By Sharon Kelly, Teaching Faculty Member and Degree Advisor, Faculty of Management/Educational Counsellor, Student Affairs, VIU

Pardon the mini essay tone of this blog post: I think I wrote this as much for me as for you!

Photo VIU License for Thinkstock photos

Photo VIU License for Thinkstock photos

Goal setting and planning skills are used for everything from planning an event, to planning finances, to planning a lesson.  Teachers across the campus set goals (called learning outcomes) for their courses as well as make plans for assessment to see if their teaching strategies and their students learning strategies are on track to actually reach those learning outcomes. We educators also make plans to set up the learning environment and create assignments to hopefully enable students to meet those stated learning outcomes. But goal setting and planning skill is not the exclusive domain of educators.  Students who learn goal setting, planning and monitoring skills become what we call self-regulated learners.  This is also of central concern when we examine the notion of metacognition.

Metacognition is when we think about how we think.  Inducing students to reflect on their thinking is to induce metacognition. A self-regulated learner regulates her own cognitive activities. This self-regulation includes setting one’s own goals and planning activities, self-monitoring progress, as well as allocating attention and so on.   Self-regulated learners spend time planning how they will spend their time in the learning task. These kinds of learners are confident learners and may or may not be consciously competent in knowing how to learn. These “high performing students have created, consciously or unconsciously, strategies for success.  Beyond the requisite skills and information of a given discipline, they are aware of how they are learning and thinking, and they are self-regulating how they approach any process. This higher awareness and self-regulating behavior is called metacognition and it can be taught” (Flavell, 1976).

Students need goal setting and planning skills as well as self-assessment and monitoring skills in order to adjust their learning strategies.  Often, students who did relatively well in high school, with their one tried and true method for earning good marks, simply cannot study longer and harder when they hit university and meet the mark.  Simply working harder often just does not work. Students who learn to examine their learning strategies, and who also learn to switch them up for more effective strategies depending on the task, become what we call self-regulated learners. They also learn how to not become a one trick pony!

Students’ own beliefs about learning, whether they have a growth or fixed mind set (Lovett, 2008) will play into whether a student becomes a self regulated learner or not.  Students with a growth, versus a fixed mindset seem to naturally roll up their sleeves, perhaps even smack their lips and exclaim: “ I love a challenge” (Dweck, 2008).  Students with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up (and save face) when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge.  Many times, even amongst the “best and the brightest”, it takes many attempts and adjustments in learning/study strategies to solve a difficult problem, understand a difficult reading or complex concept, or produce a quality “A+” assignment that meets the criteria at an “excellent” level.  Students who believe they can improve their learning strategies and that their talent is not fixed, will be more focused on goals that are process oriented or oriented towards mastery.  Those with a fixed mind set are more fixated on their performance or the results of the exam or assignment, not what was learned during the process.

Self-regulated learners focus on the process of how to improve their learning skills and the quality of their learning rather than appearing “competent or better than others”. To help a student move toward improvement in their learning skills, consider encouraging them to cultivate a growth mindset:  As well, consider emphasizing the process of learning and how to improve learning strategies in addition to the requisite skills and information of the discipline.   Also, check out Scot Crisp’s nice summary in “Teaching How To Learn” for some strategies to accomplish this:

There are also these specific strategies that Crisp mentions that one can use before and after lectures, exams and assignments to help students regulate their behavior.  These strategies are called wrappers.  I especially like them, so I will elaborate on a couple of them here:

Exam wrappers direct students to review their performance (and the instructor’s feedback) with an eye toward adapting their future learning.  When a teacher provides an exam wrapper, students can focus on more than just their grade but also on the following:

  • Identifying their own individual areas of strength and weakness to guide further study;
  • Reflecting on the adequacy of their preparation time and the appropriateness of their study strategies; and
  • Characterizing the nature of their errors to find any recurring patterns that could be addressed.

Lecture wrappers help students to figure out what to focus on when listening to a lecture thereby hopefully capturing the lecturer’s intended main points.  “Prior to beginning the day’s lecture, the instructor gives students some tips on active listening. In particular, students are encouraged to think about the key points of the lecture as they listen and take notes. At the end of the lecture, students write what they think the three most important ideas of the lecture were on an index card. After they hand those in, the instructor reveals the three most important ideas from the lecture. This immediate feedback allows students to monitor their active listening strategies.”

Marsha Lovett (2008) summarizes what is important for teachers to keep in mind when teaching Metacognition.  She notes the following three critical steps:

1. Teach students that their ability to learn is mutable

2. Teach planning and goal-setting

3. Give students ample opportunities to practice monitoring their learning and adapting as necessary

From: Marsha Lovett’s presentation at the 2008 Educause Learning Initiative conference

So the big question here is “can educators assist ALL students to gain these goal setting, planning and self-monitoring skills”?  My optimistic self screams “Yes!”

When we pay attention to teaching goal setting and planning skills, talk about various strategies to accomplish the learning task and provide practice monitoring learning and adapting as necessary, then yes, I believe we can teach students “How To Avoid Becoming a One Trick Pony”.