Last week’s blog post explained what metacognition is and outlined some general strategies for teaching metacognition. This week, we dig deeper and look specifically at strategies for teaching metacognition through project-based learning.
Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL
1. What is project-based learning?
Project-based learning (‘PBL’) is a student-centred, dynamic pedagogical method, where students actively explore real-world problems and challenges, and the teacher inputs little more than guidance. Usually it culminates in the production of a project, such as a written assignment, a performance, or a presentation.
The aim of a project is to accurately summarise students’ learning; the aim of the learning is for students to gain a deeper level of knowledge of a particular area by actively exploring real-world challenges and problems. In addition to increasing students’ knowledge, PBL aims to develop students’ critical thinking and communication skills, as well as foster creativity. PBL contrasts with approaches such as teacher-led instruction.
PBL involves an active process of learning where students engage in investigative tasks independently from the beginning of a project until completion. Projects often focus on addressing a question or problem. Projects can last from a short period, such as a week, up until an entire term. Students often present their projects upon completion.
Projects either replace or are used in addition to other means of assessment. Projects are sometimes used to supplement learning; at other times they’re used as the only form of learning about a topic or problem. In such cases, PBL is the only method of assessment.
Some schools have used PBL instead of lessons structured around teacher instruction. For example, students might work for extended periods on projects in lieu of teacher-led lessons, perhaps with the teacher overseeing aspects of group work but letting students use lesson time to work independently.
2. Group learning
As we saw last week, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) rank metacognition and self-regulation practices as among the most effective for students. The EEF rank strategies in terms of the ‘extra months’ of pupil progress they secure, and tied at the top are feedback, metacognition and self-regulation. They report that ‘Metacognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of seven months’ additional progress’ (EEF 2018).
The EEF also report that metacognition and self-regulation strategies ‘are usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups so that learners can support each other and make their learning explicit through discussion’. For these strategies to be effective, ‘they require pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and develop their understanding of what is required to succeed’ (ibid.).
PBL is an excellent teaching and learning strategy for group work. If collaborative work can be encouraged through PBL in such a way that it fosters an environment in which students support one another and make their learning explicit, this can support the development of metacognition and self-regulation.
3. Self-regulated learning
As we saw last week, metacognition is widely considered to have two dimensions: metacognitive knowledge and self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to what learners do about learning: how learners monitor and control their cognitive processes (Bromley 2018).
Self-regulated learning is the ‘modulation of affective, cognitive and behavioural processes throughout a learning experience in order to reach a desired level of achievement’ (Kizilcec, Pérez-Sanagustín & Maldonado 2017, quoted in Taylor 2020). As John Taylor writes in a previous blog post, self-regulating learning skills include ‘planning, managing and controlling the learning process’, and processes ‘that occur during self-regulated learning include goal setting … and self-assessment’ (see also Loyens, Magda & Rikers 2008).
PBL is an excellent example of a teaching and learning method that emphasises self-regulated learning skills, and so provides a good opportunity to enhance metacognition.
To foster self-regulated learning skills through PBL, encourage students to take control of their own learning through PBL and engage in activities that make them pay attention to and reflect on their own learning. For example:
1. get students to identify their strengths and weaknesses and how they can develop these through PBL, and to reflect on them, formatively, throughout a project;
2. get students to do (1) with their peers as a means of peer assessment.
4. Peer learning and assessment
Peers can be an excellent guide to a student’s metacognition. The physicist and educator Eric Mazur argues that ‘the person who knows best what a student is struggling with in assimilating new concepts is not the professor, it’s another student’ (quoted in Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014, 119). PBL emphasises independent work and group work, so provides a good opportunity to place more emphasis on peer learning and assessment.
In their 2014 book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the authors recommend making more use of peer assessment and giving corrective feedback and recommend strategies for peer instruction (ibid., 125-7). This relates to another effective strategy for enhancing metacognition: negative peer feedback.
For more on the above points from Make It Stick and for a discussion of psychological obstacles that can create poor metacognition, see this blog post.
5. Negative peer feedback
One of the major reasons our metacognition can be poor is due to the lack of negative feedback we tend to give one another. Another is that when we receive negative feedback, many of us search for alternative explanations for why things went wrong, rather than accepting that our knowledge or skills may need improvement.
For example, as we saw last week, the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’ is a form of cognitive bias where a person who is incompetent at something fails to recognise their incompetence and overestimates their competence. These can cause the person to have poor metacognition, because it can prevent them from seeing any need to improve their knowledge or skills in certain areas.
The social psychologists who coined the Dunning-Kruger effect, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, argue on the basis of the evidence they gather that one of the reasons this occurs is because incompetent people fail to learn through experience that they are unskilled, which is largely a result of the lack of negative feedback we tend to give one another (ibid., 105, 119 & 121-3).
A particularly useful form of feedback is negative peer assessment. For example, students take well on board feedback received in the form of being selected from among their peers for sports teams. In the context of PBL, encouraging students to give one another feedback, formatively and summatively, is a form of peer assessment.
So, we should avoid encouraging students to only give positive feedback. For the development of metacognition, it’s vital that students also receive negative feedback.
6. Presentations and feedback
PBL often culminates in student presentations, which is a great way for students to receive feedback that may improve metacognition, for the following reasons:
- Presentations are often high-stakes: for example, they might be to large audiences, or to teachers and peers.
- The feedback from a presentation is typically more impactful: verbal feedback from an audience is felt more by the recipient than written feedback.
To make the most of presentations as an opportunity to develop metacognition through feedback,
- Encourage and facilitate synchronous, in-person presentations (rather than asynchronous presentations, such as videos).
- Encourage students to not rely on their visual aids too much. TED talks are a great example of presentations involving little or no visual aids (and which students can enter – see TEDEd).
7. Questions to consider before implementing metacognition strategies
Finally, it’s worth noting that the EEF recommend that the following questions should be considered before implementing metacognition teaching and learning strategies – be this within PBL or other strategies:
1. Which explicit strategies can you teach your pupils to help them plan, monitor, and evaluate specific aspects of their learning?
2. How can you give them opportunities to use these strategies with support, and then independently?
3. How can you ensure you set an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition in relation to specific learning tasks?
4. In the classroom, how can you promote and develop metacognitive talk related to your lesson objectives?
5. What professional development is needed to develop your knowledge and understanding of these approaches? Have you considered professional development interventions which have been shown to have an impact in other schools?
Bromley, Matt, 2018. ‘In the Classroom: Metacognition Explained’. SecEd, 18 Nov. 2018.
Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A. McDaniel, 2014. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kizilcec, René F., Mar Pérez-Sanagustín & Jorge J. Maldonado, 2017. ‘Self-regulated learning strategies predict learner behavior and goal attainment in Massive Open Online Courses’, Computers & education 104, 18-33.
Loyens, Sofie M. M., Joshua Magda & Remy M. J. P. Rikers, 2008. ‘Self-directed learning in problem-based learning and its relationships with self-regulated learning’, Educational Psychology Review 20.4, 411-427.
Taylor, John, 2020. ‘Online Distance Learning: A Literature Review’. CIRL Blog, 29 Sept 2020.