Promoting Metacognition to Improve Studying, Learning Skills, and Mastery of Microbiology

Dr. Theresa Westbay, Associate Professor of Biology, St. John Fisher College

I’ve been involved in teaching BIOL 214 – Microbiology, a course that is required of all biology majors at Fisher, for the last twenty years.  The majority of our students intend to pursue careers in the health professions and microbiology is a subject in which many are genuinely interested.  I work hard to make course content accessible and to create learning environments that engage students.  In spite of all of this, I’ve seen many conscientious students struggle in my classes over the years. Recognizing that as an educator of undergraduates I want my students to both master content and to develop as learners, I’ve expanded my instructional focus in recent years to include helping students cultivate learning skills.

Metacognition, involving the analysis of one’s own thinking and learning processes, is a quality exhibited by successful learners.  Since there is evidence in the literature that metacognition can be taught and learned, I’m working on deliberately incorporating the teaching of metacognitive skills into the BIOL 214 course and then critically evaluating the impact of these instructional changes on student studying and learning and mastery of course content.  Building on the principal that writing is linked to thinking and can be a tool for refining thought, in the fall 2013 semester I introduced structured self-reflective activities in the form of exam wrappers.  The exam wrappers consist of two parts. Before each exam students answer survey questions documenting how they prepared.  After receiving their graded exams, students are guided through an analysis of missed questions and then reflect in writing regarding the reasons for their incorrect answers, what improvements they need to make in order to avoid those pitfalls in the future, and the specific actions they will take in preparing for the next exam.

My hope in undertaking this action research project was that my students would become more reflective and self-directed learners, that their mastery of course content would improve, and I would gain insights regarding how to effectively promote metacognition in my students.  My experience throughout the fall 2013 semester was energizing.  Students did become more self-reflective as evidenced by their written analysis of their preparation and performance on exams and by the vocabulary they adopted to talk about their learning. (Yes, that’s right, my students talked – not about their grades – but about their learning!)  After the first exam, 70% of students reported changing their preparation for exams.  The nature of these changes included students creating their own study materials and increased time spent studying.  Student performance on exams was comparable to the previous semester (which did not include formal self-reflective writing activities) up until the comprehensive final exam when the number of students earning grades of B- or above increased significantly.

The bottom-line is, I think I’m onto something that is effective in empowering students and helping them acquire the confidence and skills to be successful in challenging science classes. I am excited to be continuing this work in the current semester.  Visit my full report on Promoting Metacognition to Improve Studying, Learning Skills, and Mastery of Microbiology to learn more about the evidence I collected in fall 2013 and future directions for this action research project.


Role Play in Stakeholder Groups for Local Planning Issues

Dr. Jennifer Rogalsky, Associate Professor of Geography, SUNY Geneseo

Every Fall semester, I teach a course entitled Introduction to Urban and Regional Planning. The course is always filled with 40 students who are Geography majors and minors, Urban Studies minors, and Environmental Studies minors. In the course, we discuss the history of planning, the politics of planning, and many complex contemporary planning issues, such as smart growth, housing, transportation, economic development, environmental planning, and more. I struggle in every course that I teach, regarding how to get students to be more motivated to do the readings. Through this action research project, I hoped to combine contemporary and controversial planning issues with their reading assignments, encouraging them to read and prepare for every class from a particular stakeholder group’s perspective (politicians, pro-business developers, citizens against the issue, and citizens for the issue). We held a number of short class discussions from these perspectives, and held two full-class mock public hearings surrounding current local planning debates.

The goals of my action research were to see if this kind of problem-based learning, and collaboration with their peers would encourage deeper engagement in and enthusiasm for, course readings, and also improve students’ learning outcomes and achievement.

