Building Metacognitive Writers

In many ways our brains are nearly limitless in their capacity. No hard cap exists on memories that can be created or skills that can be gained. But there is one function of our brains that is incredibly limited–our attention.

In fact, our attention is not just limited, it is severely limited in two distinctly different ways. First we cannot truly pay attention to more than one thing at a time. What looks like multitasking is actually rapid switching of attention, which leads to far more errors and loss of efficiency in all tasks being done. Anyone who has seen someone walking down the sidewalk while texting knows exactly what this looks like (see below).

Second, we can only consciously hold onto a small handful of information concerning  whatever our attention is on.  A fierce debate rages in brain research circles over the exact number of pieces of information we can hold onto in a given moment (this is often called working memory). Some researchers say it is four, others seven, and others simply state it’s “complicated.” Whatever number it is, most can agree that it is strikingly small.

This fun-sized attention that humans come with impacts nearly everything we do in the classroom, though I would argue that no place can its presence be felt more than in writing. Good writing is composed of 28, 34, or 47 distinct skills, depending on the study you prefer, and grappling with a problem that complex demands consistent stretches of unbroken attention, which is something that many of our students are not used to in this hyper-distracted era. Further, if we can only notice four or even seven things at a time and good writing takes mastery of between 28 and 47 distinct things, that means that we can only see a sliver of the picture at any given moment concerning whether our writing is working or not.

Good writers consciously or unconsciously understand these things. It is the reason they nearly all effusively espouse a robust revision process, join writing groups, and have editors. These things help to keep them focused and fill in the gaps inevitably left by the fact that even they cannot simultaneously see the whole picture of their writing. But new writers rarely realize these things or know how to handle solving such a big problem where one can’t see all of the factors at once. That is where teaching students metacognition, or the ability to think about their thinking comes in.

Metacognition is a term that is suddenly everywhere, but unlike some educational trends, there is a lot of substance behind this one. Despite its relative newness in education circles, a remarkably large amount of research already points to metacognition as a game-changing teaching tool. Further, it has actually been actively taught by the best teachers forever, even if they didn’t call it metacognition.

When it comes to writing, one of the most common tools for teaching metacognition is having some sort of revision protocol. This can take many different forms, but some variety of it has appeared in nearly every writing book of note over the last thirty years. Here are some of the ones that have worked best for my classes:

  • When I did the Oregon Writing Project with Linda Christensen, she shared with us that she has students do revision checklists that they must complete before she will grade their papers. A type of checklist based on her model has been a staple of my classes ever since, and I’ve found their concrete nature helps to clarify the editing process for writers of all abilities. The one downside to this approach is that if we aren’t careful, such lists can train students that review is simply just checking boxes, but I’ve found this issue can be avoided by having a final box on the checklist that states that students should then read it for “everything else.” Here is an example of one of these lists from my College Essay unit in my Advanced Composition class. Please note that the categories reflect the genre, audience, and purpose, which means they change for each new paper.

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  • Donald Graves suggests having students reread papers to find a “heartbeat line” that lies at the core of what the paper is about. If my students are struggling with organization, I take this principle to the next level by having students find and label the heartbeat line for each paragraph in an effort to help them identify the moments where the organization grows unclear.
  • Carol Jago and Georgia Heard (who takes the discussion of revision procedures to a new level in her book The Revision Toolbox) both have students read their papers numerous times with different lenses in an effort to help them “resee” the papers in different ways. While I like the concrete training that comes from the tangible checklists described above, I do this whole class approach when there is a really common issue that I’ve seen in a lot of drafts, as it allows me to speak to the problem right before the students jump in to begin addressing it.

In all of these approaches, the goal is the same: to train students to go through the revision process in a way that makes up for blinders that our attention puts on us. This is the very definition of metacognition, as in each situation students learn to take an active look at how the brain works and build a writing process that better reflect the gaps we all have.

Further, I’ve also found this metacognitive approach to be strangely empowering for students. Out of everything I do with writing, the revision activities–and especially the checklists–are the thing that I have the most ex-students come back and thank me for. I even had one student come back to show me her laminated writing review sheet from my class that she still uses for every writing assignment she does! I think the reason for this is that having to navigate something as complex as writing with a pea-sized attention makes many students feel like they have no control over their writing. Lists give students a clear and easy map, which helps them feel more in control, and makes the task less daunting by breaking it into chunks.

If you’d like any specific examples of verbal or written revision protocols, please reach out, as I have dozens of them, including at least one for nearly every genre. As I always say, we are all in this together, so don’t be shy.

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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