Focus 2 Achieve

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I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of "Crush School: Every Student's Guide To Killing It In The Classroom" which is a book that helps students understand how their brain processes information and learns. In the book, I explain why students can learn anything and give strategies on how to learn effectively.

The Focus Method: Teaching Students to Use Metacognitive Strategies in Note Taking and Learning

by Oskar Cymerman       @focus2achieve



The truth: American high schools are not preparing students to excel after graduation. Only 25% of high school students graduate with the skills and knowledge necessary to be college-ready in the 4 core subjects of English, Reading, Math and Science.

If teacher quality is one of the most important factors contributing to student success in school, then it is imperative that we, the educators, provide students with the right learning tools and teach them skills necessary for success in high school and beyond. One such skill is note taking. 

Call me crazy, but I believe that most high school students do not find much benefit in using their own notes to study. I mean, even if they pay attention in class, take notes diligently in class or at home, and review these notes to learn, many students come up short on tests. So what gives? 

Upon closer examination of the learners I meet in my Chemistry classes every year, I can confidently ascertain that there are definitely those who never take notes. Others take notes and never open them. I know this, because I've asked this question many times during my tenure and each time I saw several hands go up in the air. Then, there are others, who take and use their notes with limited effect. Finally, there are those few-and-far-in-betweeners who basically have it all figured out. They are the notes ninjas: they take good notes and use them as their greatest school weapon. So, it is only fitting that in this rant, I will talk about my plan to get everyone else to that same level of note-taking and learning sophistication. I will talk about how I am using a learning method I created, the Focus Method, to teach note maximization and metacognition. But, first things first...

Issues I observed

I am convinced that a great majority of high school students simply does not know how to use notes. The 5 main reasons for this are: 

1. Not having a consistent note taking strategy 

2. Not having a clearly defined focus for taking notes (read: learning) 

3. Inability to pick out and/or leverage the big ideas effectively  

4. Lack of understanding of the material 

5. Not realizing how to use the written information effectively           

My plan of attack: The Focus Method (a Metacognition Strategy)

According to the Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL) Center, a project of the U.S. Department of Education, metacognition is "one’s ability to use prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task, take necessary steps to problem solve, reflect on and evaluate results, and modify one’s approach as needed." Metacognition then, is the learner awareness of the thinking and learning tools he or she can use to learn more effectively. The Focus Method I describe below is such a strategy. It serves as a medium for teachers to teach students cognitive, as well as metacognitive skills, and it is a learning method that provides students with strategies to approach and reflect on their own learning.

1. The Right Strategy 

There is not one right note-taking strategy that trumps them all and is effective for every student. Different ones work for different people. I remember using outline type notes in high school and college, but I know others might prefer Cornell notes, concept mapping, other graphic organizers, or any combination of these strategies. (I am purposefully ignoring electronic note taking, as multiple recent studies suggest that e-devices are not only a source of distraction in school, but the electronic note takers are also consistently trumped by pen and paper users when it comes to retention, understanding, and test performance). 

No matter what strategy one uses, I believe consistency is the key. And, because most students come to my class without a clear vision of what note taking should look like and do not have a consistent strategy, I came up with the note-taking template and strategy I call the Focus Method

2. Clearly Defined Focus

I sometimes think of the Focus Method as Cornell Notes on steroids. But, it isn't that at all. Sure, it uses the Cornell Notes organization and there are additional features in the note taking template that make it more complete. However, the different strategies and learning activities it lends itself to during and after note taking make it a lot more. If Dr. John Hattie is right about teacher clarity being one of the biggest determinants of student success, then discussing objectives and having students write them down at the beginning of the lesson in indeed a high return on investment activity. 

The Focus Method puts the objectives front and center so that students know what information to focus on during the learning activity. To make the process a metacognitive one, I write the objectives as action steps, have students use them when they review for tests (see the Test Review Method), and prompt students to ask themselves at the end of each lesson, and while reviewing for exams, questions such as: Do I understand the objectives? Can I perform the actions they call for? How can I learn this material or gain a better understanding of it? 

At some point in my teaching career, I realized that my main goal as a teacher is not necessarily to teach students chemistry (which is important), but to help them gain the skills necessary to become better learners. To achieve this, students must become aware of what they do and do not know, and be able to reflect on their ability to control and manipulate the thought processes involved in their learning. Such metacognitive focus has to be first uncovered for students, as most have not consciously thought about their thinking before, and then it must be taught by teachers so that the students can take their learning to the next level.

3. Identifying and Leveraging the Big Ideas

While identification of big ideas and key concepts should initially be scaffolded for students, the upfront class time investment by the teacher pays huge dividends in the future. Being able to pick out information that is crucial to developing deep content understanding is essential to academic success. What I believe is more important though, because it lasts a lifetime, is developing the metacognitive skills associated with identifying and using the big ideas contained within lectures, presentations, and readings to further one's knowledge and understanding. 

The Focus Method utilizes objectives to point a student's subconscious toward key information. As the student listens to the lecture, his mind starts to make connections between the vocabulary used in the objectives and the most important information contained in the presentation. Such cognitive processing makes a big difference in student learning, but learning how to use the information metacognitively gives the learner the ability to be more strategic when reviewing (Asking questions such as: What is really important to understand here? What do I already know? What do I need to hit hard?); to reflect on and evaluate results (Asking questions such as: Do I understand this? Can I explain it in a simple way? Do I feel confident about what I know?); and to modify the learning approach if necessary (Asking questions such as: What else can I do? What can I do better? How can I learn this more effectively?).

4. Problem-Solving

Asking questions and problem-solving are the ultimate exercises in metacognition. 

I want to focus on problem-solving here (check out my previous post for a proven problem-solving method I use: PROBLEM SOLVING MADE EASY... EASIER... ISH...) and how it teaches metacognition, and I will describe asking questions in the next section.