In the end, learning outcomes and achievement did improve, but I realized that I may have set the wrong goal, because instead of increasing their motivation/amount of reading, I increased class participation and motivation for class discussion. While this is still a very worthy outcome, as a result of this action research project, I have learned to more clearly align my goals with the instructions and activities I give students. Even though I didn’t always get the results I was looking for, I learned a great deal from this action research, and will certainly continue to use this activity in future semesters.

Please visit my full report Collaborative Interactive Role Play for Local Planning Issues in Geography 201 to see more about the project background, inquiry question and design, reflections and lessons learned.

Engaging Pre-Service Teachers in Authentic Science Teaching

Dr. Kermin Martinez-Hernandez, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, St. John Fisher College

What it can be done to better prepare pre-service teachers and as a result their students, in science?  As an educator, I ask myself that question at the beginning of each semester. I always heard that middle school students are not engaged in learning science and that elementary teachers do not like science either or perhaps they are scared of science. I experienced that first-hand with my pre-service teachers students in the Early Childhood Education Major. I used that challenge as a motivation to do my action research project. Over the years, I have learned that we learn better by doing and being involved in the constant process of searching for answers (aka problem solving and critical thinking). Also, there is always the phrase, what if?  What if we start early on… sparking the interest about science earlier in our students, perhaps at the elementary/middle school age. But how? One way to accomplish this is to train future teachers in different teaching and learning techniques that they can later use and implement with their students. Keeping that in mind, I developed my action research project using Problem-Based Learning (PBL) as my driving force.

I decided to have  pre-service teacher students from St. John Fisher College  work in conjunction with East Rochester Middle School students (ERMS) in the development of PBL projects. I established a partnership with the Helping Youth through Preventive Education (HYPE) program and my students visited the school for a period of six weeks. My Fellows action research project had two main goals: (a) to provide early exposure to pre-service teachers to work directly with middle school students in an authentic setting and (b) to provide ERMS students participating in an after-school program with an opportunity to learn how to do research of their own interest using PBL in conjunction with Fisher students.  I was interested in assessing if there was a change in Fisher students’ attitudes after doing this project and if this project sparked some interest among middle school students in science. I strongly believe that the Fisher students enjoyed and benefited from this PBL and teaching experience at ERMS. The project allowed Fisher students to be engaged in an authentic setting with real students at an early stage in their education degree. Simultaneously, the project allowed ERMS to do research and present their results to their parents. I invite you to read and learn more about my journey doing this project by visiting my report, Problem-Based Learning with Middle School Students: Engaging Pre-Service Teachers in Authentic Science Teaching in an After School Setting.


Socratic Seminars and Collaborative Learning in Regents Physics

Matthew Greene, Environmental Science and Physics Teacher, Rush-Henrietta Senior High School

Regents physics has been traditionally taught through the use of lecture-based instruction, which has been shown to be less than effective than more engagement-oriented teaching strategies. In this study I was interested to see if a more collaborative approach to learning would have an impact on my students’ understanding of physics.

I have been experimenting with a strategy called circle whiteboarding, a modified version of a Socratic seminar where students lead a discussion to come to a group consensus on a solution to a problem. In years past I have used whiteboarding infrequently in class, at the most once per unit due to the large amount of class time needed. In this study,  my classes participated in two to three seminars per unit for each of the four units in the first semester.

I saw a consistent growth in class test performance from unit to unit during the first semester. Student averages on the mid-term exam were higher this year than any of the past four years I have taught physics. Student perception of Socratic seminars also increased from the start of the school year to the end of the first semester.

Socratic seminars using circle whiteboarding as a tool improved my students understanding in physics, as test scores increased throughout the semester. Interestingly, my students began to enjoy and ask for the session with increased frequency. I was surprised to see students realize the value of the practice, and advocate for its use as a method of instruction. My classes now pick whiteboarding as the preferred method of review for tests and quizzes. For more information on Socratic seminars via circle whiteboarding, please visit my action research report Socratic Seminars and Collaborative Learning in Regents Physics.

