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Disciplinary Thinking and Metacognition – A Conference Report

Posted by on Monday, November 29, 2010 in News.

By Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director

One of the sessions I attended earlier this month 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.” Metacognition can be briefly described as learning about learning. Students practice metacognition when they reflect on and analyze their own learning processes. The session helped me see a few new aspects of this idea, and I thought I’d share here on the blog.

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. What about you? Do you find the notion of disciplinary metacognition more applicable to your teaching than the notion of more general metacognition?

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. I was reminded of the good work Roger Moore does through Vanderbilt’s Undergraduate Writing Program to assist faculty teaching writing in their courses.

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 our “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 Derek Bruff

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