For the sake of simplicity, student work can be divided into two broad categories: learning new concepts, which often come from reading from a textbook or other resources, and learning new skills, such as practicing mathematical problems or conjugating verbs in a foreign language.  This section will explore techniques that enhance the effective use of the first type.

(Note: You may have student work in your classes that doesn’t correspond well to either of these categories.  In that case, you will need to adapt the fundamental principles described above to your circumstances.)


The ability to read effectively is central to the task of learning new concepts.  A metacognitive reader is aware when she comes across a word or phrase she doesn’t know or a concept she doesn’t understand.  The following suggestions for conceptual work are designed to help cultivate that awareness and help students discover how to make good decisions about learning new material.

To promote metacognition, student work needs to serve several functions.  If the student is reading a text that imparts new concepts, for example, her  task will include at least these three basic functions: 

  • Identifying and articulating the big ideas being presented. Students can do this by expressing the main ideas in their own words.  A wide range of literacy techniques, such as Cornell notes or annotation of the text, can also be used.  If possible, a student should be allowed to explore what forms of note-taking are most useful for her. Regardless of the format, effective notes will provide a clear summary of the major ideas, with enough detail to serve as a comprehensive resource for reviewing the material at a later date.

  • Self-assessing comprehension.  An example of concepts-based homework from a physics student is found at the end of this section.  The left-hand column is her summary of the text. The right-hand column is the commentary section, which includes her assessment on a one-to-five scale of how well she learned the material in each section.  A five means that the she knows the material well enough to teach it in her study group. A four means she would like to talk it over because her understanding isn’t solid yet. A three means there are some things that she really doesn’t understand about some of the material, and she needs to have some questions answered about it.  A one or a two means a serious lack of understanding of the material.

  • Identifying the topics that were difficult to understand.   For every section that is assessed at less than a five, the commentary also includes a description about what specifically prevented that section from being a five.  This can be a word or a phrase, a reference to a certain diagram or equation in the book, or any other indicator that will help lead the student to ask useful questions about it in the study group discussion.  In this book, the process of finding the specific impediment to learning is known as “isolating the difficulty”, and it is an important metacognitive skill.


Here is a form for reading homework.  It may be used at the start of the year for the first few homework assignments, so that students can get used to the structure and receive prompt feedback.  After that, homework summaries may go into a journal or any other appropriate format. An example of such homework is also attached.

What happens in class following an assignment can be as important as the work itself.  Reviewing work in class presents an opportunity to maximize the amount of student learning.  A useful format for review is study group discussions. If a student comes into the discussion with a well-defined sense of what she doesn’t yet comprehend, she will be able to ask good questions.  Within each group there will be discussions based on the specific needs of each member.

Students are often assigned questions such as those found at the end of a chapter as part of a reading assignment.  They may perceive this as a chore to be done quickly and superficially in order to satisfy the teacher and may choose to just look up the answers.  They may not even read the assignment. In this case, the questions can actually undermine the fundamental goal of the assignment.

A different approach is to hold off on presenting these questions until the study group has met in class and gone over the reading.  Now the same questions can serve as a springboard for further, more sophisticated discussions within the group. It may also prove useful to follow these discussions with a whole-class summary of what was learned.  This can solidify comprehension and air any misunderstandings that have arisen in the study groups.

Remediation for misunderstood conceptual work can come in many forms.  For example, the student can write about her misunderstandings in order to identify them more carefully.  She can do additional, alternative reading, or she can find some other mode of learning that might be more appropriate.  The subject you teach and the particular students you are working with will determine how you design remediation work. The central task, however, is always for them to identify what they don’t understand and continue working with it until they do.

The Life Cycle of a Conceptual Homework Assignment

The following is a scenario which demonstrates how the process might unfold, using the strategies described above:

In class, before the assignment:

  • The teacher introduces a concept or set of concepts the day before homework is due.  

  • Some class discussion or activity sets the stage for the reading.


At home:

  • Students do the reading and summarize and assess their own understanding.


In class, after the assignment: 

  • Students are given a check-up question (not for a grade) to see if their own assessment of their comprehension was accurate and honest.

  • The teacher verifies that each student's homework is substantially complete at the start of the class.  Work may be stamped, initialed or otherwise marked as good preparation for the discussion to follow.

  • Students get into study groups. Study groups review the homework, going over everyone’s reading notes and answering every question raised.

  • Study groups then answer teacher-generated questions about the homework and take notes on the answers.

  • The whole class reviews and summarizes what has been discussed.

  • Every student is given an individual check-up.


Further work:

  • Students are given a choice of remediation or enrichment activities to work on in class or as homework.  Their decision is based on the results of the final check-up.

  • Finally, there is a quiz or other evaluation that generates a grade.