‘The how of learning’: A tool for embedding metacognitive reflection in lessons


I work in a secondary school as a teacher of Learning to Learn (L2L). In L2L, I often interrupt the lesson to get students to stop ‘what’ they are doing and reflect on the ‘how’ of learning. In another inquiry published on Praxis Teacher Research, I explored the use of wind chimes as a method for getting the students’ attention several times a lesson, for this purpose. In this related inquiry, I evaluate the usefulness of a tool I developed for encouraging students to reflect on the ‘how of learning’ within lessons.

L2L is widely considered to be a highly effective way to help young people become more effective learners. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit states that “Meta-cognition and self-regulation approaches (sometimes known as ‘learning to learn’ approaches)” provide “high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence”. L2L theory and practice has developed significantly throughout the last 40 years, with a number of approaches having been implemented on a large scale in the UK (e.g. the RSA Opening Minds curriculum; the Campaign for Learning’s Learning to Learn project; the Learning How to Learn initiative; Building Learning Power). However, to date evaluations of such large-scale L2L programmes have reported mixed results – while there are often pockets of effective practice, the net effect is one of no clear impact on students’ academic attainment (e.g. see Higgins et al., 2007; Wall et al., 2010; James et al., 2006; Claxton et al., 2011; Aynsley et al., 2012).

Reasoning from first principles, in 2010 a school in Sussex set out to reconceptualise L2L as a complex intervention comprised of multiple evidence-based practices, such that the marginal gains emerging from each avenue of practice accumulate and interact, to produce a larger effect size overall. This new approach to L2L – now known as Learning Skills – has been subject to a 5-year longitudinal evaluation, the interim findings of which have been reported in the research literature (Mannion & Mercer, 2016).

In this small research inquiry, I set out to explore student perceptions of ‘The How of Learning’, a tool I developed for enabling and embedding metacognitive reflection in lessons.


Whole school level

As part of the L2L programme, students and teachers had worked together to co-construct a shared language of learning. A visual representation of this can been seen below, in the so-called ‘learning brain’. This was an attempt to drill down through the 6 key attributes to identify specific learning behaviours.

‘The learning brain’: A visual representation of the whole-school language of learning

The learning brain diagram featured on large posters in every classroom, as well as in students’ planners. It is worth noting that several versions of this diagram existed, some with blank spaces where students could write their own learning behaviours, such as ‘bite my tongue’, ‘define key terms’ or ‘redraft my work’.

The idea behind having such an explicit language of learning is essentially to ‘teach the vocab’. When you teach about electricity, you start by teaching the key words – voltage, current, resistance and so on. Similarly, if we want students to become more effective learners, we should firstly identify a set of key terms which describe the processes of learning. With this in place, it becomes much simpler to get students talking and thinking about the ‘how of learning’. Through this they come to develop a stronger sense of what specific behaviours or ‘processes’ result in effective learning. They start to identify with particular processes of learning, and recognise strengths and areas for improvement. The underlying message is essentially that of a ‘growth mindset’ – that with practice, they can ‘get better’ at any of these processes: they can improve their memory, to manage distractions and to self-manage.

Classroom level

At the start of a lesson, once the teacher has outlined the lesson objectives (the ‘what of learning’), students were given a few minutes to consider the brain diagram and to identify 3 ‘processes of learning’ that they anticipated they would need to use in order to learn effectively in the lesson. They would write these on a ‘How’s my learning’ sheet, which was laminated and stuck to every table (for easy re-use, and to save paper). For example, in a lesson which involved group work (e.g. where students were making a stall for the Christmas Market), students might choose ‘suggest ideas’, ‘consider others’, or ‘take responsibility’. Whenever there was a learning review (as signified by wind chimes ringing), students would have 30 seconds to stop what they were doing and fill in the arrow next to each learning behaviour. This would be followed by a short burst of directed questions by the teacher, to enable specific learning behaviours to be recognised, evaluated, celebrated and shared.

‘How’s my learning’? These were laminated and stuck to each desk; students were provided with dry-wipe markers.

Research question:

What do year 7, 8 and 9 L2L students think about the ‘How of Learning’ tool as a method for helping them reflect on their learning?


I decided to interview 3 students from 3 different L2L classes (years 7, 8 and 9), to ask their opinions about the use of wind chimes as a method for getting their attention. To do this, I prepared a short interview, with a mixture of short and long answer questions (see attached). To save time, I interviewed the students together in a group, and types their responses as they spoke. The interview took around 15 minutes, and was conducted during a lunchtime. This was done at the same time as the wind chimes interview.

Results and discussion:

Personal reflections

My own experience of using the reflection tool was that I found it a useful as a ‘way in’ to metacognitive conversations about the ‘how of learning’. However I had concerns that it is possibly quite a shallow tool, and I wondered just how much deep thinking were students doing as a result of this activity being interspersed throughout lessons.

Student perceptions

The students’ interview responses are attached. The key findings can be summarised as follows:

  • Students seemed to value the reflection tool approach. For example, all 3 students gave reflection tools a much higher score out of 10 than the wind chimes.
  • The reflection tools seemed to be achieving what they set out to achieve. Students could see the value in reflecting on their learning, as can be seen in the comment “maybe they should be in more lessons, because I want to be able to compare how I’m doing in all of my lessons as well”.
  • Problems were identified also, e.g. people fidgeting with the sellotape. Also one student expressed frustration at the way this activity interrupts other activities, and stops them from finishing their “work”.


This small inquiry was useful in exploring student perceptions around the use of the ‘How’s my learning’ tool. I had previously recognised the need for a quick-fire, short burst activity to help students reflect on the ‘how’ of learning. The students’ responses reaffirmed my suspicion that the activity is achieving what I set out to achieve – helping them reflect on their learning. And the fact that students agree that this activity is useful was a pleasant surprise!


This small research inquiry only took a few minutes to carry out, and obviously the sample size is very small. However I chose a range of students from different year group, and so to an extent these responses can be seen as being representative of student views more generally. However small, I found this small inquiry useful – students were clear and consistent in reporting that the ‘How’s my learning’ activity was both effective, and valued by them.

Next steps:

I will continue to use the ‘How’s my learning’ activity in L2L lessons. However I intend to plan more carefully when I use it, so that students do not feel it gets in the way of their ability to become absorbed in what they are doing.


  1. Higgins, S., Kokotsaki, D. & Coe, R.J. (2011). Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: Summary for Schools Spending the Pupil Premium. Sutton Trust.
  2. Mannion, J. & Mercer, N. (2016): Learning to learn: improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3. The Curriculum Journal 27(2), p246-71.

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