Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

On Metacognition

From various versions of the course syllabus:

The purpose of [reflection and metacognition] is to pace your revision process and to demonstrate to your teacher your understanding of the commentary provided for that process. You must revise with attention to all facets of that particular task, avoiding simple editing (for grammatical mistakes, for instance) and concentrating on deeper corrective work.

That last bit is important: You ought to write the revision as you write the reflective/metacognitive piece, using each to fuel the other. Treat all subsequent drafts of a response as works-in-progress, and refer consistently and exhaustively to the rubric and guidelines you have been given. Use this checklist in a pinch:

  1. Set your timed writing in front of you
  2. Open up Word (or Google Docs or an old typewriter) and format your document according to any requirements
  3. Keep all writing guides, model papers, and rubrics close at hand
  4. Review the prompt, your notes, and any feedback or commentary
  5. Type your essay in whatever desultory fashion you like
  6. Revise, then revise some more
  7. Upload your essay to before the deadline
  8. Print a hard copy and bring it to class

The sixth step is critical; revision is distinct from a cursory check of grammar and mechanics. You must obviously edit, too, but when we speak of revising, we are talking about everything, from grammar to your central thesis. You should also return again and again to your writing, especially when you are given the time to do so. Create a cycle in which you reflect and then revise again and again until you run out of time; don’t just hammer out something that sort of looks like an essay, hit print, and then high-five yourself.  I’m not sure you can high-five yourself.  That’s just clapping.

Accumulated notes on reflective and metacognitive writing, plus a few examples from former students, follow.

A note on metacognition

While we often use them this way, the words metacognition and reflection are not exactly interchangeable.  A quick trip to Wikipedia (although she is a capricious fount of knowledge) reveals a bit more about the differences, viz.

  1. that metacognition is thinking about thinking, while
  2. self-reflection is a more general (and somewhat existential) kind of introspection.

You should (and often will be forced to) engage in metacognition and reflection after every writing assignment in this course.  We might even say that reflection is the first step toward metacognition, and that you are asked to take that step over and over again.  The reason is simple: You become better readers, writers, and thinkers when you understand how you read, write, and think. To inculcate that reflex takes significant time in and out of class.

(I will continue to hyperlink particular terms, by the way, because we will, at some point, gambol through an updated version of this mini-unit on language, and I have my own collection of best-loved words, among them inculcate and capricious and, more recently, desultory and deleterious and Kafkaesque.)

Whatever we call the processes, you are reading your own work, thinking about it, and then writing.  The problem: You (the collective, general, historical you) don’t always write in a way that helps. So let’s talk about the efficacy of reflection/metacognition.

The efficacy of reflection/metacognition

For the purpose of this section, we are going to restrictively apply metacognition and reflection to those exercises that produce a revision.  This applies to all English work, however, and the absence of a formal revision does not preclude good practice.  But a good reflection certainly sets up a revision in such a way that a capable stranger could read the reflection and have an adequate understanding of the prompt, the original draft, what has been changed, and why it was changed.  It is both a key and a blueprint.  A bad reflection leaves your revision murky.  You assign the detective work to your teacher instead of shining a light on exactly what has been improved.

So you write this:

After reading it over, I noticed that it was a little rough around the edges and could easily be improved quite a bit.  Another factor of my essay that should be touched upon as well would be my overall incorporation of the documents into my essential question.  My analysis of the documents themselves was weak, and I found that I didn’t use them to my full advantage to help prove my argument. (Total length of reflection: ≈200 words)

Or this:

I thought my essay was great, and I handed it in disappointed in my score as has been the routine in this class. When I went back into my essay for revision, I didn’t really change anything major, but I edited a number of errors I found in the grammatical bowels of the language, and changed some words and phrases here and there that I thought were lost in meaning. (Total length of reflection: ≈300 words)

These weaker examples could be about any paper and any prompt. They also require your teacher to dig up the original draft, to re-grade it, and then to compare each sentence to the equivalent sentence in the revision. This is counterproductive at both ends, and, to get right to it, it is unacceptable. If you do not write a reflection according to the guidelines you’ve been given—i.e., a reflection that is both key and blueprint—your revision will not be scored. If the reflection itself is scored, you will fail.

Here is an example of what you ought to do:

The first error to correct was the reference to “bumps in the road”.  From this reference I immediately jumped into a scenario with a zombie apocalypse, making the connection weak and illogical to the reader.  So, I reworded the third sentence and then added in another sentence to build the degree of trouble from a small obstacle to total destruction.  Also, I added in another sentence after introducing the idea of a zombie apocalypse to better preface the Braunbeck quote.  Finally, I fixed the penultimate sentence in the first paragraph in order to clarify my ideas. (Total length of reflection: ≈1500 words)

And another:

I decided to revisit the topic of appearance-changing technology that I touched upon in the introduction, and have the new paragraph focus on how appearance is important in society, sometimes more so than the mind is. This may seem silly, but I wanted to hear other’s ideas so I asked my essential question at dinner to see what my family thought. My mom instantly brought up appearance and my dad said that recent presidents have been consistently taller than their competitive candidates during their elections. I gathered that I was on the right track as my ideas matched up with others, and also decided to research the pattern my dad had discussed. Then the question came up as to if I should cite statistical information that I find on the internet. Should I? (Total length of reflection: ≈900 words)

These are specific enough to help the writer more than me, and that’s the point. This is not arbitrary. When you reflect meaningfully and repeatedly as you revise, your writing improves. It is that simple. You might improve from a 74 to a 78, and you might improve from an 84 to a 96—but you will improve.  And you will not improve much, nor will that small improvement come easily, without an earnest and invested reflection.

When you don’t have an explicit revision, by the way, the improvement will be seen in the next assignment of that type; and if you can’t identify those patterns, realize that everything in here comes down to three things: reading, thinking, and communicating. Every reflection and act of metacognition improves you in one of those three areas, which, I hasten to add, extend far beyond high school classrooms and 39-minute sessions.