Overcoming Misconceptions in Physical Science through Guided Inquiry

Dawn Lee, Lecturer of Physical Science, The College at Brockport

Misconceptions in Physics and Chemistry have long been noted as an issue, even leading to widely shared and standardized “Concept Inventories.”  These are generally designed for majors courses that go way beyond the scope of my course, but provoked some new thinking about my approach to teaching these topics. I had many ideas, but ultimately I decided to use concept inventories to identify students’ prior knowledge, and let them explore their ideas through a guided inquiry process in the laboratory setting. In addition, I added some free web simulation assignments to supplement material that we were unable to attack directly in our labs.

At the beginning of each relevant lab meeting, students took a concept inventory pre-test. They then performed experiments related to the concepts for which there was a large percentage of students having misconceptions, participated in small post-lab discussion groups and then reported their findings both orally and through a post-test of the concept inventory. In addition, I asked some individual concept inventory questions in lecture (as iClicker questions) and had students use online simulations to run through the experimentation process (akin to the lab experience). To test for short-term retention I asked relevant questions on the unit exam, and for long-term retention I gave an unannounced quiz on these topics right before their last unit exam. The students were also polled about their opinions as to the effectiveness of this process on their learning.

The results were somewhat inconclusive, as there were varying results in the immediate effectiveness of the process, as well as with the short and long-term retention. As a whole, there was obvious improvement from the pre-lab to the post-lab knowledge. However, I chose to analyze four specific questions more in depth and found a good deal of variance in the post-lab results, as well as short and long-term retention. Most interesting in this case was with two of the questions where the students were asked to hand in a post-lab concept inventory for grading as a group. The groups tended to be more likely to retain an incorrect response or even change from a correct to an incorrect response, but on the unit exam (after covering the material in lecture), there was significant improvement on these topics, and modest retention on the end of semester quiz.

Some general observations included an improvement as a whole at tying together the concept with the lab observations, and in the discussions and use of terminology in post-lab discussions as well. When polled, students believed that the process was helpful to their learning, despite the negative rap that inquiry based learning usually gets from students. They expressed a similar consensus with using simulations to assist in their learning. Students also provided very positive reviews in both a survey provided through the CCTE program and through my end of year evaluations.

Overall, the process was very enlightening despite some of the inconclusive data. For more on the details and my personal reflections, please see Overcoming Misconceptions in Physical Science through Guided Inquiry.


Metacognition and Bloom’s Higher Order Questions in Biology 120

Edward Freeman, Associate Professor of Biology, St. John Fisher College

My action research project for the STEM Metacognition group involved the introduction of weekly quizzes into my freshman Introductory Biology course. Quiz questions focused on higher order questions from Bloom’s Taxonomy and were used to test the hypothesis that student performance on higher order exam questions would improve with increased exposure to these same question types through anonymous weekly quizzes.

Though the action research plan did not improve student performance on exams, there were other positive outcomes. Specifically, students appreciated the opportunity for additional practice and thought the idea of writing questions to further develop their own understanding of course content was a good use of class time. Additionally, following exam review and question type consideration students had a better grasp of why they performed poorly on exams. Note that poorly is a relative term and in this case it refers to their prior levels of performance in high school. College level coursework is an appropriate step up from the high school experience and for some this comes as quite a surprise. Therefore, students may have earned their first C, D or F on an exam and are interested in how they can improve their own performance. As they move forward in the Biology curriculum my hope is that their understanding of the different levels of knowledge facilitates their own efforts to master material at a level that will allow them to find success.

