Metacognition and the Value of Making Connections

Posted November 6, 2019

By Dia Chatterjee

On making connections:

Students often learn difficult concepts as discrete pieces. These discrete pieces of newly acquired knowledge are important building blocks of learning – so it is a time-honored tradition among students to memorize definitions, focus on breaking down complex systems of ideas into individual components. Unfortunately, for a lot of students, the learning often stops at this point. While this form of learning that rests on reducing the larger whole into its component parts is an important first step in acquiring new knowledge and skills, halting the learning process at this stage is obviously counterproductive to deeper learning. That said, then there are students who are more concerned about understanding why ‘thing A’ relates to ‘thing B’. They often engage in eager attempts to learn the big picture ideas. This form of learning is critical for deeper understanding of concepts, but cannot really occur if the more discrete pieces are glossed over.

A nexus depicting various points of connection that are denoted by a different color to show association
Why should it be ‘either-or’ – on the power of “And”:

The question I had been struggling with was how do we move the needle on helping students maximize on both these tendencies? How do we get them to focus both on the discrete pieces and building integrated network of ideas? How might we show them how the different definitions, topics, and processes described over an entire term connect together? Is there value in highlighting such connections for students? And if so, what form should this take?

For the past two academic terms, I have let my students go on a journey of self-discovery. My instinct told me that students would learn better if they engaged in some meta-cognitive thinking about these ideas independently. I decided to put this intuition to a test by implementing weekly study guides where I asked students to connect the definitions learned each week to materials learned in weeks past, and to their own life experiences outside of the class. This blog is a summary report of what I have seen bloom in my classrooms so far.

Chaotic first few weeks:

I realized that asking students to be intentional about making connections across their learning may have been an easy task in my mind, but to them, my ask did not translate well. During the first few weeks, they kept coming back to me with questions about not really understanding what they should write in their study guides. I would repeat the intentionally vague prompt, asking them to make of it what they could to begin with, reminding them that they would not lose points for exploring their own relationship with the materials taught in classes:

Define two-three concepts that spoke to you from that week’s lectures in your own words. That is, what ideas stimulated your intellectual curiosity? You can attempt to see how various concepts fit into your life/work? What makes them meaningful to you? I believe that which we are curious about, and that which we can apply to our own lives, we learn and retain better.

I had to keep nudging them to keep their eyes open to the fact that “Psychology is all around” them, and that if they really paid attention to the class materials, they will start picking up on the connections that the study guides ask them to make. Even with this framing, and even after explaining the assignment again and again, there were those who took a while to really “get it”.

An image of a brain with multi-color connections inside
Explorations in meta-cognitive thinking:

Then came the weeks where between their writing and my feedback, they start engaging in meta-cognitive practices and approach the “Aha” experience of what we mean by making connections. Different students start adopting different styles of writing about the topics under discussion. I have seen the “objective reviewers” who tell me about the state of the world around them while carefully avoiding sharing how the class materials may impact them, or how they may walk away from concepts enriched. I have seen the “immersed writers” who find it incredibly hard not to connect ideas to their own daily lives and who get steeped in the topics in ways that neither them nor I thought possible. Then there are those who I call the “non-believers” – these are students who are not at all impressed by the format of the study guide, will not buy into its intended purpose no matter how much feedback I give them, and will continue regurgitating their definitions like this were a long-form flash card for each unit. In my own explorations with pedagogy, I have made room for all three of these prototypical responses as I do like to pay heed to individual learning styles.

Journaling and journeying to the “self”:

By the end of the term, students realize how the study of psychology permeates their lives. The study guides I receive after the midterms are rich narratives of their own struggles with the material, and many times, struggles with life itself. In these study guides, outside of just reinforcing the concepts learned in class, what they find are outlets for reflection and journaling. I find that the richer the connections to their own lives and the lives they observe, the more meaningful the class materials get for them. In following such writing strategies, they learn that the materials presented are larger than just discrete definitions to be memorized for a test, instead they have practical significance to the lives they lead. I find them bringing up ideas they learned early in the term and connecting these to the materials they have learned later in the term. They share their unique learning journeys by way of organizing the learning experiences in their own unique ways. For example, to some, the units on brain and nervous system may not have made much of an impact early on in the academic term, but these become pivotal when discussing co-morbidity of disorders.

By-products of taking the by-lanes:

There are some benefits of this approach that are interesting by-products. For example, I had not intentionally created this exercise to enable the shy, quiet, ESL, and/or more introverted students find a voice in the classroom. And yet, what I find is that students who never raise a hand in class when I open the classroom for discussions, submit study guides that are a rich and nuanced connections of ideas. They cite the class discussions in their study guides, and use this as an opportunity to “contribute” to class. As a diversity researcher, it is not lost on me that this form of a pedagogical tool helps me draw out voices that are otherwise lost in the haze of extroverted students or students for whom English is their first language. I describe the highlights of some of the study guides in my opening class each week, making sure that these diverse voices are given the space and time to make an impact on other students.

Image of stick figures depicting people standing in a circle using different color pencils
Another pleasantly surprising by-product of this strategy is that weekly study guides build in a low-stakes writing component. This assignment was not designed to be writing intensive, and the study guides are not graded down for poor writing. However, I share feedback when needed and provide information on APA guidelines. I find that over time, students are able to submit higher quality of writing overall. The non-threatening nature of this assignment helps them open up and realize that writing is just like acquiring any other skill set: creating plenty of opportunities for spaced practice and having a willing mind to learn and absorb are the two first steps to effective skill acquisition.

The feedback from the students is another testament to how well this concept works as an educational tool as they report using this method as a study approach for their other classes as well. Early in the academic term, students express dismay at having to write each week – some agonize over how they cannot understand what to do with this assignment, while others think it just a waste of their time as all they were doing was regurgitating their notes anyway. Then once the assignment starts making sense, they undergo a transformation: they express dismay when a holiday hits or during exam weeks, when they realize that they don’t have to write a study guide for that week. Many insist on turning in their study guides even when none are assigned, and when I ask them why they may want to do more, I get answers that range from: “I retain more this way,” to “I find it more fun to learn about ideas when I can see the connections,” to “I don’t just want to memorize concepts, I want to understand them”. A consistent theme that emerges here is that the value of making connections is not lost on them, and in fact, once properly oriented to appreciate the value of meta-cognitive thinking, they cannot help but engage with learning in this form as it leaves them feeling more enriched.

Image of thought bubbles in different colors

Dia Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Salem State University. She completed her PhD in Organizational Psychology at Michigan State University. Dia’s scholarly interests include identity management and diversity, careers, and creativity. In addition, she has worked with several organizations on issues such as organizational strategy, performance management, organizational change, and assessments. As an Organizational Psychologist, Dia takes a scientist-practitioner approach to both her research and pedagogy. In her classrooms, she focuses on building conditions whereby her students can engage in active learning on (a) how evidence-based practice can benefit from scholarly research in psychology, and (b) how rigorous scholarly research can stem from various organizational problems.