USING THE METACOGNITIVE CYCLE TO TURN ‘PROBLEM SETS’ INTO ‘STUDY SESSIONS’

After a fun and productive meeting with a couple of our undergraduate educators in my office last week, we shifted gears and started to talk about how very busy their own semesters were.  One of them confided that they were committed to getting a good night’s sleep (Bravo!), and they had time for doing homework – mostly in the form of problem sets for engineering students in their first couple of years – but that they were having a hard time finding time to ‘study’. At that point I asked, “Isn’t doing a problem set ‘studying’?”

The brief conversation that followed reminded me that students sometimes compartmentalize tasks, experiences, and even related content information.  And that ‘studying’ continues to mean finding large blocks of time to go over class notes and materials – often in passive, ineffective ways.  It is what they are used to doing.  Compartmentalization is often our default to get things done in a busy schedule.  And we typically don’t support students in making those critical links and connections.  But we can! When instructors are explicit about putting class activities, homework assignments, and topics into a larger context, and encourage complementary practices that prompt students to grapple with those connections, students become better, more self-directed learners, gain depth of understanding, new perspectives, and insight into their own thought processes. These powerful, under-used practices are reflection and metacognition.

This post will introduce the terms and share their value and some related links. Ultimately we suggest a practical way (and provide a worksheet to get started) to apply the ‘metacognitive cycle’ to problem sets so that the large amount of time students spend on these applications will become more efficient, deep- learning opportunities in which students actively retrieve, review and process course content while they apply their knowledge to solving problems.

Defining the terms

Whether we understand them in these specific terms or not, metacognition and reflection are critical parts of the ‘expert’ practitioner’s tool box.  However, novice learners – early undergraduates – need to be instructed in the practice and the value of these tools. Generally, reflection is thinking back on an experience in order to process it and turn it into ‘knowledge’.  In this way reflection can also be a version of ‘retrieval’ (pulling up information and working with it again, also a critical practice for making knowledge stick).  Metacognition is most easily described as a type of reflection in which one examines the thought processes used during a task.  So metacognition is ‘thinking about thinking. There is a lot of research on metacognition in the psychological literature and it is complex! Research suggests that adding metacognition to disciplinary teaching in the classroom where groups of students are solving problems can help them become better at solving open-ended problems and transferring that understanding to solving novel problems.

These higher order thinking skills are the goal of our disciplinary curricula, particularly in technical and applied sciences like engineering.

Applying the ‘metacognitive cycle’ to problem sets

Studying is most efficient when done in short, spaced, repeated, active, intervals. Interspersing topics, revisiting and actively engaging with the material several times before an assessment, has been shown to provide the best results.  So, in a perfect world, we aren’t looking for large chunks of time to ‘go over notes’ or other more passive activities that are shown to not be very effective for learning. By adding a few extra minutes (30?) to the practice of ‘doing a problem set’, a student – ideally a group of students – can contextualize the problems they are solving in their growing conceptual understanding and make it an efficient, deep-learning study session.

 

The metacognitive cycle is broken into the following simple stages: planning (before beginning working on the problems in the set, gathering resources), monitoring (what is happening in ones thoughts while trying to apply knowledge to problem sets), and evaluation (how did it go, what was hard? what was learned? what do you need to ask at office hours or recitations?)

 

During the Planning Stage

Take a few minutes to look through the problems set and decipher the larger context of the problems there:

  • List what you know about conceptual information that surrounds the problems and the associated equations that are being applied – retrieval
  • Write 2 – 3 learning objectives. These are statements about what one should know by the successful completion of the problem set – goal setting. If they are not given in the assignment, it is your job as a learner to ‘figure them out’ from the types of problems in the worksheet – retrieval
  • At the start of each question, ask  “what information do I need to know in order to begin this question and why do I need it? “- reflection, retrieval and metacognition

During the Monitoring Stage

As you work through each of the problems in the set, be intentional about the choices you are making.  Ask the ‘why’ questions:

  • In a group or solo ask the question ‘why is this problem challenging?’. Responses to this question requires – reflection.
  • Explain the decisions/processes that led to the solving of each part of a problem. Ask why did you/I make that choice in this part of the problem.  Answers to these questions require – metacognition

During the Evaluation Stage

At the close of the problem set, or the part of it that was completed in one session, look through and remember the content that was applied, the processes and the decisions.

