September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Fostering Metacognition Through Assessment

Posted: Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

by Jill Grace

Assessment…

When I ponder that word, I am flooded with various – shall I say – feelings. And these feelings are deep-rooted feelings. On one hand, as a teacher, assessment is simply the cornerstone of understanding how my students are doing from beginning to end of instruction. Building a classroom culture where students are expected to have conversations about content provides me with a special window to listen in – are they getting it? I don’t need to give a quiz or a test, I just need to listen. I often look over their shoulders, peering into their personal thinking as they describe what they understood in their science notebook. I assess constantly, daily, by the minute just by being present walking around the classroom.

I have learned the hard way, however, that middle school students need a push. They are the amoeba in life, transitioning between the elementary student who would give everything to please the teacher, and the high school student who has some high stakes on the horizon. Their pseudopods reaching out, trying to engulf any ounce of praise, yet suddenly retract because, OMG – I am terrified at the realization the learning is on me.

One of my greatest challenges has been helping students with this transition. I will admit I give quizzes weekly. Although I don’t always need this in order to know if they “got it”, I feel I have to in order to force the development of personal study skills. By 7th grade especially, the content comes fast and is measurably more technical. Students have to put in the time if they’re going to grasp it. They have to give something, and this is the age they learn how (and I have to give them explicit strategies for this). A quiz helps raise the bar a little bit, and if the bar isn’t raised, why would a middle school kid even waste time on an endeavor such as studying? Quizzes also have the added benefit of helping the student personally gauge where their understanding is. Trust me, I would pay a pretty penny to not ever have to grade a quiz again. I think parents would too, as I reflect on typical conversations that go something like this, “how did Taylor do on the quiz because, you know, she could get her cell phone back if she got a good grade”.

It occurs to me that this is a system that has resorted to bribery.

How do we change direction? When do I stop having kids tell me, “thank you”, when they get a good grade on a project? (This one always throws me. “Thank you? Sweetie, YOU were the one that earned the grade.”)

How do we get kids to intrinsically embrace and be accountable their own learning?
The other issue in play is that middle school students struggle greatly to adequately evaluate their personal work. They have what I affectionately refer to as, I am awesome syndrome; they’ve worked hard, the grade should be an A, despite the fact that they failed to address several requirements of the assignment.

I have no magic answer, I think this is something that we all struggle with and no doubt the answers will differ depending on the group of students you teach. What I do know is that these problems stem from middle school students being at an age where they transition from just doing what a teacher told them to do, to developing a lens for their own work. They are learning to develop that “inner voice” that adequately and fairly thinks about work quality. They are developing metacognition. In order for positive shifts to happen, teachers have to foster the development of metacognition.

One of my biggest successes in developing metacognition has come from the use of the Interactive Science Notebook, which I previously wrote about in this article. There are three particular components that stand out: the use of the notebook on quizzes, a correlation between quiz scores and work quality in the notebook, and finally, involving students in the evaluation of the notebook itself.

To promote good work in the notebook, I allow the students to use it the last two minutes of a quiz. One of my intentions behind this is that I’m really not trying to stress students out all of the time by giving quizzes – if you forgot something or realize you didn’t study that part, your notebook can save the day. This technique fosters the behavior of students wanting to make sure their notebook is complete and of good quality because they will see an immediate benefit: their notebook will help them get a better grade on the quiz. This provides immediate reinforcement of a behavior we want to see. At this age, kids need to see fast reinforcement for their efforts

Students working collaboratively to determine the quality of work in their Interactive Science Notebooks.

Students working collaboratively to determine the quality of work in their Interactive Science Notebooks.

