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Assessing Classroom Quality

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Perhaps the strongest evidence of engagement in learning comes through the generation of questions, especially students’ questions. When students ask questions, especially when their questions have been prompted by the statements or questions other students in the class have offered, it’s clear the metacognitive value of questions and the skill of asking them has become a primary mode of instruction.


The posting below looks at the use of “reciprocal teaching,” in improving students’ metacognition and critical thinking skills. It is by James Rhem, executive editor of the National Teaching and Learning Forum, and is from Volume 28, Number 4, May 2019 of that periodicalIt is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at:  The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©20XX Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company, 111 River St., Hoboken, NJ 07030-5774 Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Yoda Was Wrong: It’s all About Try


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Assessing Classroom Quality

Assessing what goes on in classrooms has always been challenging. So many variables enter into what goes on—different teachers, different subjects, different students, and different overall approaches. What goes on is always complex, and yet we know some classrooms effect high-quality educational experiences and some fail to. Developing means that aren’t entirely subjective to grapple with this assessment challenge has been a long-standing struggle. Early in this decade, the US Department of Education began awarding “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges and universities aimed at addressing this challenge, especially as it connects with student success. At this year’s Association of American Colleges and Universities annual meeting in Atlanta, A. Nayena Blankson, Francesina Jackson, and Jimmeka Guillory Wright gave an engaging presentation on how Spelman College shaped and applied the grant it received.

Spelman decided to focus on the development of metacognitive skills among first-year students. Metacognition has become almost a buzzword in discussions of improving college teaching in the last several years, and for good reason. Metacognition, or, as it’s often referred to, “thinking about thinking,” turns out to be key to learning in a wide range of disciplinary areas. Acquiring an enhanced level of awareness of how we learn generally and an individual sense of oneself as a learner has been shown to help students achieve and persist in their academic careers. Ironically, metacognitive skills and abilities seem to have been taken for granted for a very long time. Teachers generally haven’t embraced the notion that these needed to be awakened in students or that it might be their responsibility to awaken them. That’s changed.


Defining the Problem

Finding Assessment Tools 

In taking up the College Classroom Observation Scale, Spelman decided to emphasize the development of metacognition and critical thinking in students. Instructor behaviors aimed at developing these capacities would be the focus of their research. More traditional dimensions of positive classroom environments, such as evidence of “instructor charisma,” “student interest,” and “classroom/lesson organization,” would also be observed and scored in their research, but the differentiated teacher efforts to awaken metacognitive and critical thinking skills in students would be the main focus.

What were the characteristics of metacognitive behavior? What instructor behaviors encouraged those characteristics? Those were the first questions to confront in undertaking their research. For some useful answers, Spelman turned to the literature on “reciprocal teaching.” This dialogic approach to teaching developed in the early 1980s as a means of increasing reading comprehension offered a breakdown of characteristics broadly applicable to all learning. Since reading and critically comprehending and interacting with texts remains central to a college education, the “reciprocal teaching” lens seemed ideal for observing and assessing the development of metacognition and critical thinking skills.

The ‘Fab Four’ 

Historically, four components (known as the “fab four”) have defined reciprocal teaching:

• Predicting

• Clarifying

• Questioning

• Comprehension 

Spelman characterized the last of these four more clearly as “summarizing,” especially as seen when students reclaim material “in their own words.”

This breakdown of observable behaviors on both the part of instructors’ practice and students’ response gave the Spelman researchers a valuable tool to begin with, a tool that worked usefully with the complexities of metacognition. The range of processes involved in metacognition sounds very similar to the components of reciprocal teaching:

• Monitoring

• Detecting incongruities/ anomalies

• Self-correcting

• Planning

• Goal setting

• Reflection 

The obvious overlaps between “detecting incongruities/anomalies” and “self-correcting” in this schema with “clarifying” in the reciprocal teaching breakdown offer significant semantic depth to the researchers.

Nuts and Bolts

Traditional Elements 

Spelman’s research design involved dividing 500 first-year African-American women students into a control group where the teaching would be, as they put it, “business as usual,” and a test group focused on teaching metacognitive skills through reciprocal teaching. Trained observers would score the classroom activity on a seven-point scale in three 15-minute cycles, later averaging the three scores.

Scoring the traditional non-metacognitive aspects was perhaps the easiest part of the observations. For example, at the high end of the assessment scale with regard to “instructor charisma,” the instructor got points if he or she showed enthusiasm through varied tones and inflections of voice or animation through gestures and positive facial expressions. High scores for “student interest” came from students volunteering to speak and paying attention to other students when they spoke.

Metacognitive Skills 

Observing and assessing the development of metacognitive skills was perhaps more interesting and more complex. Faculty behavior played a key role, primarily in modeling the skills for students and in consciously calling attention to the presence of the metacognitive components, both in what they were doing and in students’ responses.


Predicting is an interesting aspect of reading skills and metacognitive skills. In a way, it’s a version of “student interest” in general, but more specifically it points toward student engagement with whatever learning challenge they’re facing. Moreover, it speaks to an aspect of learning too often ignored. If cognition is logic and affect is emotion, where does imagination fit in? Prediction draws from the breadth of mental involvement and suggests creative capacity as well as critical capacity. At the high end of the scale in scoring evidence of predictive ability, students offer their own suggestions about what will happen next or what to predict in a posited situation. They are engaged.


When it comes to clarifying, both instructor and student play vital roles in making the development of this skill part of the classroom learning. The strongest evidence of this skill having become a valued part of the learning environment comes in efforts on the part of both to explain things in a variety of different ways. In the best environments, the value of the skill has become so embedded that students themselves offer more clarification in class discussions than instructors.

Generating questions 

Perhaps the strongest evidence of engagement in learning comes through the generation of questions, especially students’ questions. When students ask questions, especially when their questions have been prompted by the statements or questions other students in the class have offered, it’s clear the metacognitive value of questions and the skill of asking them has become a primary mode of instruction.


In a sense, questioning opens the door that leads directly toward summarizing. When students become engaged in questioning the material at hand, exploring it in a variety of ways, especially within the thinking of their peers, the move toward understanding expressed in summarizing is at hand. In classrooms that have been successful in awakening metacognitive skills, there will be more student talk in the hour than instructor talk.

Faculty Roles

While modeling and talking aloud about their own patterns of thinking in learning is a vital role in teaching metacognitive and critical thinking skills, this mode of teaching is dialogic and interactive. So, faculty must coach as well as model. Faculty good at this kind of teaching will comment on students’ responses and comments, asking them to elaborate, give examples, and so on. They won’t simply say things like “Good question” or “Excellent.” They’ll affirm, but push for more.


In all the observed behaviors, Spelman found significant improvement between the “teaching as usual” classes and those in which faculty had been trained to utilize differentiated behaviors aimed at encouraging metacognitive awareness and critical thinking. Clearly, students can learn to learn more effectively at the same time they are learning new material.


A.  Nayena Blankson: ablankso@spelman. edu 

B.   Francesina Jackson: fjackso8@spelman. edu