  • Write a paragraph that summarizes (more detail is better) of what was learned and how ideas are connected and applied in the problems completed – reflection
  • Make a list of topics/concepts/skills that still need work for good understanding and bring these to the next office hours or recitation section to get the support needed – goal setting

These suggested practices are the same ones that experts use without conscious effort!  For someone new to material, reflection and metacognition and using the simple application of these learning strategies in work that is required as homework, will  make it more relevant and expedite learning!  Less additional time will be needed for ‘studying’,  and the time spent studying will be more effective and efficient. This should help with time management and result in deeper understanding of disciplinary material. Start slow, and see how it works.  Here is a worksheet to remind about guidelines while applying these strategies to problem sets.  Let us know how it goes, and enjoy the process of  becoming an expert!

4 Steps for a Successful Semester – Build and keep a schedule, attend classes, reach out, and believe in yourself!!

Put your ‘Ducks in a row’ 

It takes time to transition to a busy college schedule.  And by ‘time’, we mean sometimes several semesters!  If you don’t feel you are there yet, you are not alone!  We all come to new experiences with different strengths, and sets of experiences.   If you are an undergraduate student in the early days of your college career, this is a practical ‘To-Do’ list with tried and true advice and links to resources to cheer-you-on to a successful start of a successful semester!

Here are some steps and links to help you start the semester right.

1. Build your schedule: Before classes start!

There are ‘old-school’ paper versions, Outlook and Google Calendars, and a million apps to help you organize your time. Time management is one very important aspect of a successful and healthy semester. Among other studies on the benefits of managing time for college students,  Adams and Blair (2019) examined the impact of time management behaviors on Engineering students’ performance. Self-reported behaviors that correlated most strongly with GPA were setting goals and priorities (the building phase) and maintaining control over the time spent on various tasks (the sticking to it phase).

 

2. What to Schedule?: Including your personal wellness and free time

    1. In- Class time – including office hours, recitations, and discussions.
    2. Study time – personal preparation, study groups.
    3. Personal time – mental and physical well-being
    4. Networking or other co-curricular professional development time

3. Attend your Classes!! 

Studies show that students who attend their class meetings are more likely to have higher grades. Even if you feel well prepared for a particular course, attending the scheduled class meetings is perhaps the easiest way to keep up with work. Being introduced to new topics, getting insights from the instructor that might only be shared verbally, getting reminders for upcoming assignments, listening to the questions asked by peers, opportunities for in-class collaborations,  are all ways that attending class can keep you on track and deepen your understanding, even when you feel you understand the material.

“…early and consistent class attendance strongly correlates with academic performance” (Kassarnig et al, 2017)

4.  Stick to your Schedule: The hardest part – and you can do it!

The work of Adams and Blair (2019) with engineering students, generally matched the findings of other studies: Time management supports success! What they also found was that though students were quite successful at building schedules, they were less successful at sticking to them. The perception of control over scheduled time was much more difficult. But it can be done! Take this quick time management quiz to see where you might be able to improve.

Quick read on more good information about time management for college students!

5.  Keep a ‘Growth Mindset’  and reach out for support as soon as you need it.

image of growth mindsetA ‘growth mindset’ is in contrast to a ‘fixed mindset’. A growth mindset acknowledges that you might not be there yet, but with perseverance,  you can, and will get there!  A fixed mindset refers to the belief that the ability to learn or master certain topics is something that is innate and inflexible. The evidence-supported truth is that ones own perception of their ability to learn challenging material actually influences ones cognitive ability to do so. It is a bit like mind over matter! and it is REAL.  Believe in yourself. You are capable of learning things that are challenging! The ability of your brain to learn challenging material can grow!

