DePaul University Teaching Commons > Teaching Guides > Learning Activities > Activities for Metacognition

Activities for Metacognition

Metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking, is key to facilitating lasting learning experiences and developing lifelong learners. Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues (2003) identify two types of metacognition: reflection, or “thinking about what we know,” and self-regulation, or “managing how we go about learning."

Metacognitive activities can guide students as they:

  • Identify what they already know
  • Articulate what they learned
  • Communicate their knowledge, skills, and abilities to a specific audience, such as a hiring committee
  • Set goals and monitor their progress
  • Evaluate and revise their own work
  • Identify and implement effective learning strategies
  • Transfer learning from one context to another

Activities that promote metacognition should:

  • Facilitate equal participation
  • Ensure students do most of the talking
  • Take place before, during, and after an experience
  • Happen in different group configurations (individuals, pairs, small group, large group)

Getting started and facilitating discussion

Jumpstart Journal

What is it?
Routine writing activity that takes place at the start of each class meeting or discussion.
Good for:
Incorporating reflection into every class; giving students time to collect their thoughts; facilitating equal participation; preparing for or debriefing after an experience; articulating goals; making connections to course readings.
How to:
Ask students to bring a journal or notebook with them to every class. At the start of each class or discussion, pose a question and give them five minutes to write down their response. You might ask: “What are your goals for today’s activity?” or “How did today’s readings change or expand the way you think about X?” The students’ prepared responses can be used to “jumpstart” a discussion or the next activity.

Think-Pair-Share

What is it?
A quick activity that allows students to think carefully about a question before sharing their responses with others.
Good for:
Giving students time to collect their thoughts; facilitating equal participation; ensuring every student contributes to the discussion.
How to:
Pose a question or present a problem. Give students 1-5 minutes to think through (or write down) their response. Next, have students turn to a partner and discuss their ideas. Finally, ask students to share what came up in their pair discussions during a whole class discussion.

Ball Pass

What is it?
A method for structuring a large group discussion that encourages active listening and student-to-student interaction.
Good for:
Facilitating equal participation.
How to:
The facilitator, holding a ball, begins by posing a question or sharing an observation. Students wishing to respond raise their hands, and the facilitator passes the ball to one of them. The person who received the ball must first respond to the first speaker’s question or comment before adding his or her own contribution. The second speaker then passes the ball on to the next person wishing to contribute.

Fish Bowl

What is it?
A method for structuring a group participation that encourages peer-to-peer dialogue and active listening.
Good for:
Facilitating equal class participation; ensuring that every student contributes to the discussion.
How to:
Arrange the space into a smaller inner circle of 3-4 chairs and a larger outer circle of remaining chairs. The facilitator poses an initial question, and those in the inner circle discuss the question among themselves while all others in the outer circle listen attentively. Participants in the inner circle may choose to leave, at which point anyone in the outside circle is free to take the empty seat in the inner circle and join the conversation.

Digging Deeper and Making Connections

What? So what? Now what?

What is it?
A method for sequencing reflective thinking that moves from description to analysis to action. It can take the form of an in-class writing assignment, discussion, or creative project (e.g. storyboard, comic, poster).
Good for:
Debriefing after an experience; articulating goals; developing strategies for achieving goals.
How to:
Begin by asking students to describe an experience, such as an excursion, a class discussion, or personal life event: What happened? What did you do? Next, ask them to analyze the experience: Why does it matter to you? To DePaul students? To Chicago residents? How is it significant within the context of this class? Finally, ask students to take action: What have you learned? What will you do differently?

Force Field Analysis

What is it?
An analysis activity that asks students to identify the helping and hindering forces affecting their movement towards a specific goal.
Good for:
Articulating goals and developing strategies to achieve the goals.
How to:
Ask students to identify an educational, career, or financial goal and to provide a description of what success looks like. Ask students to chart out the hindering forces and helping forces that affect their movement towards the goal. Next, have students articulate where they currently are in terms of reaching that goal and steps they can take to accomplish it.

Photo Captions

What is it?
A small-group activity that asks students to connect photographs taken during an excursion to course readings or concepts.
Good for:
Reflecting on an experience; connecting the experience to academic content.
How to:
Students take a series of photographs during an excursion outside of the classroom. Once back in class, students work in small groups to create captions for their photographs that describe what is depicted and/or articulate a connection to a course reading. If you have access to a computer lab, students can create their photo sequences in PowerPoint. If not, ask students to print out photographs in advance and write the caption on the paper. Consider asking groups to present their photo sequences to the rest of the class, or to post them online on the course site.

Generative Knowledge Interviewing

What is it?
A small-group activity that draws on structured storytelling and interviewing to help participants uncover and discuss tacit knowledge, themes, and abilities.
Good for:
Avoiding superficial reflection; connecting ideas and experiences that appear to be unrelated; community building.
How to:
1) Write down two or more stories relating to a specific area of inquiry. 2) Share stories with one or two partners. 3) Partners interview storyteller to learn more and to identify patterns. 4) Partners reflect back to storyteller the themes and tacit connections between the stories. 5) Partners write a summary statement about their reflections to give to the storyteller.

* Generative Knowledge Interviewing was originally developed and trademarked by Melissa Peet. See Peet et al. (2010). Watch a Teaching Commons video that introduces the technique and review materials from a past workshop on how to implement the activity in your own class.

Wrapping up and Taking Action

Index Card Takeaways

What is it?
A quick end-of-class activity that asks participants to reflect on what they learned that day and to plan how they will act on that learning.
Good for:
Debriefing after an experience; articulating goals; developing strategies for achieving goals.
How to:
Provide each student with an index card. On one side, have them identify a key idea or concept they learned that day. On the reverse side, ask them to identify a next step (e.g. how they plan to implement what they learned in a project or future course).

Letters to Future Students

What is it?
An end-of term writing activity that asks students to consider their experience in the course as a whole.
Good for:
Showcasing self-development and personal growth; describing how the course prepares them for future educational or professional experiences.
How to:
Ask students to write a letter to students who will take the course next quarter or next year. What should incoming students expect to learn? What will they find most challenging? What advice should they follow? Allow time for students to share and discuss each other’s letters.

Figurative Transformation

What is it?
End-of-quarter activity that asks students to creatively articulate how they have changed throughout the term.
Good for:
Showcasing self-development and personal growth; articulating goals; describing how the course prepares them for future educational and professional experiences; thinking creatively.
How to:
Ask students to imagine themselves and their transformation in the course through an extended metaphor. For example, you might ask students to imagine themselves as a superhero, and then describe (in words or in a drawing):
    • The story of their transformation into a superhero (an account of how they changed in the course).
    • The superpowers they gained (strengths and abilities that have gained in the course).
    • Their kryptonite (challenges yet to overcome, areas for improvement).

Further Resources

Flavell, John H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 906–911.

Darling-Hammond, Linda, Austin, K., Cheung, M., & Martin, D. (2003). Thinking about thinking: Metacognition. The learning classroom: Theory into practice. Stanford University School of Education.

Tanner, Kimberly D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120.

* Yancey, Kathleen. (1998). Reflection in the writing classroom. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.

* This book is available for loan through the TLA library.

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