Metacognitive Pestering for Beginning Students

Written by: Matt Birkenhauer
Published On: June 22, 2012

Watching my own son spend his first semester in college struggling with meeting deadlines was an up-close reminder of something I have learned after 30 years of teaching. Beginning college students are often spacey. They have lots on their minds and need help in that commonplace of contemporary pedagogy called metacognitive thinking.A Good Start: Helping First-year Students Acclimate to College

Most of us know what metacognitive thinking is. John Flavell, the psychologist who coined the term in the late 1970s, defines it as “one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them, for example, learning relevant properties or information or data.” More simply, it can be described as “thinking about one’s own thinking” or, as a colleague of mine likes to say, “making thinking visible.”

How can college teachers “make thinking visible” for harried, busy, and not always terribly mature freshmen who don’t just take classes but work, date, and attempt to straddle the dividing line between studying and partying? One way is to pester them—be “helicopter instructors,” at least to some extent. I do agree wholeheartedly with those who warn against the dangers of helicopter parents. But I don’t think it’s the same when college teachers work to clarify the demands and culture of higher education for beginning students. Many are first-generation college students and need mentors to “hover” around them in those first college courses.

I think a lot of us already do this. Thankfully several of my son’s instructors had these kinds of conversations with him as he was floundering in his first semester. I do it in my introductory writing classes by using Blackboard to pester my students. For example, many of them used “cram writing” to get through four years of high school (despite the best efforts of their hard-working teachers). I start talking about cram writing in class the first two weeks of the semester. Then I reinforce that message with this email, which I send out through Blackboard as the deadline for their first major writing assignment nears. If the assignment is due Tuesday, this is the note students receive on Saturday:Blended Learning Course Design: A Boot Camp for Instructors

If you want to write a quality essay, avoid what I call “cram writing,” which is about as effective in writing as it is in studying. What is cram writing? Cram writing is waiting until the night before the rough draft is due to begin writing. This causes you to write quickly and unthinkingly; it also denies you the opportunity to creatively reflect on what you wrote - to chew over it a bit.

Today is Saturday. If you haven’t done so yet, begin drafting an introduction today. Look at it for a few minutes before you go to bed tonight. Look at it again in the morning. Try to write another half or third of your essay tomorrow. Then think how much less work you’ll have left to do by Tuesday.

I don’t send this email out until I have provided the scaffolding students need to begin writing a rough draft: helping them determine what their theses are, allowing them to complete the research for their assignments, and having them plan in class the form their essays will take. But I follow this first pestering email with others, some containing blunt reminders like this one.

DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE DON’T CRAM WRITE

Some of this “metacognitive pestering” is self-serving, in that the more students avoid cram writing, the more organized and clear their essays are. This makes my job of responding to their rough drafts easier.Teaching Professor Newsletter

This kind of “hovering,” aimed at making students think about when and how they are completing their assignments, doesn’t work at all if students aren’t checking their college emails. Early in the course I offer reminders about the importance of these frequent email checks. I’m sure, for those of you more adept at texting and other social networking media (which I’m still learning myself), the potential for using other modes of communication is limited only by your time. I’m not recommending this approach for students at all levels. But I do think beginning students benefit when their teachers intervene with the kind of advice and reminders that set in place successful approaches to learning.

Contact Matt Birkenhauer at birkenhauerm@nku.edu.


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This article originally appeared in the newsletter The Teaching Professor 24.4 (2010):6,5. The Teaching Professor is a lively, informative newsletter with a singular purpose: to provide ideas and insight to educators who are passionate about teaching.