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ENG 1020, Lesson Plans, Tips for Teaching

How did IT get here? Part II: Strategies for Supporting Students’ Development of Metacognitive Inscription

This is the second post of a two-part series written by Adrienne Jankens, Angela Meador, and Thomas Trimble on metacognition’s role in the WSU Composition sequence.
Comic courtesy of xkcd. Read this and other great comic ideas here: http://xkcd.com/917/

Comic courtesy of xkcd. Read this and other great comic ideas here: http://xkcd.com/917/

In our previous post, we provided an overview of the theoretical and pedagogical context behind the Composition Program’s interest in metacognitive awareness and reflection. The core argument we described is that learning transfer requires metacognitive awareness and that written reflection facilitates the development of metacognitive awareness.

Research that we began this past Summer is focused on identifying and describing the ways in which students inscribe metacognitive awareness in their end-of-semester reflective argument essays. Our goal is to identify and describe what metacognitive awareness actually looks like in student writing. From there, we hope to develop teaching materials that will help instructors facilitate the development of metacognitive awareness through reflective writing activities. With that in mind, in this post we’d like to take up how we as teachers can work to do that.

What is monitoring?

After our initial work with coding, we became especially interested in monitoring–the act of evaluating one’s thinking and efforts toward a project.  Whereas evaluation is focused on products, monitoring focuses on processes.

Since so much of our work as writing teachers is focused on helping our students to engage in writing as a process, we felt that taking a closer look at how the ways students inscribe monitoring in their reflective arguments could be directly relevant to our teaching.  It is in the act of monitoring that we make our abstract knowledge into something tangible.  When student writers monitor successfully, they move from simply knowing what they should do, to knowing when they are succeeding in doing that thing. Just as importantly, from the standpoint of learning, student writers can also know when they are not succeeding. If we consider scaffolded learning, monitoring represents that moment when a learner has internalized a concept or skill to the point where she can act autonomously.  Since we can’t teach the writing conventions of every discipline in 1020, helping our students to develop this kind of autonomy is critical.

In the reflective arguments, monitoring occurs when students are able to move beyond simply “fixing the mistakes” their teachers and peers point out to them, to actively determine for themselves what is working and what isn’t.  Throughout the coding process, we’ve been interested in comparing ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ examples of metacognition from all of the categories.  If the stronger examples of monitoring have provided us with models, the weaker examples have revealed potential opportunities for intervention.

Stronger example of monitoring: If you look at my project four, you will notice that it has a different focus than the research question in my project three. This is because, over the course of my research for my project three research question, I discovered a more narrow research question. My original topic, regarding the ethical issues of prenatal genetic testing, was proving difficult to research because it is such a new technology. However, through an article I found originally for a small section on prenatal testing, I discovered that there are very few laws regarding genetic testing and the problems it can lead to. Because of this, I ended up changing my research question to research the legal side, rather than the ethical side of genetic testing.

Weaker example of monitoring: When trying to describe people as weapons, I decided to look at major events in history, such as the Hitler Youth and the problems with Joseph Kony in 2012.  In order to support this argument, I needed to research both topics fluently.  Doing so, I read lots of articles online and watched videos that provided key information to corroborate the position I was taking.

In addition, we are interested in those reflective arguments that weren’t coded for monitoring:  are the students who wrote these arguments relying more on other metacognitive activities (such as evaluation)?  Or are they simply not inscribing their monitoring in ways that we recognize?  In both cases, there is potential for intervention.  In the first case, we can help students to expand their metacognitive “tool-box” and support their development of a more flexible writing process.  In the second case, there are two pressing reasons to intervene.  On the one hand, since our program assessment is centered on students’ reflective argument essays, we can only conduct this assessment on what is actually inscribed in those texts–not by what we might have to find “in between the lines” or by what context we might need to understand from students’ instructors. Therefore, it is critical that students can effectively express the full range of their metacognitive processes.  Even more important is the role of articulation in the reflective process throughout the semester–when students inscribe their metacognitive processes they make them visible not only to us, but to themselves.

We want to be careful to note that we don’t want or expect teachers to memorize or teach these categories. Instead, we want to give them ways to access these metacognitive constructs with their students, to support teaching and learning by thinking about how to work with students on developing this knowledge about writing through reflection.

How can we use our readings of students’ reflective arguments to improve our teaching?