Along the way I learned that technology can be your friend, but only if you know what you want and how to properly use it. I struggled with the early quizzes because I was deploying them for the students through a course management system that encumbered the successful completion of the quizzes for a subset of students and or the interpretation of resultant data for me. I then switched to another provider and learned the hard way not to get too fancy. With that we were finally moving along smoothly, almost. It turns out that anonymity on the part of the students was a bigger factor than I had planned on. Anonymity can be a good thing because they can take chances with questions and not worry about others (me) knowing they answered incorrectly. However, anonymity can also be a bad thing if they decide to take advantage of it and not take the quizzes seriously. Buy- in on the project had not been an issue and the students seemed intrigued by the idea that I would involve them in the research process; apathy on their part was unexpected. Notably it was a small number of students that hid behind their anonymity and did not take quizzes seriously but it required me to strategize and determine better ways to deploy quizzes for the future. This project certainly taught me a number of unexpected things about how to manage this type of activity with students and it is these ‘lessons learned’ that will make this strategy more meaningful for my students in the future.

My task is now to take what I have learned and continue to do it, but more effectively, through reflection on the lessons I have learned. Further, I will be looking for strategies to bridge the gap between student exposure to and appreciation of Bloom’s Taxonomy and improving performance through use of that knowledge. Being in the metacognitive group has already facilitated my thinking on this through discussions at our affinity group meetings. Future action research (spring 14) will therefore be used to polish my efforts toward the original project and, importantly, to begin building that bridge.  For additional details, see my full report on Metacognition and Bloom’s Higher Order Questions in Biology 120.

Using Technology to Increase Interpersonal Skills

Rebecca Horwitz, Monroe Community College

The Psychology Department at Monroe Community College offers a course called Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships. This is an experiential course that teaches interpersonal skills such as self-disclosure, listening skills, managing conflict and stress, verbal and non-verbal communication, and the merits of diverse relationships. Interpersonal exercises and participation are core elements of this course.

I recognize that students initiate, develop, and maintain their relationships by using multiple communication channels. Increasingly, students are communicating over various technologies such as texting and social media. These communications are vitally important to the quality of the interpersonal relationships, especially as the number of face-to-face communications decreases. This provided the basis for my action research project;  I developed a project meant to answer the inquiry question,“Will informal writing assignments in an online discussion forum increase students’ interpersonal skills?”

To answer my inquiry question, I designed a process evaluation plan and an outcome evaluation strategy. This being my first self-designed project of this magnitude, I learned many lessons along the way. Please visit my report Using Technology to Increase Interpersonal Skills, to see my inquiry design, the results of the two evaluations, and a summary of the lessons I learned during the CCTE Fellowship.

Blogging, Student Engagement, and Student Success

Stephen Brauer,  Associate Professor of English and American Studies, St. John Fisher College

This research project focused on the creation and integration of a blog into an English 101 college-level course in order to encourage and create greater student engagement in the course and to foster greater student success. Students wrote blog posts on “Sport in American Culture” – the focus of the English 101 course – as a way to use the informal writing space of social media to generate, explore, and test out ideas in a low-stakes environment. For the last unit of the course, however, students were asked to write a research paper on a topic of their own choosing, and the blog served as a primary site for topics that the students then developed into focused research questions and a finished essay.

The results of the project were interesting. Although a majority of students wrote often and were fairly engaged in the blog, more students than I would have hoped wrote on the blog less often than I would have hoped. However, I asked the students to write a self-reflection memo about the value of the blog in connection with their research paper and the great majority lauded the blog as the origin of their paper – either in terms of what they had written or in terms of what they had read. The student self-evaluations at the end of the semester, anonymously done, confirmed that the students believed the blog to have been a very positive experience for them in terms of helping them think further about the course and in terms of helping them as a writer.

The results of the project suggest that the informal writing space of the blog holds great potential for educators as a means of fostering student engagement. Creating a space for students that they have “ownership” over, a space that they can write what they think or what they respond to going on in the world around them, offers students a chance to recognize writing not only as the product of their thinking but as the very means through which they think and make meaning. Once young men and women recognize that writing is not only the product of their ideas but the actual means of producing ideas, they will have the potential to realize the power of writing strategies and the power of the word to persuade. This is, of course, a giant step, but the process is crucial. The recognition of the process of writing is the means of arriving at the end product. The blogging project begun here suggests that there is the potential to use the power of social media to encourage greater student engagement in the course material and to ultimately foster greater student success.  For the complete report on this project, please see Blogging, Student Engagement, and Student Success.


