Writing about one’s own thinking

I tend to feel an allergic reaction coming on whenever I hear the terms metacognition or metacognitive. Somewhere there’s a drinking game where one takes a chug of brew whenever a grad student says metacognitive. Take two drinks when a grad student uses foreground as a verb. Drunkenness ensues quickly.

The words are jargon. But metacognitive reflections, writing about one’s own thinking, are essential forms of self-learning. Somehow, it often seems not to exist among adults except as assignments from professors. But self-reflection should become part of one’s workday. Self-reflection is as important as any bulleted item on a position description.

I keep a private journal where, every morning, I write notes about the day before or the day ahead. Usually, I only jot down a few lines. Writing out more thoughts in several pages would be even more helpful in processing what comes through my mind. Brian Koppelman co-creator and showrunner of the TV show Billions dedicates time each everyday to journaling. He uses a method known as morning pages as popularized by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

But this post isn’t about my own metacognitive practices. I’m curious about nurturing that capability in students. I wonder if they even realize that we’re trying to instill a lifelong habit into them? Or is it just another assignment, as task done for a grade? The ways we frame that make a difference.

From my undergraduate days, decades ago, I remember only fragments. Certain mental processes stick with me, such as how to approach a complex topic and break it down into understandable chunks. Daily journaling, even if only a few sentences each day, is a habit I wished I had developed much sooner.

Metacognition is most commonly defined as thinking about one’s thinking. But I prefer to place an emphasis on writing about one’s thinking because writing forces different levels of thought. I think a lot. We all do. We all have all sorts of thoughts popping in and out of our heads constantly, all day long. The bombardment of those momentary thoughts are natural but also are distractions that hinder productivity as the mind flits about from one daydream to another, either reflecting on some painful episode of the past or anticipating some challenge or desired accomplishment for the future. Writing (and I even prefer pen on paper since it physically forces me to slow down) allows for a more thorough form of reflection that facilitates the connection of ideas and the actions that you need to do in order to better understand and obtain your goals.

As pedagogy

Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has a guide on metacognition with extensive references to pedagogical works on this topic. A deeper examination is found in A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey.

My studio class on online literary magazine design has a weekly assignment that requires students to write about their own learning in the course each week. The weekly reflections are submitted via a GitHub issue. While the GitHub repository for the course is private, each student’s reflection is available to other students in the class. (Using GitHub simply aids the student in developing familiarity with GitHub. I could have done this through a learning management system (LMS) such as Sakai or Canvas, but they’re unlikely to encounter those LMS tools in a workplace outside of academia.)

The hardest part of a weekly reflection is knowing what to write about. It shouldn’t just be a list of “I did this, then that, and then that.” What prompts can I give students that encourage them to reflect on what they’re learning, even if they don’t recognize it as learning?

In the workplace

What’s the importance of facilitating communication in the workplace? Think about the type of guidance you get (or don’t get) from your professors in a course. When you interview for a professional job, one question you may be asked, “What type of supervision do you prefer/want/need?”

The interviewer is looking for a level of self-awareness. “What type of interaction do you prefer/want/need from colleagues on your work team?” While we must always be attentive and improving our listening skills, a large part of life is helping others learn how to communicate with you. Or, in other words, we have to recognize our own weaknesses in communication, and then adapt.

In this course, students have entered a distributed work environment with little face-to-face contact with supervisors (i.e., professors) and co-workers (i.e., fellow students). As teachers, our intention in a course is to craft a learning experience. That requires understanding what students want from a course, even when they’re not really sure. Weekly reflections are one means of obtaining that feedback in a way that is useful for both student and teacher.