While we can use the data to crunch and share interesting numbers about students’ performances in writing, the goal of our project at large is program assessment–we use assessment of students’ reflective arguments to help us understand how to develop pedagogical practice that better supports students’ learning about writing. Our reading of students’ reflective argument essays in the semester assessments has led to significant discussions during portfolio reading sessions and to course revisions like scaffolding reflective assignments and revising course learning outcomes. It also leads us individually to make teaching decisions and changes (for example, if one semester an instructor sees her students struggling with writing about the Reading outcome, she may reflect on whether and how she is helping them learn how to engage in critical reading and analysis, and can develop strategies for the upcoming semester). Our efforts in this working group to learn from reflective argument essays return us to thinking about how we might make teaching recommendations for all 1020 instructors. Through our focus on monitoring, we have been reflecting on ways to better integrate attention to monitoring throughout students’ work in 1020. Below are some activities we think might be helpful as students work through making decisions about their writing process and projects.

What are some ways we can incorporate monitoring into meaningful reflection activities?

Adrienne: Tuning-in journals

About six years ago, finding that my most frequently given revision process advice was to ask students to read their work out loud to themselves to attend to what they hear and notice about their work, I decided to see what happened when I required this attentive reflection of students as part of my composition courses. I developed what I call Tuning-In Journals. Later, reading Peter Elbow’s “Revising by Reading Aloud” (2011), I was happy to see pedagogical theory backing up what I intuitively knew worked for my students, helping them think about their writing goals and how their ideas were playing out on the page.

Lately, I have students write their tuning-in journals partway through the I-Search assignment.  We’re far enough into the semester that they are figuring out how their writing process is shaking out in the university environment and early enough in the semester that, should they find this practice useful, they can use it on their own for future writing tasks. In the last couple of semesters, I have asked them to make ties between what Elbow says about revising by reading aloud and/or what Toby Fulwiler says about voice in “Looking Listening for My Voice” (1988), as a way for them to think about larger concepts of writing along with this micro-moment of working through the I-Search draft.

For this activity, I ask them to read Elbow and Fulwiler and then do the following:

After you have completed a pretty solid draft of your I-search essay, set it aside for a while (a day, or at least several hours). Come back to it when you have a quiet space to work in. Read your essay aloud once or twice. As you read, think about things like:

  • Does it sound the way you want it to?
  • Does something sound brilliant? Strange? Why?
  • If something is not like you want it to be, what do you plan on doing about it?
  • Does the essay sound like you? Academic you? Informal you?
  • What was going on while you wrote your draft that might have influenced your writing?
  • What other things are you thinking about or noticing while you read and hear your draft?
  • You will listen for and pay attention to these and other things while you read.

Then, after you have read your work aloud a few times, or while you are reading it, spend time writing about  the things you heard or noticed while you read, your reactions to these things, and what, if anything, this will do for your revision process. After writing this reflective section, consider how you can make ties between what Elbow and/or Fulwiler write, and what you experience as you look at, read, and reflect on your draft. Write a paragraph making these connections between one or both of these texts and your experience examining your draft.

Thomas: In-class journaling

One big advantage of using student journals as part of a scaffold of reflective activities is that many instructors already use journaling as part of their teaching practice. For those teachers who already use journaling, reflective prompts don’t require carving out class time from an already packed schedule. For those instructors, like me, who don’t regularly grade journals, this teaching strategy also doesn’t add additional grading work. While reflective journaling works best when it is part of a broader scaffold of graded reflective activities, reflective journals can also be a great start-up option for instructors who are just beginning to add reflection to their course design.

Since I teach in a computer classroom, students in my class are free to journal using whatever medium they wish: in a paper composition portfolio, on a blog they’ve created, or on a single Google Drive doc dedicated to journaling. My students usually journal at the very beginning of class for 10-15 minutes, and like all journal activities in my course, students are encouraged to write for the entire time, even when they feel like they’re stuck or have run out of things to say. At the end of most journaling activities, I ask students to re-read what they’ve written and to answer some kind of follow-up question about their entry. Sometimes I ask them to describe the person who wrote the post. Sometimes I ask them to assess their level of investment in the activity using a scale of 1 to 5.  Occasionally, I pass out 3×5 cards and ask students to come up with a question or discussion prompt that we can use in class.

Here’s a partial list of the reflective prompts I’m using this semester. In parentheses next to each prompt, I indicate the metacognitive category that’s most relevant to the prompt. Students don’t normally see these categories printed with the prompt, but they could depending on how explicitly the course unpacks the concepts.

