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This month’s column is the penultimate in a series I’m posting every other month about how we can apply and see in action the 7 principles of research-based pedagogy described in the excellent book How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose, et al. Last time was mastery. Before that came prior knowledge, practice and feedback, motivation, and knowledge organization. This month’s topic: metacognition, ch. 7 of the book.

As the term draws to a close (for those of us on the semester system, at least), I find myself naturally feeling more reflective, thinking back on the school year and my courses, considering what worked and what didn’t, and looking ahead to next time. This process of reflection, self-assessment, and planning for the future — “metacognition,” thinking about thinking — is a crucial component of successful learning. For our students to become effective learners, whether just of classical languages or more broadly, we must teach not only content but also metacognitive skills. Successful teaching teaches students how to teach themselves, how to develop intellectual independence, how to learn what they want to learn.

Metacognition, as Ambrose et al. explain, consists of five core acts: (1) assessing the demands of the learning task at hand, (2) evaluating one’s own relevant knowledge and skills, (3) planning an approach to the task, (4) monitoring progress on it, and (5) adjusting one’s strategies to be more effective. Experts perform these tasks automatically when working within their fields, but novices need explicit modeling of expert metacognition, direct instruction on metacognitive processes, and support (or “scaffolding”) in developing and practicing their own metacognitive skills.

There are considerable mental challenges for novices in most phases of metacognition. When it comes to evaluating their own knowledge and skills, non-experts tend to experience the Dunning-Kruger effect: because of their limited mastery of the discipline in question, they overestimate their skill level and ability to complete a task. (That experts are less prone to this phenomenon and hence less likely to overestimate their expertise is best illustrated by Socrates’ claim to know only that he knows nothing.)

Planning an approach to a problem is something experts do and beginners don’t. In fact, as Ambrose et al. write, “students may need significant practice at task assessment and planning even to remember to apply these skills” (p. 203). Every teacher of intermediate Greek or Latin has, for instance, seen students forget to anchor their reading or translation of sentences with the main verb(s).

For many learners, the time required to explore and implement new, more effective strategies acts as a disincentive to try something different at all — especially if the new strategy will be temporarily less effective, as is often the case. Citing Fu & Gray, Ambrose et al. point out that “people will often continue to use a familiar strategy that works moderately well rather than switch to a new strategy that would work better” (pp. 199–200). In the world of public administration and business management, this inertia is called “satisficing,” choosing the most readily available among adequate options rather than spending time to select the best one. (Often it is accompanied by the “sunk costs” mindset, which entails fallaciously ignoring a cost-benefit analysis because of time, effort, or resources already spent on an ineffective path — i.e., throwing good money after bad because you’re in too deep.)

So what are some techniques we can bring into ancient-language instruction to foster metacognition in our students?

To get students to assess the demands of a task accurately, we might have them describe the task in their own words (“how will you learn these verb forms?” “what do you need to do to connect this relative clause to the main clause?”), provide rubrics or have students collaborate in creating them, and generally make sure we are very explicit in describing what we want our students to do and how.

For evaluating relevant knowledge and skill level, Ambrose et al. recommend early, performance-based assessment exercises that directly target desired skills, as well as self-assessments such as a practice test followed by an answer key to check against.

Planning may be the step that needs the most support from the instructor. You can encourage students to plan before tackling a challenge by explicitly requiring a planning phase in an assignment (like a rough draft of a term paper), by having them implement a plan you provide, or by assigning the formulation of a plan only, without implementation. The second of these could be a step-by-step checklist for approaching a passage — first underline all the finite verbs, then draw a line from them to their subjects, then put a box around any direct objects, and so forth — while the last could be as simple as having students brainstorm strategies for memorizing vocabulary or inventing a mnemonic for the process of translating a sentence.

Techniques for teaching students to monitor their progress include what Ambrose et al. term “simple heuristics for self-correction” (as, for example, “does my translation make sense in English?”); guidelines for how long a task should take to complete; peer-to-peer assessment; and assignments that call for annotating one’s work. So we could ask our students to diagram some Greek or Latin sentences, with the recommendation that it should take about 15 minutes and that they should be able to account for the grammatical function of each and every word in all the sentences, and then have them compare results with a classmate and work together to identify trouble spots, quirky syntax, and unresolved questions.

Essential to the final phase of metacognition (adjusting strategies) is reflection. Students can answer a battery of questions that facilitate reflection [PDF], analyze the effectiveness of their own study habits — with, say, an “exam wrapper” asking how they prepared, what worked and what didn’t, what pattern of errors they’ve found in their work, and how they’ll prepare differently next time — or focus on strategy assessment through brainstorming or other strategization activities.

At the core of this principle of how learning works is the notion that, to be truly effective learners, students must learn how to learn. (A helpful document for this is Wirth & Perkins’ Learning to Learn [PDF].) Nobody is inherently “good at languages” or “bad at math.” The brain doesn’t work that way. Rather, mastery of any skill requires lots of effort, plenty of time spent practicing, sufficient preparation, and robust support and instruction. Likewise, there aren’t “smart” and “dumb” people; intelligence is malleable and is the product of cognitive and metacognitive training and effort. Even works of “genius” like Picasso’s Guernica do not spring from divinely-endowed brains like Athena from Zeus’, but rather are the product of careful, effortful, incremental development and synthesis by experts in control of the canons of their fields. By comparison, as Llewelyn Morgan points out, “[t]he ancient notion of literary creativity, in many ways a much more reasoned one than our post-Romantic idea, was innovation within an established set of traditional rules.”

Convincing students to change their own thinking to match what neuroscientific research has shown about the brain can have profound effects on their performance and engagement, since people who understand that the brain isn’t static, with fixed capabilities, will have a greater sense of self-efficacy, which is a central component of motivation. Students who belong to traditionally disadvantaged groups will also be less affected by stereotype threat [PDF], an insidious impediment to learning (and a phenomenon I’ll discuss more in June’s column).

In the end, as pedagogues, we owe it to our students not only to teach them the most fascinating languages and literatures of the Western world, but also to lead them towards a path of lifelong, effective, rewarding learning — a path accessible only through reflection and metacognition.

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Editor-in-Chief of the SCS Blog and Associate Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Satire, Plautus: Curculio, and two forthcoming books, A Commentary on Plautus' Curculio (Michigan) and Masks (Tangent). He can be contacted at