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Back-Mapping: A Way to Help Students Internalize New Learning

Nancy Doda (in white) at the Maine Middle Level Education Institute (http://mleimaine.net/)

Nancy Doda, an advocate for young adolescents who speaks and writes with great passion about student voice, has an article in the newest Middle Ground (April, 2011) entitled ” The Power of Empowerment: Having Faith in Students.”  The entire article is online at http://www.nmsa.org/Publications/MiddleGround/Articles/April2011/tabid/2368/Default.aspx.  It’s well worth our time to read this article and then reflect on her message in terms of our own practice.  I don’t have my own classroom any more, however her message is one that also applies to my current work as a presenter.

One of her points is that we must be intentional in providing time for students to reflect on their work if they are going to retain, adapt and use this new information in different contexts.  She suggests a strategy called back-mapping.  Nancy defines back-mapping in this way, ” …a process whereby we ask students to reconsider what they have learned and how they have learned it”.

Back-mapping is a reflective process where students identify which activities helped them learn new information and how these particular activities were useful.  If I apply this method to my own language arts classroom, my prompt might be something like the following: “We’ve just finished a unit focusing on the novel Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.  Our major over-arching question was ‘How does Mildred Taylor use literacy conflict to keep the reader’s interest and help us understand the characters more completely?’ Please think back over the unit and identify the activities we did that helped you deepen your understanding of literary conflict and character development.  Be sure to include how these activities helped to build your understanding.”

Nancy reports that teachers she worked with asked this type of question twice–once at the end of the unit and then again at the end of the year. The students answers demonstrated that they retained the information in great detail.  That’s an outcome we would all like!

Imagine if an entire team adapted this practice of back-mapping.  Students would become adept at metacognition, one of the key components of learning. Using this kind of thinking in the contexts of different disciplines provides students with multiple practices.  It would also help them internalize the importance of metacognition/reflective learning as a important component of being an independent learner.

This process could be written or visual or auditory and become part of the students’ portfolios. Taking time to add this critical step in the learning process will lead to deeper understanding  and retention of the crucial concepts that are the foundation of future learning.

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