  • Earliest Memories of Writing (person) Describe, in as much detail as you can, your earliest memories of writing. Use these questions to jog your memories: How old were you? Where were you? What kind of technology did you use (cheerios, refrigerator magnets, crayons, keyboard, etc.). What kind of reaction did you get from those around you?
  • Writing Timeline (person) Thinking back to your earliest memories of writing that you wrote about last week, try and create a timeline that represents your changing attitudes about writing throughout your life so far. In your journal entry, try and describe important moments and/or experiences that have shaped your attitudes about writing up through the present day.
  • Project 1 Reflection (monitoring) Describe what you think you learned about writing during Project 1 (not what you learned about movie reviews, but what you learned about writing). Describe what you learned about your own writing process. Describe what you learned about yourself as a new college student.
  • One Month Check-In (person) Now that we’re about a month into the semester, describe how things are going with your first semester of college (even if this isn’t your first term). What’s going well? What’s not going well? What’s the biggest surprise? (person)
  • Genre Analysis Reflection (monitoring) What was the hardest thing about this week’s concepts and completing the Genre Analysis Worksheet assignment? What previous learning experiences either helped you complete this week’s assignment OR made it more difficult?
  • Reading Strategies (task) In a blog post of 300-400 words, identify and describe the different reading strategies you use to read difficult texts. If you need to use this post to name those strategies for the first time, go ahead and do that. Next, describe which of those strategies you used to help read Swales’ chapter. Identify a passage from Swales’ chapter you had a particularly hard time dealing with and describe how you used your strategies to work through it. If you reached a dead end with one of Swales’ passages or the entire text, talk about your difficulties and explore why you think this text was so hard to understand.
  • Research Papers (task) Describe what you’ve been taught about academic research papers. If you have written an academic research paper, describe the assignment and the paper you wrote. What do you think college instructors expect from such papers? What do you think is difficult about writing research papers?

Angela: Writing notes

Like Tom and Adrienne, I also use journals to support reflection throughout the 1020 course I teach.  I love the way they encourage students to turn knowledge about writing into knowledge about their own writing (and about themselves as writers).  I also think they are an amazing tool for promoting reflective evaluation.  However, I’ve had less success with using journals to promote monitoring during the writing process.  While journal assignments that require planning for future writing assignments and new rhetorical situations have helped, many of my students seemed to need more.

As I was thinking about all of this, I became interested in the method used by Linda Flower at Carnegie Melon (in which first year writing students were asked to make audio-recordings of their thought processes as they wrote).   While Flower was more interested in how students could use these recordings to promote reflective evaluation (as students replayed their recordings at a later point), I thought these kinds of recordings might also help students to monitor (and regulate) their writing process in the moment.  Then, I thought about how cumbersome, distracting, and expensive this kind of project would be, and I set about creating a less ambitious version.  What I came up with was writing notes.

Like writing journals, writing notes require students to reflect on their writing process. However, these notes are completed at various points during the drafting of a writing assignment– which means they are completed more frequently, and they are much shorter (they also don’t require any written feedback from me, which is a plus).   While I don’t use Scott and Levy’s terminology with my students, the notes I assign typically fall in line with their categories.  Students keep notes on their person, task and strategy knowledge, as well as their planning, monitoring, and evaluating (Unlike pre-writing, where students explore their topic and how they’ll approach it, planning notes focus on habits students would like to develop as they write, as well as strategies they might use to develop those writing habits).

When students are given a new writing assignment, they are asked to estimate the time they think they will need to complete the first draft.  When students are half-way through the time they estimated for the draft of an assignment, they complete their monitoring notes.

During the first assignment, prompts for monitoring notes are exploratory:

  •   Do you think you accurately predicted the amount of time it would take to complete this draft?  If you think you’ll need significantly more or less time than you expected, why do you think this is?
  •   So far, what has been your biggest challenge with completing this draft?  Is this a challenge you often face when your write or a new/rare challenge?  What have you done so far to deal with this challenge?  Is it working?  What plans do you have as you continue drafting your paper?

Students use their monitoring notes from the first assignment to develop plans for drafting the second assignment.  When they complete their monitoring notes, they are prompted to evaluate their plans:

How closely have you followed your plan?

  •   If you have followed the plan:  What seems to be working?  What doesn’t seem to be working?  Are there adjustments you would like to make to your plan?
  •   If you haven’t followed your plan:  When do you think you went off plan?  Why do think this is?  Do you need a strategy for staying “on plan” as you finish the rest of your draft or is there a reason you should revise or replace this plan? If so, what is your new plan?

After the second assignment, students are often able to customize their own monitoring prompts to fit their own needs.  In many cases, students need a little support as they do this, but can take more responsibility by the end of the semester.

Wrapping Up

As we hope these sample activities show, incorporating reflective activities into your class design does not have to happen overnight. Starting with a single tuning-in journal or series of reflective journal entries can spark thinking for both you and your students. There is, of course, the need to prepare students to plan and write the reflective argument essay at the end of the semester, so every reflective activity will help. As such, we hope these sample activities will inspire the creation of variations and new activities that can become a part of our collective toolbox. Please feel free to leave us your ideas, concerns, and suggestions as a comment below.

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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