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Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Promoting Metacognition and Critical Thinking in Undergraduate Students by Emphasizing Research-Based Writing Competency

08 Oct 2019 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Mike Martynowicz, Ph.D., University of Saint Francis - Fort Wayne

I have always believed that one of my most important duties as an educator is to help students learn to think critically. While my undergraduate teacher preparation experience provided me the knowledge and training to be an effective and engaging high school psychology teacher (which I did for seven years, and loved), it was not until I went to graduate school and then made the transition to teaching at the postsecondary level that I fully embraced psychological science in my pedagogical decision-making. I have always employed various teaching and assessment strategies in my classes, but I now choose to emphasize research consumption and academic writing via a scaffolded method. This method helps develop metacognitive and critical thinking skills in my students as both academics and citizens who need to be skeptical consumers of information.

The main problem with this approach, of course, is that both the literature and anecdotal evidence indicate that many students enter college with insufficient experience in research-based academic writing. Also, in my nine years as a college professor, I have (unfortunately) learned that growth mindset is not commonplace amongst higher education faculty. So, I feel it is imperative to clearly state that students most certainly CAN (and should) acquire these skills after high school. The method used in my courses is a product of years of conversations with students as well as investigation of the literature, and it is shared by my departmental colleague, Dr. Monica Heller, in her courses. We have used this method, rooted in metacognitive research, to structure research-based academic writing in our undergraduate curriculum.

The Method

I do not believe in “surprising” students with unexpected assignments or changes in course structure during a semester. Therefore, roughly one week prior to the beginning of a course, students receive a syllabus that includes all assignments, due dates, directions, and rubrics/scoring criteria. While each course has different formative and summative assessments, they all contain assignments and activities (see below) to develop the research project and these vary depending on the course (e.g., sophomore versus senior-level). The final product is typically a research essay, although approved undergraduate students can take an independent study course in which they write a research proposal (literature review plus a methods section) and potentially even carry out their own study.

Assignments/activities to support the research project:

  • Topic Proposal
  • Research Training (in a lab)
  • Article Summary or Article Critique
  • Literature Matrix
  • Outline
  • Draft

Each assignment is uploaded to Canvas, our course management system. This allows for a running record of each assignment, and my feedback (both annotated on the document and in the comments box) is saved for posterity. This proves invaluable to the process, as it facilitates efficient, ongoing communication via Canvas, e-mail, and/or individual meetings in my office. Per the syllabus, students are required to submit each assignment, even if it is late (with a point reduction), or I will not read/grade their final product.

Approximately three weeks into the semester, students submit a Topic Proposal. This requires students to formulate an initial research question. I tell them that they need to be able to say something like, “The impact of X (topic) on Y (outcome/s) in Z (population) is...” They are also required to provide a few sentences explaining why this research question is important and/or interesting to them. It is stressed that this proposal commits them to nothing; it merely “points them in a direction” as it pertains to their upcoming investigation of the literature.

A couple of weeks later, students spend a class with me (and sometimes library staff) going through Research Training related to: the utilization of our university’s database and Google Scholar, as well as the most efficient methods for locating, processing, and storing research articles. They also complete an exercise on approaches to processing an article. The anticipated outcome of the training is that students will find at least one original study article (not simply a literature review) related to their topic and then use it to prepare the next assignment related to the research project, an Article Summary (sophomores) or Article Critique (juniors and seniors).

Just after the midterm, students submit a Literature Matrix. This is essentially an annotated bibliography in chart form, and it is (in my opinion as well as my students’) much more effective in that it forces students to actually read the article carefully (students say that it is easy to skim an article to develop an annotation). This is because students have to place brief summary information (e.g., full APA citation, lit review and main research questions, methods, key findings, limitations, and areas for future research) into columns for each peer-reviewed article. This also forces students to locate and use studies versus literature reviews, and this seems to help them more clearly conceptualize the difference. Frankly, it also acts as a helpful tool as they craft their next assignment.

With approximately a month to go in the semester, students submit an Outline of their essay, including citations and focusing on an integrated writing approach. I show them an example of an adequate outline, and I offer individual meeting time to students that want to process the assignment in person. Many of my students have typically viewed academic research and writing as a major stressor (at least the first time I have them in class), so I tell them that the anxiety/stress they are used to feeling (as they attempt to throw a research essay together at the last minute) is a thing of the past. This often results in many “aha!” moments throughout the semester, and it is amazing to watch them realize that they CAN do this type of work and then fully embrace the process.

Last, but not least, they submit a Draft of the essay. Note that my feedback on this assignment is not that of a grammar, spelling, and writing style editor (it needs to be their essay, not mine), but rather suggestive as it pertains to how their argument is being constructed.

Final Thoughts

I want the audience to understand that my students receive feedback, on each of these assignments, within a week at the most (my goal is actually 48 hours). The literature and anecdotal evidence suggest that quick, detailed feedback is critical to the process. To ensure that this happens, I schedule feedback time on my calendar, and I am sure to leave time open on my calendar during the weeks in which the most taxing assignments (e.g., literature matrix, outline) are due because I know that students typically need it. So, of course, this entire process can be time-consuming and that would be considered a limitation by some. I do not see it that way, and, most importantly, neither do my students.

I should note that a version of this method is also used in my graduate courses, the main difference being that Master’s-level students write a full Research Proposal (ideally leading to a thesis project) and Doctoral-level students will, of course, be working towards a dissertation. I say “will” because we are offering a brand new School Psychology program with our first Masters-level and specialist (M.S. and PsyS) cohorts starting this fall and our first doctoral (PsyD) cohort beginning in 2021. Applications for the PsyD program will be accepted starting next fall. Shameless plug!

Finally, thank you to the GSTA editorial team for extending an invitation to write this piece. I appreciate the opportunity. Please feel free to contact me at mmartynowicz@sf.edu with any questions or comments, and I would love to see you at my symposium entitled Building Student Research-Based Writing Competency through a Cognitive Self-Regulation Approach at the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s 18th Annual Conference on Teaching in Denver, CO on October 18, 2019.


Mike Martynowicz, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and an educational psychologist with an emphasis in human learning and development. He teaches multiple undergraduate (e.g., General Psychology, Educational Psychology, Research Methods and Statistics, Learning and Behavior, and Social Psychology) and graduate courses (e.g., Research Methods and Statistics, Advanced Human Growth and Development, Social Psychology, and Cognition and Learning). Additionally, Dr. Martynowicz is engaged in ongoing research projects related to college students’ achievement motivation, metacognitive self-regulation, selection and use of learning strategies, and the relationship between mental health issues and academic performance, behaviors, and relationships.

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