Dr. Saundra McGuire, emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Louisiana State University and Director of the Center for Academic Success, will lead a series of workshops this Thursday and Friday, Jan. 28 and 29. The workshops, titled “Metacognition is the Key!”, were organized by the Academic Deans and the Center for Faculty Career Development.

Director of the Center for Faculty Career Development Janice Naegele explained that the workshops were designed to have a practical application for University faculty.

“We are offering several teaching workshops to draw attention to approaches that seem to work very well in classrooms, regardless of whether it’s the humanities, social and behavioral sciences, or the natural sciences and math,” Naegele said. “The cognition workshops are actually designed to help faculty approach their teaching in a more conceptual way.”

Metacognition is the act of thinking about thinking, and it is the central focus of McGuire’s efforts to improve students’ critical thinking and abilities to understand larger concepts.

“Simply put, it’s your ability to think about your own thinking, to analyze your own thought process, to monitor your mental processes,” McGuire said.

McGuire has retired from teaching chemistry at Louisiana State University and now tours the country giving lectures and leading workshops on how both students and teachers can use metacognition to enhance learning. In college, McGuire said, developing critical thinking is vital to a quality education.

“It’s really important that students take responsibility for their own learning,” McGuire said. “They have to know what to do to master that information.

They have spent much of their time before the university memorizing facts and regurgitating it. They don’t have experience being critical thinkers, and that doesn’t work at the university level.”

In Nov. 2013, McGuire delivered the keynote at a conference on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in San Diego. Among those who attended the conference, hosted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, was Professor of Chemistry, Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Dean of Technology Initiatives at Wesleyan Dr. Ishita Mukerji.

“That was where I first became aware of [McGuire’s] work, working with students to teach them the elements of metacognition,” Mukerji said. “And so I was very swayed by what she talked about and what she showed, and that’s one of the reasons I really wanted to bring her to Wesleyan.”

While McGuire is particularly concerned with STEM education, Mukerji emphasized that McGuire’s workshops were open and helpful to all.

“Although they benefit STEM students, I think they really benefit all students because it’s really all about taking your learning to the next level, and I am also hoping that she talks to us about how we, as educators, can change our teaching so we can also get students to think  on that higher level,” Mukerji said.

Interest on campus has been robust so far, according to Naegele.

“Frankly, at this point, we have about 139 RSVPs…and there has been huge interest in hearing Dr. McGuire’s ‘Journey to Excellence,’ which is her personal story, and then many are also coming to the workshop on Friday,” Naegele said. “Above all, there seems to be a lot of interest on campus, and I am amazed and really, really pleased to see this.”

While McGuire believes that metacognition is essential for collegiate success, she also says that it should be taught at lower levels of education, especially in preparation for standardized tests such as the Standard Aptitude Test (SAT), the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, and others like them.

“The information that’s covered on those [standardized] tests, teachers are almost forced to teach the students to pass the test, so the students are not taught to think critically,” McGuire said.

Naegele agreed with the importance of metacognition, citing the example of rote memorization versus critical examination.

“As you know, if you have ever taken a course in the natural sciences, there’s a lot of vocabulary and a lot of terminology to learn, and the textbooks are several inches thick,” Naegele said. “It’s just an awful lot of information, and I see students approach this with the flashcard strategy, which is just rote memorization. And while that certainly helps, and you sometimes have to do that, the focus is just on memorizing, rather than studying smarter, studying more effectively, studying more efficiently.”

Mukerji also discussed the importance of incorporating more critical thought into student learning.

“I think we are all interested in how we can use more active learning strategies and project based learning in our classes,” Mukerji said. “There’s a lot of research that shows that when students have to actively engage with the material that learning outcomes significantly improve. Retention is better, overall knowledge is better, and students perform better on tests. So, those are the types of things we want to incorporate into our teaching to improve it.”

Mukerji explained how her teaching styles were influenced by hearing McGuire speak.

“[My teaching style changed] a little bit, I have to say,” Mukerji said. “Yes, I think it does make you think about how you are presenting material as well as how you can get students to engage more deeply with the material.”

However, Mukerji now looks forward to learning some concrete methods for incorporating conscious learning into her lessons.

“The [talk] I heard earlier was only 45 minutes, so I think the workshop will actually give me an opportunity to experience some of the strategies, rather than just being told about them, and potentially applying them in some exercises,” Mukerji said. “That’s one of the differences. We just heard a talk and don’t know how to implement it, but the workshop should actually give us concrete examples of how we can implement it.”

Information on the workshops is available on the website for the Center for Faculty Career Development.

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