Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Metadiscourse strategies and metadiscourse tools

In my own research, I have been interested in how the metadiscourse concept is used in knowledge building research. Jianwei Zhang has together with his colleagues published some new research papers about the topic. In this blog post, I attempt to summarize some key points.

1. Two different metadiscourse strategies
Zhang, Lee and Wilde (2012) relate the metadiscourse concept to students’ efforts to co-construct ideas and develop shared, promising research goals. This study examined two complementary designs of metadiscourse in two Grade 5/6 classrooms that investigated astronomy. Teachers tested two different metadiscourse designs which were intended to help students develop a progressive course of inquiry. Both these approaches are different from a traditional inquiry-based approach where students often solve pre-specified problems or tasks which rarely generate curiosity-driven questions spontaneously.

1.1. Co-reviewing student questions
Class A’s metadiscourse focused on reviewing student questions to formulate deepening goals. This focus on progressive questions could be said to represent an “inside out” process to deepen inquiry because personal wonderment and curiosity serve as the driving force. This strategy supports student collaborative efforts to monitor what is known and what is missing in order to identify knowledge goals based on their deepening wonderment (Zhang, Lee & Wilde, 2012).

About once every two weeks the whole class had a “metacognitive meeting” which lasted 20-30 minutes. The students reflected on progress and identified the focus of their further inquiry. Before each meeting, students were given time to read the online entries of their peers. They then contributed with new and deeper questions in Knowledge Forum by using the discourse scaffold “I need to understand”. Furthermore, these questions were listed on chart paper and reviewed in the whole class meetings. In the meeting, the teacher and the students tried to identify promising questions that seemed important and might stimulate deep inquiry. These questions were revisited in the subsequent metacognitive meetings (Zhang, Lee & Wilde, 2012).

It was challenging for the students to identify promising ideas. The teacher encouraged student reflection by asking questions such as: “Which question…that seems like… really ‘meaty’…? So, that’s a question that shows a lot of promise. We could probably do lots with that...A question we could generate lots of discussions. Lots of people can have input into it.” (Zhang, Lee & Wilde, 2012).  The teacher also tried to illustrate characteristics of good questions:

- Teacher A: “How big is the Sun?” Would that be a question that would generate lots of different conversation and people could input lots of different things?
- Student 1: No.
- Teacher A: No, and why not?
(Students murmur. Student 2’s voice gains their attention)
- Student 2: It’s pretty… It’s like a simple question …How does it heat people?... that would be a bigger, deeper question…Like, “How does the Sun heat the Earth?” or something.
- Teacher A: Right. So… There are lots of questions about the Sun, that would be deeper, richer kinds of questions, that would generate lots of discussion, and those are the questions we’re really looking for. (Zhang, Lee & Wilde, 2012).

1.2. Co-monitoring of key disciplinary concepts
Class B’s focused on co-monitoring of key disciplinary concepts in readings that could deepen their inquiry into the “intellectual heart” of a discipline. Students made use of authoritative sources in order to focus on core concepts in the field. This represents an “outside in” process for students to monitor what is out there in the larger world and selectively “adopt” ideas from the field to grow their own inquiry. Such key concepts serve as conceptual landmarks that can help students better navigate the landscape of the discipline. According to Zhang, Lee and Wilde (2012) both the two described designs of metadiscourse support students work to deepen the collective inquiry. They suggest that an integration of both will likely lead to a more balanced metadiscourse.

2. Idea Thread Mapper
According to Chen, Zhang and Lee (2013) it is usually difficult for students to overview their online collective work. As a consequence it may be difficult to deepen the inquiry because the work is too disconnected. In addition much research has focused on small-group discussion which is not necessarily applicable to discussions in more complex larger groups.  In a research study, Zhang et al. (2013) use an ITM (Idea Thread mapper)-tool which supports students in getting an overview over the material. Through displaying different inquiry threads, the visualization tool make collective progress and problems visible to support ongoing reflection and co-planning. The ITM-aided reflection is used in a two hour long “metacognitive meeting” around the midpoint of the inquiry. With all the idea threads projected on a screen, the whole class reviews the collective work along different lines of inquiry. These conversations seem to increase student awareness of their collective knowledge.

3. Final remarks
These new papers indicate that Zhang and his colleagues are trying to develop a more complex metadiscourse concept. They are working with new tools (Idea Thread mapper) and scripts that can support metadiscourse in Knowledge Building discourse in a positive way. For example, they have introduced the term “metacognitive meetings”. Such regular meetings seem to play an important role in the educational design. In addition they are also emphasizing the importance of having a discussion around the quality of different questions. Since verbal discussions still seem to be of crucial importance, it would be interesting if future research could describe the interplay between verbal and written metadiscourse.


Zhang, J., Chen, M.-H., Chen, J., & Mico, T. F.  (2013). Computer-Supported Metadiscourse to Foster Collective Progress in Knowledge-Building Communities . Proceedings of the International Conference of Computer-supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). Madison, Wisconsin.

Chen, M.-H., Zhang, J. & Lee, J. (2013). Making Collective Progress Visible for Sustained Knowledge Building. Proceedings of the International Conference of Computer-supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). Madison, Wisconsin.

Zhang, J., Lee, J., & Wilde, J. (2012). Metadiscourse to foster collective responsibility for deepening inquiry. In Jan van Aalst, Kate Thompson, Michael J. Jacobson, and Peter Reimann (Eds.), Proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences (pp.395-402). International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS).

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