POD Network Conference 2010 – Metacognitive Activities and Disciplinary Thinking

One of the sessions I attended last week at the 2010 POD Network Conference in St. Louis was offered by Matt Kaplan and Deborah Meizlish of the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). The session was titled “Using Metacognition to Foster Students’ Disciplinary Thinking and Writing Skills.” Some thoughts on the session…

I liked the notion of disciplinary metacognition. I’ve tended to think about metacognition as a more general concept, but hearing Matt and Deb talk about disciplinary metacognition made clear what should have been obvious to me, that metacognition in one discipline isn’t quite like metacognition in another. One of the participants at my table argued that all metacognition is discipline / context dependent, which sounds like a defensible claim, too. Perhaps most importantly for our work as faculty developers, I can see faculty responding better to the notion of disciplinary metacognition than more general metacognition. Leading with that idea might interest more faculty in thinking about the role metacognition plays in their students’ learning.

The metacognitive interventions Matt and Deb described included pre-assignment surveys asking students to reflect on the assignment and post-assignment evaluations asking students to reflect back on their work. These seemed to have some impact on student learning, but not as much as the intervention that took place during assignments. Students were asked to self-monitor by reflecting on their writing using the comments feature in Word to tie their reflections to specific passages in their papers. They did so prior to sharing their papers with their peers for feedback, and their comments largely shaped the responses they received to their work from their peers.

It struck me that the sample student comments that Matt and Deb shared showed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the nature of disciplinary thinking and writing by the students. Given my experiences teaching freshmen this fall, I know how difficult it can be to help students understand those disciplinary ways of thinking. I led a discussion of my grading rubric with my students prior to the submissions of their papers as a way to establish those expectations. I can see the self-monitoring activity working very well as a follow-up to this rubric activity.

I was fortunate to sit with Jessie Moore, who coordinates the college writing courses at Elon University. She said that the self-monitoring activity that the University of Michigan folks described is standard practice in writing courses, including those in Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs. Also, when another participant observed that the samples of self-monitoring comments seemed to be as much about writing in general as about writing in the disciplines, I asked Jessie if the WAC community made a distinction between writing in the discipline and “just” writing. She said that they didn’t, that all writing has a particular “rhetorical context” that matters. Her comments made me realize that the faculty development community would benefit by having greater connections with those in the writing community (particularly the WAC community) who do faculty development, as Jessie does.

One more thought on the self-monitoring activity: While it may be common to have students reflect on their own writing and share those reflections with peers prior to peer review, I wonder how common it is for students to engage in this kind of self-monitoring during pre-writing activities. Gabe Cervantes, who teaches English at Vanderbilt, shared an idea along these lines at a “digital writing” workshop last spring. He floated the idea of having students use Twitter to share quotes and insights as they read and research their papers. I think this would be a great way to help students make their thinking more visible to instructors, to other students, and even to themselves.

Image: “Gateway Arch (Again)” by me

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