College is the next step It is supposed to be challenging. Finding oneself in need of support from peers or from the course teaching staff is normal and expected.  That is why study groups are a great idea and why support offices and office hours are available.  Everyone needs to share ideas and get new perspectives at some point, and it’s also the best way to deepen your understanding of material. If you don’t know the people who can help, ask an instructor or advisor! Collaboration results in deeper learning.

Here is a fun video to remind you to focus on the fascinating journey and grow rather than shrink from the challenges: The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More | Former NASA and Apple Engineer – now Science and Engineering Youtuber, Mark Rober

 

-YOU GOT THIS! Have an amazing semester!

Engineering Learning Initiatives

 

3 TYPES OF ‘STRUCTURE’ CREATE INCLUSIVE COLLABORATION in a student-centered classroom

 

These teaching spaces have been designed or updated to include group seating, rolling chairs, projection and whiteboard access in multiple locations

As we know, collaboration does not typically happen by simply asking students to collaborate. Without structure, students familiar with the still-common passive forms of teaching often default to working independently, or occasionally cooperating with a peer nearby, and then only if they are confident and feel safe in a classroom. Creating the sort of inclusive collaboration that is most likely to improve learning outcomes is challenging, and requires structural scaffolding and diligence on the part of the instructor.

    Structure creates inclusive collaborative groupwork in a student-centered classroom. The key is how we understand and address ‘structure’.

Three components of structure should be considered in order to make effective collaboration happen: 1) Characteristics of the learning space itself and how they are used – “physical space”, 2) the development of community and inclusiveness among learners and between learners and instructors – “emotional space”, and 3) pedagogical choices and their implementation “pedagogical space”.

Structuring the physical space

Recently Colleges and Universities have begun to pay much more attention to the design of physical learning spaces. The two images to the left show classrooms that have been designed or updated for collaborative learning.

Thankfully, the options to teach in spaces that consider student collaboration, neurodiversity, and accessibility, are increasing.  However, there are many remaining learning spaces that were designed for the traditional lecture format in which we must make the best of a bad situation.  Further, and something less discussed in the literature and education blog-o-sphere, is that regardless of the quality of  room design, effective group behavior is not ensured by grouping students in even the most perfect setting without ensuring the other forms of structure are in place. This post shares tips for each of the types of structure, and how to make the most of a tough classroom design situation!

Worst case scenario for collaborative learning and small group discussion – the lecture hall.

There are many different room designs that are amenable to group collaboration. Key aspects of such classrooms are those seen in the images above. Students, when seated, are at small tables so that they face each other and have common working space. The room provides ample space for movement.

The worst case scenario for collaborative learning involves a room with attached seats, no aisle, and all seats facing forward toward a single area at the front of the classroom where a single projection screen is flanked by chalkboard (the only access to writing/collaborative space is this board). These spaces are very familiar in higher education! Here are some workarounds to support collaboration in these environments!

Group seating formation in a lecture hall that is not conducive to student collaboration

If the room is not at capacity you can brainstorm and prescribe seating arrangements.

A group of 4 in a ‘panel’ formation is not conducive to end members hearing and communicating with each other, and often the students default to work individually or in pairs at best.

 

Group structure in a lecture hall environment that improves the chance of collaboration

When students are randomized into groups of 3 or 4, two students sit in the front row, ideally, with a seat between them and the writing desk of the empty seat raised between them. They can use the center desk as the collaborative writing surface (not pictured here). In this seating arrangement, students can face each other such that the one or two people in the row behind sitting side-by-side, make a physical group.

 

In a ‘U’ shaped table formation, simply moving chairs from one side to the other can allow very good group collaboration.

Another familiar seating situation in moderate sized classrooms is long tables, horizontal to the front of the room, or tables that create a ‘U’ shape for large group discussions.

Moving chairs from one side of the table to another or having students in one row of tables turn their chairs around, so they are seated on either side of the long table facing each other, is a relatively easy fix. In general, the instructor should be explicit and possibly show the class a diagram, or the common default is a ‘panel’ formation that does not promote communication among all members.