Hands-On and Minds-On Art

Susan Rudy, Art Teacher, Rochester City School District

My action research project focused on how metacognition in the interpretation and creation of art builds critical thinking skills and the ability to apply those skills. I also looked at how students see the process as valuable and applicable beyond the art room.

I am very interested in the effects art has on learning and on the extent to which participating in the arts reaches beyond the art studio. I have been teaching high school Visual Arts for 14 years and it has become apparent to me that the art room activities my students are engaged in directly relate to so many other aspects of their life and learning. Through this study, I wanted to engage my students and inspire them to think about how they think about art and, thus, how this affects their art making and the value they gain from it.

My approach to this study began with a student-centered and student-facilitated ‘fishbowl’ art critique activity. My students were involved in all aspects of the lesson and participated in group planning and cooperative teamwork activities, as well as individual art making. They critiqued, observed and thought about how they think about art and art making. They were involved in creating rubrics, routines and potential outcomes. After the group activity the students had the opportunity apply critical thinking skills and complete a drawing that helped to them further interpret and assign personal meaning to the art piece that they critiqued. The information identified through the critique was used to create a rubric that directly applied to the interpretative drawing the students completed.

Through the use of videotaping, journals, art projects and surveys, this study reveals changes in how students think about and approach art and the art making process. My findings showed that the students used metacognitive thinking strategies to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills. In support of higher level learning, this activity helped the students make connections between disciplines, topics and problem solving. They were able to generate ideas and find personal meaning related to a theme. The data I gathered from the surveys and daily journals revealed that, overall, the students reacted positively to the experience and expressed that they felt the experience was valuable and applicable to areas outside of the art room.  For examples of student art and my full report please see Hands-On and Minds-On Art.

Flipped Classroom Teaching for English Language Learners

Erin Hoover, English Teacher for Students of Other Languages, Rochester City School District

In the fall of the 2013-14 school year, I began to experiment with aspects of flipped-teaching with my Newcomer ESOL English class. I gave my students videos to watch and post about on an online forum called Padlet. Additionally, during each viewing they were asked to fill in a notes sheet with a series of general questions designed to help them consider the academic skills presented in the videos while simultaneously informing me about their various levels of comprehension. I gave my class a series of 5 videos, and, over the course of this project I came to some important conclusions about flipped learning with English Language Learners.

Initially, I gave my students videos to support the high level skills of literary analysis which they are required to master as part of the Common Core State Standards. Because these skills are especially challenging for newcomer English Language Learners, I predicted that accessing the videos I chose for them would yield an increased level of understanding and success with textual analysis. After sending the third video, I observed in my data and notes that the videos I had chosen were not impacting my students’ learning in the way I had hoped. I did some additional research about flipped-teaching and found that many teachers employ this method with math, typically using step-by-step tutorial videos. I therefore decided to change to grammar-based videos, which were more formulaic like math and less abstract like the literary-based videos I had started out with.

In the end, I found that grammar videos were useful in the context of flipped learning because more students were able to comprehend and immediately put to use the skills presented. I realized that I had started this action research project by giving my students videos that would potentially help me as the instructor rather than help the students learn independently outside of the classroom. With newcomer English Language Learners, there is no replacement for in-class explicit instruction with immediate feedback from a teacher. However, my students responded well to the more tangible grammar-based instructional videos because they served as in-home teachers helping them to complete English practice exercises on their own.

As a result of this action research project, I have decided to continue using methods of flip-teaching to support my students’ language development in the area of English grammar. My hope is that students will not only improve their writing skills, but also develop the habit of researching and using instructional videos as a means of independent learning to support themselves in all of their classes.  For more information on this project, see my action research report, Using Academic Skill Videos with Newcomer English Language Learners.