GUEST POST: How to Think About Thinking - Metacognition in the Classroom

GUEST POST: How to Think About Thinking - Metacognition in the Classroom

By Bella Abdurachmanov

Bella Abdurachmanov is a writing instructor and educational writer. Bella teaches college writing and creative writing at Touro College, hoping to impart a love of learning to all of her students. As Editor of The Learning Mind, a project of Kars4Kids, she studies the science behind how people learn best. You can find her on Twitter @learning_mind.

Header image by Tyler Olsen, Couresy of Shutterstock

What’s Our Goal?

Our job as teachers is to make ourselves irrelevant. At least, that's how I look at it.

I would be very happy with a student who walks away from class with the tools to continue learning without me. That's the goal—to create lifelong, self-sustaining, motivated learners.

The key to accomplishing this goal is to foster metacognition in our classrooms. Metacognition is about recognizing the process of our thinking. Our classrooms have to become alive with self-reflection, self-evaluation, goal-setting, and students taking responsibility for their learning.

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, a leader in the field of Mind, Brain, and Education Science, defines metacognition as an awareness of our depth of knowledge:

“The process of considering and regulating one's own learning and thinking processes. Activities include assessing or reviewing one's current and previous knowledge, identifying gaps in that knowledge, planning gap-filling strategies, determining the relevance of new information, and potentially revising beliefs on the subject.” (1)

Teachers who consistently encourage higher-order thinking, critical thinking, self-regulation, self-directed learning, mindfulness and executive functioning skills in their classrooms have taken the first step to teaching metacognition. (2)

The Metacognitive Classroom

Image by Rawpixel, Courtesy of Shutterstock

Image by Rawpixel, Courtesy of Shutterstock

As a teacher of college writing, creative writing, and communications at Touro College, I build metacognitive strategies and projects right into my curriculum. I discuss the importance of acquiring these skills and becoming a self-sufficient learner with my students. We talk about how it will impact them currently in school, in possible graduate education, in their professional lives, and even in their personal lives.

Texts that are required reading in my classroom also address how to develop metacognitive strategies. For example, students in my College Writing II course read How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This book makes students aware of the process that should be going on in their minds as they learn to read and evaluate sources on a more scholarly level.

I ask students to compare how they have read previously with how they read now, after having read How to Read a Book. This is considered one of their journal entries for their “Growth Journal.” Many students acknowledge just how thinking about reading in a new way has encouraged a passion for reading to replace a dislike or apathy they previously held.

Journaling for Growth

The Growth Journal is a journal in which students answer a new set of reflective questions after every class. For the very first class, I give a short lesson on how to properly set goals. Then, I ask students to write their goals for the semester, taking into account their strengths and weaknesses in writing.

Image by Garagestock, Courtesy of Shutterstock

Image by Garagestock, Courtesy of Shutterstock

Midway through the semester students reevaluate their goals, take note of their progress, and write out the steps they need to continue moving forward. At the end of the semester, they look at the areas in which they have made progress, while also acknowledging the areas that they would like to continue developing for the future.

An important aspect of the Growth Journal is that it is simply graded as “complete” or “incomplete”. I do not grade for grammar, sentence structure, or organization. As I tell students, the Growth Journal is really a gift for them to help them develop their metacognitive skills.

The Process as a Goal

Process projects are just as they sound—they are projects that describe the process of achieving, creating, or learning. These projects emphasize metacognitive skills by asking students to reflect on their knowledge and growth throughout the semester.

Each class of mine has its own process project that carries the weight of a final paper and is usually due along with the final. By giving the process project an equal grading status to the final, it emphasizes the seriousness of the process as opposed to just focusing on the end goal.

The Rubric Project

In my Communications Workshop, students create a grading rubric for their essays, based on what they have learned over the semester. This is where they evaluate what they already know and any possible gaps in their knowledge.

Each student is assigned a different topic for the rubric, which we then put together as a class. Peers have a chance to fill in the knowledge gaps as we finalize the rubric together.

Students then use the rubric to grade their own papers and provide constructive criticism in a workshop format on their peers’ papers. This project acts a reflection of what they have learned over the semester and provides a sort of retrieval practice in the process.

The Process Project

Image by Africa Studio, Courtesy of Shutterstock

Image by Africa Studio, Courtesy of Shutterstock

For College Writing II and Creative Writing courses, I ask students to create an 8-10 minute video, in which they discuss the process of writing their research paper (College Writing II) and of publishing their creative portfolio (Creative Writing). As an example of the Creative Writing Process Project, students answer the following questions in their videos:

1. Discuss your creative writing process.

  • What does your personal creative process look like?
    • Do you make time to write daily?
    • Do you have a word count goal for the week?
  • How do you handle writer's block?
  • Is there anything you like to do to set you into the mood of writing?
  • What do you like your writing atmosphere to look like?
    • Do you write at the same place every day?
    • Different places?

2. Discuss how you have grown in your writing over the course. For example:

  • Do you read differently now that you have done workshopping?
  • Do you edit your own work differently?
  • What has workshopping taught you?
  • Do you try different genres and forms of writing now?

3. Discuss the publication process. For example:

  • How did you choose to publish?
    • Blog?
    • Self-publishing?
    • Literary journal?
  • How did you feel about publishing?
  • What were the responses that you got about your work?
  • Are you more open to publishing and different avenues of publishing for the future?
  • What dimension(s) does publishing add to your work?

These reflections become a permanent record of their growth. The students are able to reflect on how they have grown throughout the semester and where they are planning to continue to grow towards for the future.

Teaching metacognition is the key to instilling a lifelong love of learning, while creating independent and motivated learners. By implementing some metacognitive strategies and class projects, you can transform your students’ minds and hearts.


(1)  Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

(2)  Conyers, M., & Wilson, D. (2016). Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains. ASCD.