Making the Invisible, Visible!

Our minds are full of thousands of thoughts every single day, but most just come and go. Of course, not every single thought should be taken note of in a big way. Imagine if we somehow kept a list of every thought we had- how long and embarrassing would that be!

But that being said, keeping track of our thoughts and how we think them can be really helpful, both inside and outside the classroom. Today, we will be talking about some awesome strategies from the book Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison that are based in metacognition.

Metacognition, simply put, is “thinking about your thinking.” Sure, students might get a certain answer or think a certain way, but how did they get there? How can they document their thought process, or even learn how to think in a new way that might lead them to new ideas? Metacognition strategies are how. Here are three from the book that I am excited to get to use in my future classroom!

I Used to Think…, Now I Think…

What is it for? This is a strategy that teachers can use to help students to think about how their understanding has changed throughout a unit or lesson or even year. It is not so much having students think about their performance on various tasks, but rather how their understanding of the content or issue has changed.

How do you do it? This strategy is comprised of three steps:

  1. Set up: Here, teachers should tell students why they are doing this activity- if the students don’t understand, then how could it be helpful? The teacher should mention that this serves to help students see how their thinking and understanding has changed over time.
  2. Encourage Individual Reflection: First, have the students reflect on and write about their initial understanding of the topic (in my opinion, this could also be done right when the topic gets started so that they don’t have to think back). They should write “I used to think…” and fill that in, and then write “I now think…” and write a few sentences on that as well. Students could write this in a personal notebook, or on a sheet of paper that they give back to the teacher.
  3. Share the thinking: Here, students should share their responses with the class. You could do this in partners, small groups, or with the whole class, depending on the amount of time you have and the way your class is structured. This serves to give students even more ideas about how their thinking has changed and maybe where their thinking hasn’t changed (and where it potentially should have!).

With what concepts could it be good for? In a science classroom, I think that this could be a great activity for identifying and correcting misconceptions that students may commonly have. By having students see how their thinking has changed, they will identify these misconceptions and remember why they are incorrect. I could see this used for students talking about what happens during various chemical reactions, what enthalpy or entropy is, how ionic compounds dissolve, or anything else that could use an explanation in words- those are where the misconceptions can come out the most!


What is it for? The point of Think-Puzzle-Explore is to draw on students’ prior knowledge, encourage their curiousity, and provide a space for them to think about how to problem solve- hello inquiry! This could occur at any point during a unit, but may be most commonly used towards the beginning, so that the teacher can see what interests the students and which direction they may want to go in with the content, if possible.

How do you do it? This activity is comprised of five steps:

  1. Set up: The teacher is going to need some way to record/keep the answers of the students, as this should guide future instruction and may be useful for the students to keep, depending on what they will be doing next. A teacher could use sticky notes, a Google Form, give students sheets of paper, or anything else they deem fit. Students can work in small groups or alone.
  2. Ask, “What do you think you know about…?” : Students should write down their answer(s) and keep them to themselves for now.
  3. Ask, “What questions or puzzles do you have?”: Again, students should write down their answer(s). They should then share them so that the other students can base their next answers off of these puzzles.
  4. Ask, “How can we explore these puzzles?” : Here, students should write down their answer(s) again.
  5. Share the thinking: Now, the class should discuss all of these answers. The class can (and most likely should) come up with even more ideas on how to solve the puzzles, and, depending on the class, could pick one or a few puzzles to investigate moving forward.

With what concepts would it be good for? This could really fit with any content, but in the science classroom, I think it could be amazing to start off an inquiry-based lab! This could occur near the end of a unit once students already have a good amount of knowledge about the content. This way, they will have lots of good ideas about how they could explore the questions they still have. The teacher may need to put in place some parameters here, as there certainly is not unlimited lab equiptment or unlimited things that students could realistically explore in the lab.

Here is Valentine’s Day inquiry lab done by @perrichem’s chemistry class on Twitter investigating factors that affect the solubility of candy hearts- I bet the students could have come up with some of this procedure using Think-Puzzle-Explore!

The Explanation Game

What is it for? The purpose of this activity is to have students look in detail at an object they may be unfamiliar with, and then create explanations for why it is the way it is or how it may be used. Teachers could show students entire objects, or just parts of objects for this activity, depending on the content. The goal is to have students deconstruct their thinking and think creatively.

How do you do it? There are five steps in this activity:

  1. Set up: Here, the teacher should show the students the object of interest. Students should not talk to each other yet, as to encourage individual thought and creativity initially. They should be told to look carefully and investigate! This could be a picture or a physical object.
  2. Name it: Here, the students should start to talk with one another about what they notice about the object, talking about and writing down observations. They could work in parters or small groups, and could write answers on sticky notes to share with the class and post somewhere.
  3. Explain it: Now, students need to explain why these features exist. What is their purpose? They should be creating entire, well thought out explanations, even if they aren’t sure they are correct. Encourage them to create as many as possible and to write them down.
  4. Give reasons: Here, students need to justify the explanations they have developed. They should provide as much evidence as possible- this will draw our their prior knowledge, which is awesome! They should also document these, and can share them with each other.
  5. Generate alternatives: After giving it more thought and listening to the ideas of other students, students should now come up with even more explanations than they did before. Students should also be asked to provide evidence for these- keep pressing in!

What concepts would it be good for? I get really excited thinking about this one- in my future classroom, I’d love to do this as a first-week activity where the students investigate the various pieces of equipment in the lab! Many things students see in the lab are completely new to them, and this would be a good way to have them think critically about what they are about to use, rather than just being told. This would also get students comfortable with working with each other right off the bat, in a time where content has not yet gotten difficult and they can start building relationships before it does.

And there you have it! Three great strategies to make thinking visible in your classroom with your students. I am a huge proponent of metacognition, and I hope that you are now, too, if you weren’t before. These activities can be used with nearly any content, although I am a bit biased towards chemistry 🙂

Which was your favorite? And which is a favorite of yours that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

See you next time!
Miss Karlock (@MissKarlockChem on Twitter)


  1. Hi Ellie!
    Good question for sure. I think students getting to see how their understanding has changed over time is really helpful for their self-efficiacy and just overall understanding of a concept, especially seeing how their misconceptions have changed and why they have changed. I think teachers could use a Google Form for various activities and share the answers to the class anonymously. This way, the teacher knows who said what within the form and could provide that to the students later, but when things are shared with the class, students don’t know who said what, and would hopefully be willing to be more vulnerable and honest with their responses.

  2. Grace!

    Loved all of your strategies! They were so interesting to learn about. I also loved how you talked about metacognition and the process of “thinking about thinking.” There’s a lot that goes on behind what we do and how we think and it is really interesting to explore that, especially with our students. I was wondering if you have any suggestions for tracking students’ thinking over time. Especially when they are doing things anonymously or via sticky notes. I think it could be interesting to show students their growth, but want to work through how and figured you would have some great ideas!

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