Helping students strategize

Some of my goals for teaching are to help students do their work more effectively and more efficiently and to help them learn how to learn so that they could learn on their own after they leave school.  There is a body of research out there on metacognition that seems to help students do just these things.

Metacognition is using prior knowledge to plan how to approach a task, monitoring yourself while doing that task, and evaluating how that task was performed.  Metacognition can relate to understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, to considering how to deal with a specific task, and to knowing what strategies you have to perform this task.  Unfortunately, many students’ only strategy might be rote memorization, and this is not necessarily a good strategy for critically reading a translated ancient text or for translating that text into English.  Therefore, we need to teach more strategies for completing tasks and help students understand what strategies are best for the tasks.

Ways to help our students

  • Model new strategies.  Make students make flashcards to learn vocabulary terms, and suggest links to online resources to study vocabulary or other grammar concepts ( is great for students using Wheelock’s Latin).  When you’re translating sentences in an introductory language class, constantly refer to strategies to understand words (like subject-verb agreement and the probability that an adjective and noun that are next to each other and could agree do agree) Give students reading questions and tell them how you determined what these reading questions are.  If you are reading something aloud in class, interrupt the passage and ask who Achilles is or why people are at Troy, or illustrate the story on the chalkboard or whiteboard.  If you’re having students write a paper, have them brainstorm or free write in class, or have them develop ideas in a group discussion.
  • Ask students what strategies work best for them.  A week or two into the term, or in one-on-one meetings, I find it helpful to ask students: “How do you translate this sentence?” or “What helps you translate this sentence?” You may have already modeled translating or told students good steps for how to translate, but they have also developed their own strategies.  These questions allow you to learn what helps them learn, suggest more strategies, allow students to suggest strategies to each other (some of which you haven’t imagined), and monitor your students’ progress.  When you translate in the future, then, you can also ask students “What’s the next step?” or “What’s the first step?” rather than always telling them what to do.  These questions also have the benefit of making students evaluate their own strategies.
  • Ask students how to study for quizzes and tests.  Personally, I think it is most fair to tell students the format of evaluations so that they can study most effectively.  But they then need to have good strategies for studying.  You can check this and make students use metacognition by asking “What is the best way to study declension charts?” or “Where are you going to find out who Achilles is?” or “How will you prepare for an essay?”
  • Encourage students to monitor their own understanding.  A worksheet or reading questions on a reading assignment can help them understand if they have understood the reading.  If they are translating, have them reread their translations to make sure it makes sense in English.  A worksheet about the content of a translation assignment is also helpful to make sure students are not just translating but attempting to understand their translations too.
  • Do not do the metacognition for them.  We can do all of the planning, monitoring, and evaluation for ourselves; but students need to learn how to do them.  Only when they clearly do not have answers for these does it makes the most sense to offer suggestions, through leading questions or answering yourself.

This post is based on the excellent website:


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