In a packed lecture hall, instructors can still work creatively to help students form small groups, but the easiest to implement is a paired working arrangement (think/pair/share), which can be very effective particularly if the partnering switches from one side of a student to another.

These are only the first steps to fostering inclusive, collaborative learning. Even in the most modern of classrooms, collaboration will only happen if both the emotional and the pedagogical spaces are prepared and monitored!

Structuring the emotional space

Much has been said about the importance of creating belonging in a learning environment to allow inclusion of all learners regardless of differences in personality, confidence, or other aspects of diversity that we need to celebrate. There is general agreement that this is the primary consideration from which all other scaffolding of the classroom climate flows.  Getting to know each other in a classroom where the expectations for respectful interaction are clear (and ideally developed as a class) will allow trust to build, relationships to form, and engender willingness to work together and a desire to be accountable to one another

Icebreakers are typically fun (can be based on content) activities that are used to build community through developing trust and familiarity among students and between students and instructors.
  • Make an effort to learn students names, and have them learn each others name (and pronounce them correctly).
  • Throughout the semester, include icebreaker activities – build common ground. ‘Identity affirming’ or ‘self-affirming’ icebreakers are those that promote students sharing aspects of who they are, and help create strong community.
  • Encourage the sharing of pronouns and allow it to be voluntary. Instructors should consider sharing their pronouns to model the choice and explain why.

 

Structuring the pedagogical space

Structure assignments that require collaboration.  The outcomes of the activity should require both individual accountability and collaborative interaction. Pedagogical choices should be articulated to students along with expectation for participation.  Well considered learning objectives provide direction  (for students and teachers!) and all these aspects of structure should be constantly monitored.

learning objectives slide
Clearly stated learning objectives guide both instructor and student focus and have been shown to be valuable for student success.
  • Explicitly create groups through a simple, fun form of mixing students.  In a pinch, counting off such that you end up with groups of 3-5 is easy. Mixing matters for inclusion, and having students work with different peers each activity helps create community in the large classroom throughout the semester.
  • Clarify the  learning outcomes for the group activity.
  • Explain how the task involves both positive interdependence and individual accountability, and how you will assess each.
  • Assign group roles or give groups prompts to help them articulate effective ways for interaction.

Best laid plans for knowledge construction using groupwork can fall flat in classrooms with the most modern designs.  Indeed, technology, movable table units, and whiteboards on surrounding walls create an opportunity for effective groupwork! Yet even those settings can become ‘lecture theatres’ without building a community, intentionally grouping students, designing activities that benefit strongly from collaboration. Instructors should articulate and share specific learning objectives, rationale, expectations, and guidelines for collaboration.  And finally, the key: doggedly, doggedly monitor, encourage, and interject just-in-time questions and information during the collaboration.  This is hard work, but the learning outcomes of real collaboration are rewarding for students and instructors!

Cornell Engineering Tutors: Exemplifying the Benefits of One-on-One Support


Dhruv Sreenivas

 

“I enjoyed helping other people out, and tutoring also helped me get a stronger hand on the material, which actually helped me in courses I took later on in college.”

We are sending off seven ‘21 graduating Engineers with our utmost gratitude for their exceptional support mentoring students in the Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI) tutors-on-call program.  Thank you Acacia Tam, Dhruv Sreenivas, Lynn Jeannoute, Michael Richardson, Sijia Liu, Stephie Lux, and Veronica Nobrega for your talent and compassion and a combined 32 semesters tutoring and 852 tutor appointments!  These ELI tutors supported engineering students in 14 challenging core engineering courses.  They participated in 3 tutor trainings and small group check-ins each semester to prepare for and grow in their role as one-on-one peer educators.

Tutor Training

Sijia Liu will move on to work in New York City as a software engineer!