One way I leverage problem-solving to teach my students metacognitive skills involves writing challenging bell ringer questions and asking students to come up with multiple ways of answering them. Whenever possible, it is important to use problems that require logic and a multi-step approach, and to use think-alouds to model the thinking that is occurring in the problem solving process. To become a better problem solver a student can ask himself questions such as: What can I do to solve this problem? Where can I find the solution? and Who can I ask for help? 

Problem-solving is one of the best strategies to use to teach such metacognition as it requires continuous reflection, which, among other things, involves digging up the prior knowledge one possesses and thinking about the problem-solving process itself.  It includes knowing when, where, and how to use specific problem solving strategies. If I just bought a house and want to buy a Christmas tree that fits in the new family room perfectly, I will consider where I bought the tree in years prior and where I could go now. I will think about the ceiling height in the old apartment vs. the new house and decide what size tree to buy. I will visualize what the done up tree should look like and what reactions I want it to evoke. Most importantly, I will think about the actions I can take and the things I can do to ensure that my whole family feels at home in our new house come Christmas time.

5. Maximizing the Use of Notes to Increase Learning

When using the Focus Method with students, I prompt them to write down any questions they may have during the opening activity (warm-up/bell ringer), during the main activity, and during the time they review and summarize their notes. If a student identifies some confusion while reviewing his notes, the Focus Method Notes template provides him with space to write questions down. By writing questions down students become conscious of what they do not understand or need more clarification on and start thinking about how to address such gaps in knowledge and understanding. 

Another highly metacognitive activity I have my students do involves writing higher-level questions on the left side of the Cornell note-taking system the Focus Method uses. These are questions that educe processing and application of the information to gain a deeper understanding of it. The teaching and learning of this strategy takes time and considerable effort on the part of the teacher and the students, but it pays big dividends when used correctly.

While each question and the answer to it requires higher level cognitive processing and improves learning, metacognition occurs during the question writing process as the student contemplates the most effective question she can write to bring forth the most sophisticated understanding of the concept when reviewing the notes later. 

The Focus Notebook method involves “on the spot” summarizing, checking for own understanding, and asking questions. These are powerful ways of getting the most out of learning, because one is allowed to process the information at least 4 times as he is receiving it and shortly after recording it. On the surface, this continual repetition helps learning of concepts. The magic happens beneath the surface though. Upon more careful examination, it is fairly easy to discover that the learner is using metacognitive processes when he begins noticing that his level of comprehension and memory retention improve as a result of this ongoing re-processing.

Bringing It Home 

Students simply don’t have a wide repertoire of study strategies. They rarely consider alternatives to the methods they've always used when they hit a learning roadblock. Not realizing learning is 80% quality and 20% quantity, many students think that studying more is the answer to their persistent lack of understanding. Moreover, and this one is in my view a tragedy, most high-schoolers do not think to evaluate what and how well they learned. Rather, success is measured by the grade they received.

So how do I problem-solve here? I teach metacognition. 

Metacognition can be taught. Metacognition should be taught in school. To significantly improve student success, teachers must help their students learn "thinking about their thinking skills." I believe that it is our great responsibility as educators to provide students with the tools and the instruction that allow them to make sense of, process, and consciously use the information they receive in school effectively and efficiently.

Learning the cognitive skills, such as selection of what's important and summarizing of key ideas, is increasingly important in the work world of today, and will be even more necessary in the world of tomorrow, as the amount of information grows exponentially. Teaching students to think about how to select and summarize information, so that the meaning is not sacrificed as a result of lack of time or space, opens the entryway to the metacognition realm that is often reserved for a select few. I say we give everyone access.

Taking It Further

It is my intention to create a classroom climate that promotes the idea that the ultimate goal of schooling is to provide students with skills that will last a lifetime; skills that can be used throughout their career; skills that set them on a path of excellence in their future. I want to foster a classroom environment in which my students meet their "learner-self." They consider how they learn, adjust their learning process, and identify and use learning strategies that work best for them. 

The quote goes: "If you're not growing, you're dying." In the ever changing and evolving world, any single way of doing things must be continually re-evaluated and improved, just as any skill must be sharpened to maintain the competitive edge. These statements may be strong, but I see note-taking as a skill that can last a lifetime, and as such, should evolve with the learner. This can be achieved by analyzing the note-taking process itself, by asking and answering questions about it, and by comparison of notes between students.

If a student asks herself why she wrote down what she did, she will gain further insight into her cognitive process. Moreover, she will have the opportunity to adjust her note taking and evolve her learning process. If a student is given the opportunity to compare her notes with those of another student, or several students, she will gain insight into how others think, which in turn will improve her cognitive processing. This can be taken even further by reflecting on these activities and putting the learned revelations to work. For example, a student might consider the changes she would make if she was asked to take these notes again. Then, she might examine her reasons for these changes. 

I want my students to do more "thinking about thinking" activities. When they do, their thinking improves, and they process information in a more meaningful way. I want to help my students use metacognition. When they do, they really learn. Students are given opportunities to plan and organize, monitor their own work, direct their own learning, and to self-reflect along the way. When we provide students with time and space to be aware of their own knowledge and their own thinking, student ownership increases. And research shows that metacognition can be taught, so I created a medium to help students learn to engage in it. So far, the Focus Method consists of a Note Taking Method, Table of Contents, and a Test Review Method. I am constantly improving it and have several tools that support and further it in development. 

Please download the Focus Method for FREE (links above) if you think you can find it helpful in your classroom or learning and leave me a comment or ask questions in the comments section.

If you are interested in supporting this project, I am currently running a Kickstarter campaign, which uses the Focus Method in a notebook format. Check it out here: Focus Notebook

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