Meta-Learning: What, Why and How to?

Updated: Aug 4


Meta-learning is a valuable concept that should be built into to all learning experiences, but many teachers have barely even heard of the concept, let alone incorporated it into their teaching approach.

This image gives a basic introduction to Meta-Learning and some example strategies, and in this accompanying post, I will elaborate briefly on each of the strategies mentioned.

If you would like to download a large version of the image, which you can then print out as a poster, you can get it at this link.


Strategies Based on Meta-Learning

Note Taking

Taking notes is an important strategy for students to master, and perhaps surprisingly, good note-taking does not come naturally.

It is useful to dedicate some time in your syllabus to developing note-taking skills with your students; show them some different styles and techniques, and give them opportunities to practise using them and even sharing them.

Some interesting techniques are Cornell Notes, Mind Maps and Sketch Notes. If you don't know these, look them up, practise them yourself and then share them with your students.

When you're teaching, make sure you pause a few times throughout the lesson to give your students time to take notes. Dedicated note-taking time is important for two reasons:

1) Your students cannot do two things at once, so either their notes will suffer or they will not be paying attention if you ask them to take all of their notes whilst you are talking.

2) Dedicating a portion of the lesson to note-taking, even just a few moments a few times per lesson, signals to the students that it is important and that you take it seriously, which means they'll be more likely to as well.

Dual Coding

Learning is a process of connecting ideas in the mind, and several of the strategies on this list deal with facilitating that process. Essentially, the more connections there are between two concepts (integration) and the stronger those connections are (consolidation), the more effective the learning. One way of enhancing these connections is dual coding.

Dual coding is the process of learning something through two modes of input. Modes of input include visual input, textual input, kinaesthetic input and aural input. Learning one thing through multiple modalities, or coding it in multiple forms, leads to greater retention.

Remember, though, as mentioned with the previous strategy, your students cannot actually do two things at once. So if you want dual coding to work, avoid speaking while you display an image, and instead give your students time to listen to you and to look at the image separately.

The use of images in particular to help learners understand complex concepts, as well as being an example of dual coding, is also its own strategy called 'visualisation'. Using images allows students to activate their spatial comprehension and also makes it easier to identify relationships between the elements in a complex model

Getting your students to replicate the dual coding helps to strengthen the learning even further, so encourage them to incorporate both text and images in their own notes.

Application

While memory is an important part of learning, it is a long-standing mistake to centre all of teaching around the rote-memorisation of knowledge. This does not lead to reliable long-term retention, and what is remember often proves to be of little use outside of the classroom.

Instead, focus on applying learning. Ensure that there is a clear purpose or value to all of the learning that takes place in the classroom so that the students know what they are learning it for, how it will be useful for them in the future.

The best way to do this is to have the students actually apply the learning in practical tasks rather than just completing exercises in their textbooks. Practical tasks involve using what they have learned to solve a problem or to create a product, something tangible that has an impact on their lives or their environment.

This increases learning effect in three ways:

1) Knowing that something is useful increases the motivation to learn it;

2) It is a form of dual coding, combining the textual or aural explanation with the kinaesthetic application;

3) It is simply more interesting and engaging, which has a powerful positive effect on learning.

Retrieval Practice

Your students will forget a lot of what you teach them. This cannot be avoided, so do not lament it too much. In fact, it is actually a good thing. Forgetting is an important part of learning. It is how our brains know what to focus on. Learning that is important is remembered; learning that is not important is forgotten.

How does the brain know what is important and what is not? Usefulness.

If we have to use an idea often, frequently recall it from our memory, then our learning is consolidated, essentially strengthening our memory each new time we recall or retrieve it.

Retrieval practice is a strategy that mobilises this natural process of learning. Once your students have learned something new, the process of forgetting will begin almost immediately. Tomorrow, the students will have forgotten some small portion of what they learned today, by next week perhaps most of it, and months form now they will likely forget everything from today's lesson if they have had no reason to retrieve that learning.

Retrieval practise attempts to interrupt the forgetting process by testing the students on their learning before they have the chance to forget it completely.

These "tests" can be in the form of simple quizzes, writing challenges or applied tasks.

Spaced Practice & Interleaving

The least effective learning programmes follow a strictly linear structure, where each unit introduces a new skill or concept, and after completing that unit, the learners move on and never have to think about that skill or concept again.

Instead, we want to design a curriculum that leads to greater consolidation over time, and the use of Interleaving and Spaced Practice are two powerful ways that we can achieve this. Spaced practice is the idea of returning to a skill or concept that has already been learned after some time has passed. When designing a syllabus, this would mean that the topic learned in unit one might be revisited later in unit three and perhaps again in unit seven. This facilitates greater consolidation because it is a form of retrieval practice, helping to interrupt the forgetting process and thus strengthening the neural connections.

Interleaving is an inherent byproduct of well designed spaced practice. It is a learning strategy that involves switching between topics and then back again, so that the learning of one topic is interspersed with learning and practicing other topics. Thus, rather than learning one topic in one unit and then moving on, the learner will learn partial topics in stages, and by the end of the course will have completed the learning of multiple topics.

This is powerful because it not only leads to the greater consolidation that we get from Spaced Practice, but it also leads to more connections between ideas (integration) because the different topics have greater interaction with one another.

Integration

I wrote a post recently on mental models and schema. The integration strategy is built on those concepts.

Integration is the attempt to relate new learning to existing understanding. This requires good planning and a good awareness of your students' prior learning.

When you teach something that does not integrate well with prior learning or existing understanding, there are fewer neural connections made in the learner's brain, meaning that it is harder for them to remember long-term and to recall on demand. So make sure that when you teach something new, your students can see clearly how it relates to something they have learned before or to their own environment. Application is another good way of doing this.

Aside from reinforcing the learning, integration to students' understanding of the world around them means that when they encounter a scenario in the real world where the learning will be useful, their memory is more likely to be triggered when they need it.

Guided Discovery

The traditional approach to teaching uses a strategy called "knowledge transfer". This puts the learners in a passive role, essentially just a receptacle for knowledge transferred from the teacher's brain to the learner's brain via a presentation.

Instead, we want our learners to take an active role in their learning. An valuable approach that uses this idea is Discovery Based Learning, where learners are expected to come to their own understanding of the material by analysing it themselves, asking questions, hypothesising and experimenting until it makes sense and they are able to use it effectively. This approach falls under the umbrella of constructivism in learning, and there are many proponents for the concept. However, recent research has suggested that a pure discovery based approach is not as effective as first assumed, and learners often end up with only a shallow understanding of the material or else they might be confused about the concepts or not be sure what they were supposed to be learning in the first place.

That's why we apply the guided discovery approach. Here, we use all of the same principals listed above (analysing, asking questions, hypothesising and experimenting) so that the students can construct their understanding, but the teacher guides the learners through the process, asking elaborative questions and offering corrections and confirmations where helpful.

Peer Teaching

It is often said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I appreciate the sentiment, though we cannot of course teach something that we have not yet learned. Peer teaching, then, is a powerful consolidation strategy.

Here, we encourage the learners to share with one another what they have already learned. This requires the 'peer-teacher' to think carefully about what they have learned, organise it in a way that makes sense and formulate their explanations using language and examples that the 'peer-learner' will understand. This is not an easy task, and completing it generates a much clearer mental model on the part of the peer-teacher.

Peer Teaching can be done in a number of formats: you could ask learners to summarise their learning at the end of a lesson, to make a poster about a concept they have learned, to record a video lecture or to plan and teach a full lesson on a complex subject.


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