Trainings focused on active learning strategies for tutors to use in their meetings with tutees.  Tutor community building is important, so when shared dinner during tutor trainings was no longer possible due to transition to online- tutors made connections in a smaller group training format and formed bonds in break-out rooms using the online zoom platform. Throughout this transitional time, ELI tutors relied on one another for support and shared best practices.  Even with success mastering online tutoring, it will be exciting to be back to in-person tutor appointments in the fall.

“I like meeting people and sharing my studying strategies with those eager to learn and improve. I really enjoyed the time being an ELI tutor.”

Benefits for tutees and tutors:

Acacia Tam will pursue a Master in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University.

A key component of all of our peer education programs is the focus on evidence-based practices. Peer education is no longer something that happens on the margins of higher education where ‘at-risk’ students enroll in or are assigned tutorial support.  These days peer education is an opportunity for all learners who anticipate or discover the need for a little more clarity on a particular topic, or a longer-term investment of time to deepen understanding of challenging conceptual or technical knowledge (Latino and Unite, 2012). These opportunities happen with groups of learners, typically associated with a certain course, or as one-on-one interactions through tutoring.

“I loved tutoring for ELI! It was always so rewarding to see that I had helped a student better understand a concept or prepare for an exam. Additionally, it made me happy to see that I could pass on some of the tips and tricks I had learned while taking the class to other students. Finally, I loved meeting new people whether in person or online! It made me feel more connected to the Cornell community!”

Tutoring requires all the components of other student academic support including collaboration, retrieval (pulling information out of students rather than putting it in) and open-ended questions to generate reflection, metacognition and critical thought.  There are some unique opportunities in this valuable type of support.

The Role of ‘Coach’

The very personal nature of a tutor session creates a great opportunity for tutors to mentor and coach students regarding practices that generally improve student outcomes. Research has shown that helping with study behaviors was a significant factor improving student outcomes (Gurung and McCann, 2011).

Lynn Jeannoute

“The classes I tutored were geared towards mostly freshman year students and I know how hard it can be transitioning from high school to college, so I especially valued not only being able to assist in their coursework but being able to give them general advice on how to study for exams and stay on top of their work and things like that.”

As coaches, our undergraduate tutors: keep a growth mindset, listen to student challenges, and suggest various ways to overcome them. They ask the right questions, inquire about preparation for evaluations, suggest study practices, encourage, and give specific feedback. Research on the role of peer coaching in higher education suggests that some effective strategies are: being nonjudgmental, listening, shared accountability for the interaction, and asking questions (Ericksen et al 2020).

Stephie Lux is headed to the National Institutes of Health, where she accepted a Cancer Research Training Award to study tumors with a surgical oncologist.

“I can very effectively help others break down an academic problem, and I have also found new ways to be creative when communicating and teaching. Beyond developing my teaching skills, I made several lasting friendships with students I tutored and with  other tutors. ELI Peer Tutoring was a very important part of my Cornell Engineering experience.”

As peers, tutors help build community one student at a time by developing acquaintances and friendships, finding common ground, sharing empathy, working together on a level playing field, and sharing academic and social challenges.

The quotes shared by these tutors exemplify the practices that make tutoring a very powerful form of academic support.  Mentoring students who are just learning to navigate busy schedules and challenging assignments, building community, and breaking down complex ideas using active, collaborative learning, are practices that benefit both the tutor and tutee.  We are so grateful for the hard work of these graduates.  In the past year tutors had to become comfortable working with their peers remotely due to COVID-19.  We are so proud and grateful for the difference ELI tutors made for students finding their way during this very unusual and difficult past year!

Sources used and further reading:

Eriksen, M., Collins, S. Finocchio B., and Oakley J. 2020. Developing Students’ Coaching Ability Through Peer Coaching. Journal of Management Education, 44: 9–38
Gurung R.A.R. and McCann, L.I. 2011. How Should Students Study? Tips, Advice, and Pitfalls
(https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-should-students-study-tips-advice-and-pitfalls)
Latino, J. A. and Unite C.M. 2012. Providing Academic Support Through Peer Education.
New Directions for Higher Education, 157:31-43. DOI:10.1002/he.20004