humanities-style argumentative essays, which, our focus groups revealed, differ significantly from many of the genres used in the social and physical sciences. In any case, dissatisfaction among WI faculty with their students’ writing skills encouraged the Composition Program to assess both our assumptions and practices as they related to our courses.

As it turns out, the disconnect between the design of basic and intermediate composition and the expectations of WSU’s Writing Intensive instructors paralleled a similar conversation within Composition and Rhetoric, which played out across a series of articles that began appearing around 2007 and which questioned the degree to which students were transferring, or not transferring, writing skills from their composition classes into their other courses. Many of these arguments were related to ongoing critiques of the role and purpose of first-year writing more generally, but this new work (e.g. Bergmann and Zepernick 2007; Downs and Wardle 2007; Rounsaville, Goldberg, and Bawarshi 2008; Reiff and Bawarshi 2011) tended to focus on issues of rhetorical awareness, genre awareness, and students’ ability to transfer what they learn about writing in their composition courses to other writing contexts.

This interest in transfer inevitably led composition to psychology’s work in metacognition, which most cognitive learning scholars see as the primary pathway to the transfer of learning across tasks. For most scholars writing in the area of transfer, transfer requires metacognitive awareness, which involves both knowledge of one’s thinking processes and the regulation of that thinking before, during, and after the performance of cognitive tasks. One of the primary ways to foster metacognitive awareness, moreover, is through reflection, and it’s this theoretical chain, reflection —-> metacognitive awareness —-> transfer, that led to the Composition Program’s Assessment Subcommittee’s decision to make reflection a key learning outcome of ENG 3010 and 1020.

What is metacognition?

There have been many attempts to define metacognitive awareness, but one that we have found useful comes from psychologists Scott and Levy, who have written about metacognition in terms of two main categories: knowledge and regulation. Knowledge refers to knowledge of oneself, including one’s learning preferences, strengths, weaknesses, etc., and one’s knowledge of concepts and knowledge domains required to complete tasks. More recently, our colleagues Gwen Gorzelsky and Joe Paszek have introduced another category of metacognitive knowledge, which they call constructive metacognition, which refers to knowledge about rhetorical concepts and their application across writing tasks. Regulation, alternatively, involves the ability to deploy knowledge to complete tasks, and involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating one’s efforts.

How can we use Scott and Levy’s categories to think about metacognition?

Our working group has been attending specifically to the question “How do students inscribe metacognitive learning in their reflective argument essays?” We developed this interest because of a years-long discussion in portfolio readings: Where exactly do we “count” students’ writing about Reflection? Do we read only what students are describing in a section of their essays marked “Reflection”? Or do we consider the whole document as reflective, and thus “give credit” for metacognitive moments that occur outside discussion of the Reflection learning outcome? As our readings have tended more toward the latter in recent semesters, we have decided to follow our intuition and focus on this question of metacognitive inscription in our closer reading of texts. But how do we talk about the moves we are seeing in students’ writing?

Scott and Levy’s knowledge/regulation construct has been helpful as we’ve examined the relationship (and sometimes dissonance) between what students know and what they do.  As we discuss below, seeing the distinction between knowledge and regulation has allowed us to identify modes of inscription other than students’ explicit statements of procedural knowledge.  As we have examined these modes of inscription, and the acts of metacognitive awareness we believe they represent, we have become increasingly interested in identifying patterns– in the processes and experiences student writers describe as well as the vocabulary, syntax, and rhetorical structures they use to describe them.

Because they provide a greater level of specificity, Scott and Levy’s subcategories of knowledge and reflection have been helpful as we’ve discussed emerging patterns.  Through coding, we’ve developed a fairly nuanced understanding of the distinction between, say, monitoring and evaluation. (Truthfully, coding has also caused us to bump our heads up against the limits of these categories a fair amount too!)

