Wednesday, 17 May 2017

can/should instructors force students to be metacognitive about their learning?

One of the things that I have learned about using e-portfolios as a teaching & learning strategy is that when it is a large assignment, it is unnecessary to have students complete both the e-portfolio and write the final exam. For the last couple of years, I have given students the choice between writing the final exam and preparing an e-portfolio in Augustana's fourth-year biology capstone course because there is a good correlation between what students achieve on the final exam and the final e-portfolio. This is what I found a couple of years ago when I was still requiring students to complete both the final exam and e-portfolio:

As you can see there is a significant correlation between the exam and e-portfolio marks: I only need to use one or the other to determine whether or not students have learned the material. This only works in this capstone course because the e-portfolio includes a writing dossier in which students must synthesize and digest the course readings. What I have learned is that instructors cannot force students to be metacognitive. The year that the data for the above correlation was collected, some students thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated completing the e-portfolio but there were some who felt it was a heinous assignment. I don't think learning occurs when a learner has such a visceral reaction to an assignment. I don't really understand why some students reacted so strongly against the e-portfolio when simultaneously other students gave it very high praise.

It is apparent to me from the personal comments from some alumni of the course and also from the comments I read on the anonymous Student Evaluations of Teaching that some students resented being forced to complete the e-portfolio because the assignment felt like make-work - they didn't understand the point of the e-portfolio. It is interesting that the alumni understand the objective of the assignment now a couple of years post-graduation. But the alumni thought that this sort of metacognitive ability needs to be developed over many years and to require it of students during the last term of their last year is the wrong time to do it - it is too late.

Interestingly an Augustana colleague of mine explained it to me in terms of many students in the last term of their last year have already checked out. They are either depleted or are already looking forward to the next phase of their lives. These graduating students are no longer focused on completing their degree. My colleague has observed this happen with his students when they are wrapping up their senior thesis. So, again, an argument that having students reflect on their education for the first time just before they graduate is the wrong time to do it. The whole point of students reflecting on their own learning is to have them think about how and why they learn with the goal that they will realize that there are better and poorer ways to learn and that thinking about this early in their education may produce the benefit of developing better learners. It is too late to do this in the term before students graduate. On the other hand, if students have an understanding of what it means to be a life-long learner, then it won't matter when they are asked to be metacognitive about their learning: earlier is better, but later is better than never.

One of my alumni suggested that making the e-portfolio optional is critical because not all students will be ready or willing to consider how and why they learn. Particularly in their last term of their degree. Their reasoning was that the assignment requires students to take a critical look at how and why they learn, and thus places them in a vulnerable place. It may be unsettling to critically reflect at the end of your program and realize that you have been going about learning using the wrong approach for the last four years. No wonder some students might become angry at me for forcing that realization on them. Doing this early in their learning career, however, allows them to make choices about how and why they learn - there is time for corrective action or at least a considered reason for not taking action. Just before they graduate is too late.

I had never thought how the assignment might place students in a vulnerable place. But of course, if I think about it carefully, that is the intention of such an assignment. To invite students to be vulnerable/open to reconsidering why and how they learn. At the end of a degree may be the wrong time to do that.

It requires more investigation on my part but I think the bottom line is that you cannot force students to be metacognitive. What I need to determine as a mature instructor still learning how to teach is how to enable students to realize that metacognition powerfully impacts their ability to deeply learn. And I think it involves supporting students earlier in their learning careers to be reflective about their learning as some of my past students have suggested to me. This is what I am currently attempting to do with the learning philosophy assignment which I have implemented across all year levels of the courses I teach. So far the results are promising. But, I don't force students to complete a learning philosophy - that is something they can choose to do as an optional assignment. Thus, students can be reflective about their learning when they are ready.

Can (should) instructors force students to be metacognitive about their learning? I think, as with teaching in general, all we can do is present students with the educational opportunity and then it is up to them whether or not to engage with the learning process.