Efficient teaching: Getting metacognitive


I’ve built up a little speech that I make on the first day of class, after we’re done going over the syllabus and before we start the first lesson. It sounds something like this:

This semester, my goal is to teach you absolutely nothing.

If I do my job as well as possible, then I will not teach one single fact or concept. Instead, I will set up the circumstances for you to discover information on your own. You only really learn something if you discover it on your own. So, our classes will be set up so that you sort through and find information provided to you, to answer questions, and to go through experiences that enable you to make your own inferences and figure out concepts on your own. And you’ll be reading a lot outside class.

We learn better when we are conscious about the fact that we are learning, and when we are aware of the methods that we are using to learn. In other words, we need to study metacognitively. Cognition is what happens in your brain when you sort through things and learn. Megacognition is being cognitive about cognition.

Different kinds of facts and concepts are best learned in different ways. Lectures are pretty much the worst method for most concepts. When we do activities in this class, and when you are working on assignments, or solving problems on your own or in groups, these are designed for you to have a cognitive experience.

As you are going through your cognitive experience, it is useful to be mindful of the fact that you are having a cognitive experience. In other words, when you are solving a problem in a group, you should keep in mind that the process of solving this problem, itself, is provided so that there is something specific for you to learn and understand. When you are aware that there is a set of concepts tied to cognitive activities, that practice of metacognition will help you guide your cognitive processes towards the central question at hand.

If you wander through a maze without paying attention to your route, you may eventually get out, but it will be inefficient and probably unpleasant. However, if you are aware of the fact that you are in a maze, and you focus on the methods that you are using to get out of the maze, then you will not only get out of the maze more quickly but the process of solving the puzzle might be more fun as well.

This course has a route. We will discuss this route and there are lots of concepts that interconnect. However, if I show you a map of the maze, then you will be deprived the opportunity of truly learning the maze by building the map yourself. Don’t blindly study the concepts in this course, but be metacognitive in your approach to learning about the concepts and how they relate to each other. When you are working on a question or a problem, be sure to recognize specifically how, that your approach to studying is tied to the larger questions at hand.

You might have some classes in which you’re expected to write down notes from powerpoint during every lecture session. That won’t be happening here – we’re using our time together to interact and learn from one another and engage substantially with both the material and as a group. Metacognitively, you should be aware that this approach is not because I don’t like to lecture, but because the science of learning is unambiguous that we learn better when interacting and working in groups. Learning solitarily is lot more difficult, and learning by digesting notes from a lecture is inefficient. This may be different from the bulk of your classes, but I ask that you put some trust in me and that when your work is evaluated throughout the semester, that this approach will not only be fair but also provide you with a better opportunity to learn.

The measuring stick of how well I teach is not about my performance as a theater exercise, but how well you learn. I’m not talking about how well you do on an exam in this course — though that matters — I’m talking about what you know about this topic ten years from now. [for statistics] Do you fundamentally understand how a statistical test works, and what a p-value represents? Can you identify an experiment with solid design and can you create an experiment that isn’t pseudoreplicated? If you can’t do that ten years from now, then I will have failed. But to accomplish that goal, I need to choose ideas carefully because there are only so many topics that we can cover with such depth that they stick with you for a long time. I refuse to barrage you with information that you will soon forget, and instead I’m choosing to teach a small number of concepts, chosen carefully, that will stick with you well after this course is over.

I’m sorry to lecturing to you for so long about this. Hopefully, if I do my job well, I won’t do this much speaking again throughout the whole semester.

Among other consequences of this little speech, I’ve found that it reduces the number of students who are uncomfortable working in groups or who feel dopey when class doesn’t have lecture but has problems to be solved. How to get students to engage, especially in a larger room with more students, is a challenge for classroom management. How the tone is set on the first day goes a long way.

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