The use of the notebook to both prepare for the quiz and also use on the quiz has actually also prompted some valuable discussions with my students. I’ve recently had several students feel frustrated because they feel everything is in place for their notebook, but they aren’t getting the quiz grades they would like to see. I will often have a lunch meeting with these students and we take a look at their outputs. Probably 90% of the time the issue is that their outputs are surface level – they aren’t elaborating or connecting new ideas to old ideas. Once I’ve pointed this out, we look at a couple notebooks from last year’s students and compare the same page (I will usually have a notebook from a “high” and a “medium” student). I will ask them to consider what those students did that was different from their own work. This helps them better understand how they can make some slight adjustments to their work to get the outcome they desire.

The most effective technique I’ve found to foster metacognition is involving students in the process of evaluating the notebook. Although I grade a big chunk of work, for example, homework and some lab/classwork is graded separately, the students are asked to think about work quality at the end of the unit. This process is a mystery to students the first time, despite doing my best to explain it as they learn how to use the notebook and providing a rubric. However, the students finally understand the notebook as a tool once they’ve been involved in the process. The work is no longer about external reinforcement (“the teacher gave me a good grade”), it’s now their evaluation of the quality (“I feel that this page demonstrates higher level thinking because…”). The added benefit of having to go above and beyond reinforces this. Students only get a 90% on the page if they just do what the teacher asks, and to get 100% you have to go above and beyond. This process is so transformative I see a significant improvement in work quality with their second unit.

I’m often asked about the actual logistics of the notebook check. Here are a few:

  • I move desks and sit students in groups of six. This provides several work samples to promote discussion among students.
  • In working with my administrative team, we felt that it was more subjective for the students to do “page-by-page” grading rather than making an overall judgment about features of the unit. The students score each page and then the overall notebook score is an average. I have other colleagues that will randomly select a few pages in the notebook and just grade those if they need to save time.
  • The students rotate the notebooks in the team so they are all mixed up and are asked to look at everyone’s pages and come to consensus on scoring. Although they are marking the sheet in front of them, they are all involved in the discussion and evaluation.
  • I facilitate the first couple notebook checks by going page-by-page. We review the expectations of the page, what “going above and beyond” looks like, I even hold up some notebooks that demonstrate that. By the third notebook check, the students understand the process and choose a notebook that looks like the “100%” – the student who owns that notebook is now the group facilitator. The entire team is expected to work together (no one can “go ahead” of the team). If someone has a question about scoring, the group discusses it, “the student really elaborated on their output and didn’t just do the minimum so that page should be 100%”.
  • Very important – I walk around the entire time listening to the discussions and redirecting if necessary. The students know I’m listening.
  • At the end of the notebook check, if a student has a concern about scoring, the entire team is involved in re-evaluating pages of concern. If there is still a concern, the student can come to me and we go through it together. To be honest though, the kids do such a great job that it is highly unusual that a grade needs to be changed.
  • One final comment here: by the time the team takes over facilitation, this is a very positive process. I make a point to foster a community of respect and collaboration in the room. Students are really evaluating the work, not the student, and that’s really important. Their discussions are collaborative and productive and they all share the responsibility.

This is where the shift happens for student in my classes – the work isn’t about doing what the teacher said, it’s about taking the personal responsibility to “step it up”. The shift happens within one unit of instruction. Eventually, by about mid-year another interesting shift takes place, I don’t have to grade everything anymore. The students do a good job on the work because they know it benefits them. I can instead target my grading on pieces where I’m trying to see a new skill emerge so I can give feedback.

Having a parent recently tell me, “I can’t tell you enough how your class has helped my son’s perception of himself as a student”, helps reassure me that this is a process that moves students in the right direction. It’s not easy and it takes time, but seeing my students grow in this area is encouraging. I’m helping students transition to become independent learners, providing quality opportunities for them to improve their understanding, giving them the chance to be self-reflective about the quality of their work, and making it less about pleasing the teacher and more about how students see themselves. Oh yes, and the added bonus of students gaining a deeper understanding of the content in the process. Thank you Interactive Science Notebook

How about you? What assessment techniques have worked for you? How have you helped students improve metacognition? Join our conversation on our California Middle School Teachers Facebook group. (Not a member of the group? Send us a join request then check your “other” message box for verification.)

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

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