Categories of Metacognitive Experience or Awareness Examples from Fall 2013 Reflective Argument Essays
Knowledge (knowledge about one’s own thinking and about thinking more broadly) -Person (knowledge about oneself as a writer) I often find myself approaching the deadline for a project with a lot of work left to do in a small amount of time, which means that I give myself less time to go through and make sure that my work is clear and concise. By reflecting on this exercise, I realized that the root of a lot of my problems with writing is time management.
Knowledge-Task (an understanding of the affordances and constraints posed by a project and its circumstances) When writing my discourse essay, I relied on an informal style, because I was writing about something personal that didn’t require any research after the fact…  However, when writing my essay on rhetorical analysis, I had no choice but to use a formal style because I was writing about politics… I was presenting information that was not personal to my own life experiences, and when one must do this, it is essential to write in a formal manner.
Knowledge-Strategy (knowledge of the range of approaches one might effectively use to complete a project) By utilizing this learning outcome as a source to improve on my writing, it also pointed out that it is probably a good choice for me to start re-reading my papers out loud from now on.
Planning (identifying a problem, analyzing it, and choosing a strategy to address it) Because it was a group project, we had to figure out the best way to divide up writing tasks, communicate, and make sure that everything was done on time. This project forced me to break my old habits, because I had responsibilities to the other members of my group. After some reflection, one of my partners, Natasha, and I decided that the best way to organize ourselves would be by writing down the goals of the paper and then creating an outline and a calendar.
Monitoring (evaluating one’s cognition and efforts toward a project) While reading both of these blogs I remembered to keep in my mind that they were biased, and that while they contained exactly the information I was looking for, I had to back up their claims with credible sources.
Regulation/Control (the choices one makes as the result of monitoring) After being introduced to the process of Genre Analysis, which involved taking a deep look at a genre and attempting to figure out how it works, I was able to make many improvements to my first draft. I was able to fix some obvious things like the title and paragraph structure, but I was able to dig even deeper beyond those things. I was able to look at how the authors used language in the genre, and how they communicated ideas. I saw that the movie review genre was written in fairly simple language, to accommodate to the varied audience that the genre has. I was able to take these kinds of ideas and put them into my draft to make it look more like a real movie review.
Evaluation (assessing the quality of a completed project) Another thing I would have done differently is use other forms of sources rather than solely online ones. Referencing books, newspapers, or other forms of print would have varied my sources. This, in turn, would give me a broader scope on the topic and would make the essay more credible to readers, seeing that my research was expansive. Additional evidence from further research would have made my claims stronger.
Constructive Metacognition (reflection across writing tasks and contexts, using writing and rhetorical concepts to explain choices and evaluations and to construct a writerly identity) Recapitulating what I had learned is very important to my reflection process, I now know. While I have always been a reflector, I had never focused on what I gained; usually I reflect on areas I need to fix. The journals made me look at the good and bad of my work, and understand the balance. Not every paper I write is going to be perfect; making mistakes is an important part of learning. Also journaling helped me be able to reflect on these mistakes and understand what is needed to be done differently the next time.


As the taxonomy and examples above demonstrate, the possibilities for how metacognition appears in students’ writing are vast. Our analysis of students’ reflective argument essays is helping us begin to understand the ways students reflect when they write, and we are beginning to think about how the reflective writing we ask students to do during the semester may influence the ways they do reflective writing in the final assignment of the course. Next week, in an effort to bring these concepts more pointedly to our work in the classroom, we will describe our attention to one of these kinds of metacognition–monitoring–and will center our post on how we see monitoring showing up in students’ reflective argument essays and how we might better support students’ development of monitoring as a reflective writing habit.

Adrienne Jankens, Angela Meador, and Thomas Trimble have been part of the 1020 assessment working group since Summer 2013. Assessment Committee working groups are conducting research on collected reflective argument essays to gain deeper insight into student learning related to the Composition Program’s key learning outcomes and to develop teaching strategies for enhancing student learning.


About Chris Susak

For info about me, my research, and my teaching, please visit: www.christophersusak.com


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