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Pushing metacognition: talking to international students about their learning

01 Jun 2022 | Richard Cotterill At the Surveys and Insights Symposium, Richard Cotterill outlined the creative methods he has used to overcome problems associated with talking to students about their learning. Richard explained his use of process interviews to help research participants articulate their thoughts.

My research

My doctoral research has involved evaluating the use of visual metaphors in lectures to international students as a means of unlocking the meaning of abstract concepts. I teach Management, a subject littered with tricky concepts such as rationality and teamwork. Most of my students are Chinese. I have explored how using visual metaphors in my teaching can help my students find meaning, in real time, helping them to engage with lecture content and develop a better understanding of the course material. I have been particularly focused on what types of images are useful, and in what ways they are best used.

Data collection problems and metacognition

The module I lead is eleven weeks long and runs twice a year. I have taken an action research approach to my research, over four cycles, using four cohorts of students as participants. I did not expect the research journey to be easy, but my initial attempts at data collection were somewhat disappointing. Over the first two cycles I used focus groups as my principal data collection method. Images from lecture slides provided stimulus material to help promote the dynamic interactions associated with collecting data through group discussion (Xerri, 2018). My students were keen to be participants and were enthusiastic in their support for my use of visual metaphors in lectures. However, I struggled to collect data that related to why the technique was useful, and the reasons why some types of images were more effective at unlocking meaning than others. I realised that I had entered the zone of metacognition (de Blume et al., 2017). I was asking my students to think about their thinking and reflect upon their own learning. I would need to use different data collection methods to push beyond the superficial.

Being imaginative

Over cycles three and four I have taken a more imaginative approach to data collection. My methods have included asking students to find examples of images that represent abstract concepts, bring them into seminars, and explain them to the class. There have been many fascinating cultural insights and explanations. A notable example was when I asked for images to represent Mintzberg’s ten roles of management, one of which is figurehead. A student presented the class with an image of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, as a small child. The student explained how this was representative of the concept of figurehead in management as Pu Yi had no real decision-making power, relying on adults while he was merely the person associated with the country’s leadership; similarly, a business figurehead may just be the face associated with business, but have no real power or influence. However, the most effective data collection method involved using process interviews.

Process interviews

I realised that if I was going to gain meaningful responses to questions about learning I would need to push my participants to think more deeply about why some images were useful and some were not. The way I did this was by asking participants, in the context of semi-structured group interviews, to complete cognitive-based tasks and then asking them questions about the results of these tasks. An important aspect of the process was that I encouraged students to speak to each other in their first language when discussing choices. About half of the interviews were conducted via Zoom; for these interviews I put the participants into a breakout room while they completed each task, bringing them back into the main room to answer questions when they had finished.

The interviews were punctuated by three key tasks. The first involved placing twelve images labelled as representing abstract concepts along a scale according to how difficult each concept was to explain. Six of the images were visual metaphors and six were general business-related images. The second task involved matching ten images taken from lectures with the concept that they were used to explain. The third task involved using a diamond nine template; participants were asked to place nine lecture slides (which included a visual metaphor and named associated concept) in the template, categorising them from most useful to least useful in terms of how helpful they were to provide understanding. The diamond nine exercise forced participants to de-prioritise images; this ensured that the interview discussions were not just a celebration of what was effective but, importantly, focused on what was not effective.

The foundations of process interviews are in other approaches to data collection. The thinking aloud protocol (Ericsson and Simon, 2010) capitalises on the power of working memory by asking participants to verbalise their thoughts as they undertake a task; this is an ideal approach to gain an insight to thought processes related to, for example, how someone is solving a mathematical problem. Photo elicitation (Harper, 2010) makes use of images to stimulate thought in the context of an interview. Stimulated recall (Calderhead, 1981) involves using video or audio of participants’ engaging in learning activities in order to provide context for discussion. The discipline of noticing (Mason, 2001) distinguishes between providing an account of something and accounting for something; this distinction is crucial for understanding participants’ thoughts and is the key advantage of process interviews.

Problem solved?

I cannot claim that I have overcome the difficulties associated with metacognition. Participants will always find explaining their own learning difficult. However, the use of process interviews has produced rich data that has enabled me to build a model of visual metaphor efficacy.

If colleagues are also attempting to research learning or are interested in the use of visual metaphors in teaching, I would encourage them to get in touch. I am happy to share insights and findings from my research.


Richard Cotterill is a lecturer in Management at the University of York’s International Pathway College. His research interests include the use of visual metaphors in teaching, motivation and teamwork, and the use of online discussion forums. Richard holds the University of York Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. You can contact Richard at

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