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Metacognition in action: how teaching and learning in science has undergone a shift in emphasis

Cormac Fanning, Assistant Principal (science), The Gateway Academy


When I arrived at The Gateway Academy my team and I were determined to put science on the map. Despite determined attempts to provide extra-curricular activities and study opportunities (walking-talking mocks, clubs, after school interventions etc.), we found that we were, by comparison to other very dynamic departments, not advancing quickly enough.


It wasn’t until getting some excellent in-house training from Trudi Bryant, who has a background in psychology and directed us towards research into cognitive science, and Nathan Hunnisett, who shared some dual coding work that Nigel Concannon was championing in the geography department, that I realised the way to advance science, was through the science.


We learned that ‘memory is the residue of thought’ (Dan Willingham), that cognitive links are stronger when they are enforced and stronger still when information is taken in by more than one sense. Using these ideas, we began to make many small changes to the way we teach science and are now beginning to see some meaningful impact.


The Big Picture: We adapted the idea of sharing ‘the big picture’ with students, making sure they know why they are learning what they are learning, how it is linked to other subjects and what jobs and applications are related. At first we used text in bullet points, but using the idea of dual coding, we added pictures, especially ones that come up in the exams, so that students are more familiar with them. We also shared with students the learning sequence for the year and provided them with ‘flipped learning’ homework in advance of every topic. As a result they knew what they were learning and when they were learning it in advance. Key words and definitions are now shared by every department so that students have access to the information they need quickly for every lesson.


Interleaving, spaced learning and retrieval practice: We started using knowledge quizzes, multiple choice and self-marking quizzes that we administered using QR codes on hand-held devices. We repeated them at lengthening intervals and while teaching new topics. This led to students retaining knowledge for longer and constantly re-enforcing learning.


Dual Coding: Finally, we started to use mnemonics and stories using memory techniques and ‘The Goldilocks Principle’ (Weingroff, 2007). Using these techniques, students remember key content so that when it comes to answering challenging, multi-faceted questions, there is less stress on their short-term memory.


The impact has been amazing. We are still shocked by how students who previously struggled to remember much content at all can now recall lots of key words and ideas and as a result are growing in confidence. As teachers we too have made changes to our planning, ensuring that the metacognitive techniques are at the heart of our teaching.

But the story is not over. Lots of work is needed to embed these strategies into schemes of work, adapt the techniques and make the low stakes retrieval quizzes. We need to ensure the learning in each lesson is as explicit as possible and track the times that learning points are interleaved throughout the five years to ensure that they are revisited at regular intervals.


Finally, we need to add still more strategies to get even more from our students. Strategies such as predicting, advanced but effective mind-mapping, developing literacy and subject-specific reading.


Thank you to the science team; their enthusiasm and commitment to raising the bar is inspirational.