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Student Learning – Embracing Metacognition

Every student and lecturer in third-level education has had virtual learning environments or VLEs on their mind for the past year and a half following the pivot to online during the COVID-19 pandemic. But some were already ahead of the game, so to speak.

Dr Emma O’Neill, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr Crystal Fulton, UCD School of Information and Communication Studies, Dr James Matthews, UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science and Dr Carmel Hensey, UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science were appointed as UCD Fellows in Teaching and Academic Development to undertake a two-year research project, ‘Designing for Learning in the Virtual Learning Environment.’

The Fellowship programme, an initiative led by Professor Mark Rogers, UCD Registrar and Deputy President, focuses on areas of strategic importance to the University and is informed by a scholarly approach to the enhancement of teaching and learning. Professor Rogers told UCD Today that the Fellows’ research will lead to a deeper pedagogical experience for UCD students and is very much part of the University’s objectives for education and student success: “The project has shown how we as educators can respond to students’ needs and adapt our teaching approaches. The Fellows have also demonstrated that harnessing the features of a VLE allows teaching and learning to be innovative and impactful.”

This multidisciplinary effort brought together expertise from several schools from across UCD: UCD School of Veterinary Medicine, UCD School of Information and Communication Studies, UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science, and UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science.

It was an auspicious time to begin such a project as UCD had just introduced its new learning environment, Brightspace. Dr Fulton explains the benefits when it came to incorporating metacognitive principles into her module on digital citizenry: “We wanted to deepen the students’ learning, so it wasn’t about retooling the entire module so much as it was about finessing it in a way that would heighten that learning experience. We were able to do this by incorporating some of the really clever tools in Brightspace, such as peer feedback, checklists, and gradual release of information.”

So what exactly is metacognition and how does it help students learn more effectively? “Metacognition is thinking about one’s thinking. It is a well-researched concept in the education domain,” explains Dr Matthews. “What metacognition does is provide students with an awareness of their learning, and the ability to regulate their learning by evaluating the demands of a task and setting a goal, monitoring their progress towards the goal, problem-solving as necessary, and importantly, reflecting upon the process they have engaged in.”

Features within Brightspace, such as checklists, quizzes with personalised feedback and the ability to incorporate peer feedback, were well suited to map onto these principles. This has already rolled out across three modules with a fourth running this year.

“Our remit for the project was to inform use of the VLE from a strong pedagogical perspective. We focused on active learning enhanced by the VLE knowing that often these platforms are underutilised and function more as a repository,” says Dr Fulton. “VLEs are designed to do so much more!”

“All of us felt that, in current times, the last thing anyone needs is more information. What makes the difference is what a student does with that information. We wanted to be able to influence their ability to develop key skills, to be able to think critically and integrate information, and we felt that metacognition spoke to this most strongly,” notes Dr O’Neill.

And this idea of encouraging students to self-learn is particularly relevant in these times. UCD carried out a student survey (March-May 2020) looking at challenges with the move to online, which found that 49% of students expressed a lack of confidence in engaging online, 47% struggled with time management, 30% weren’t clear about expectations from lecturers, and 65% struggled with lack of motivation.

Although the project began pre-COVID, it seemed to be timely in this respect. However, Dr O’Neill points out that the use of VLEs to improve students’ metacognitive skills works best in a blended learning environment, which is core to the Metacognition Design Framework they have developed. This framework included the implementation of their ‘I-SEE’ strategies for learning: Introducing, Signposting, Enabling, Evaluating. The idea is that all coursework and learning activities are clearly signposted, and students are helped every step of the way with guides and examples while receiving feedback on their progress.

And, crucially, peer feedback is incorporated because, as Dr O’Neill says: “To teach is to learn twice. When you promote that aspect of learning from peers it can be quite powerful.” The module adapted by Dr Matthews was on the role of psychology in optimising sports performance, a Stage II module within health and performance science. He asked students to work on an authentic case study in groups where they learned how to build a case formulation and support an athlete with a performance issue.

“Following the I-SEE approach, at the outset students were introduced to core concepts and theories using weekly targeted pre-reading on topics with supporting reading guides, which really builds the student’s metacognitive knowledge,” he explains. “Then it was clearly signposted what was expected of students, providing rubrics for each assessment component. That allowed them to plan their learning approach and set their goals.” The checklists came into play for monitoring weekly learning performance and, finally, for the core piece of evaluation, students were given options in Brightspace including using the quizzes with automated feedback or video feedback from the lecturer giving them a quick update on how they’re getting on.

“Our new VLE makes this so much easier. We can design a quiz and prewrite in comments and feedback based on what the student answers. And they can do that in their own time and still get feedback. There are a lot of nice features that help us deliver the framework and bring the students along,” notes Dr Hensey.

Similarly, Dr O’Neill adapted her Stage IV module on Veterinary Clinical Neurology, having students work through a clinical case from start to finish.

Across these very different disciplines, the idea was to show how adaptable the framework is – and this seems to be a resounding success judging by student feedback both in terms of their improving metacognitive skills and their enthusiasm to embrace this style of blended learning that empowers by promoting self-regulation.

The team shows no signs of slowing down after their success to-date. They have developed a video case study and video exemplars to show how the framework operates, making it more accessible to other educators. “We’re working with the various educational technologists across UCD and also identifying module coordinators in different schools. We have also been given various fora within UCD in the past year, presenting at various different teaching and learning events. The main thing is to get a number of enthusiastic colleagues on board who will promote it within their schools,” explains Dr Hensey.

“Our ultimate goal is to gather a Community of Practice working with these colleagues – our metacognition champions – who are applying our approach in a variety of disciplines across the university. Our research shows that our metacognitive approach works and we want to share this message with our colleagues,” says Dr Fulton. “This is what we hope to build on going forward. News is spreading!”

Watch our videos here:

The Fellows were in conversation with Marie Boran, UCD Computer Science BSc 2002, DCU MSc Science Communication 2012, NUIG MSc by research – Insight Centre for Data Analytics, NUIG – 2015), a freelance journalist.