How Teaching Cognitive Skills Shifts Students’ Mindsets

On the Summit Sparks Podcast: Anna Thompson

This month on the Summit Sparks podcast we are highlighting Cognitive Skills, one of Summit Learning’s four student outcomes. This week we talk to teacher Anna Thompson about explicitly teaching and learning Cognitive Skills through project-based learning.

As a reader and world traveler, Anna Thompson enjoys exploring endless possibilities with students. Having joined Summit Learning in the 2016-17 school year, Anna works with an amazing team of educators at Woodland Park Middle School in Colorado Springs. She has been teaching middle school language arts for the past nine years.

The transcript below is a condensed version of Anna Thompson’s full interview. Find this and all episodes at

In your classroom, were students aware of, or identifying, specific Cognitive Skills before Woodland Park began the Summit Learning Program?

We had worked as departments to develop some rubrics and make clear to students what skills they were working on and how they could improve with those skills. It was not as transferrable from class to class, and definitely not as much across grade levels…

I think the biggest change is that students are really able to assess themselves on their skills. Then as they complete each project, no matter what class they’re in, or what year they’re in, they can see those tangible ways that they can improve.

They can use the Cognitive Skills rubric to improve each skill with that clarity of language and purpose that allows them to really develop.

What was your strategy for keeping students focused on a specific Cognitive Skills over the course of a project?

I think really using the checkpoint pieces of the project. Those are those points in the project where students can get some very specific and actionable feedback on each piece of the project…

Kids are turning in either a piece on their project or some foundational plan for their projects. Then they can get feedback. We really found that focusing on only one or two Cognitive Skills at a time really lets the student zero in on what skill they’re working on, and what they need to do to improve from whatever level they are starting at. This becomes key for our students who are really struggling. It gives them a place to start. Our students who are advanced in some skills can move onto the next level.

Can you describe what the checkpoints are for somebody who has no idea what a project looks like in the Summit Learning Platform?

They look different all the time, depending on the projects… In an English project, we will usually start by analyzing another piece of writing and working on those reading skills. Then we will turn that around into our own writing. Then we’ll work on more of the writing skills, so they’ll get that sort of input and then the output. Those are all done in separate checkpoints, so that kids can really focus on one or two skills at a time.

Can you give me an example of a project that you’re working on right now with your class and how many Cognitive Skills are actually associated with that project?

In 8th grade English, we are working on the “Unsolved Mystery” project, where students are actually listening to a podcast about a real life mystery… The kids are trying to come to their conclusions about what really happened.

This one has nine Cognitive Skills in total… the main ones we’re looking at are argumentative claim and counter claim, selecting evidence, and explaining that evidence… We’re also working on some of those skills for discussion, like preparing and active listening. In their writing, we’re also looking at conventions and organization.

That’s a lot of skills to learn in four weeks… how would you split those six or seven skills up over the course of this four-week project? Would it be two skills every week, or does it really depend on the component that you’re working on?

It really depends on I think the component piece of the project. We will start by listening to the podcast. We’re really gathering that evidence. We’re going to start by focusing in on those evidence skills. We’re going to start selecting evidence and begin to develop the explanations. Each student is going to explain what they believe that evidence means…

One of our final products is a Socratic seminar, where the students come prepared to discuss their own theories about the guilt or innocence of our main character in this podcast. They will present their evidence. They will use their preparation and their listening skills. They will explain their evidence. This is also going to start them practicing to defend that evidence.

They’ll get to hear the other opinions around them. Then that all leads into their final writing, where they get to make their statement about what they believe to be true.

When you started explicitly teaching [Cognitive Skills]…how did that change or impact [student] learning from before, when they were just going through the motions but maybe not really knowing what those skills were that they were learning or why?

I think it shifts it into a really formative process, where students are starting to understand that they can grow in these skills, that they can improve no matter where they’re starting, they can get better.

It took us away from … “My grade is based on what I got right or I got wrong.” Now [students] look at their assessment of their skills. The grade even isn’t as important as the skills themselves.

They know they’re actually developing something real and that they can use it across all these different classes. When they work on a skill in one class, it can actually then show up and improve their grade in another class. Because now they’ve really learned this skill. They get a chance to apply it from year to year, from class to class, even from project to project within the same class. They can see their value in the skill.

What major challenges did you encounter in assessing Cognitive Skills? How did you overcome those?

I think when we were first planning out projects, the major struggles were around focusing on the task completion, rather than skill development. We were looking at checkpoints [and saying], “We need to get this done for the final project,” as opposed to, “Oh, this is our chance to grow this skill.”

I think it was a teacher perception of that too. Like, “Oh, we need to do this, and then we’ll have a good project.” But it was the, “Oh, we really need to look at the skills and where we’re growing” that allowed us to put in some small group interventions. It allowed us to really push our advanced students to the next level. Because we were really looking at it as a skill practice, as opposed to a task to complete.

Do you collaborate with other grade level teachers on teaching and assessing Cognitive Skills that transfer across these different subjects?

Yes, and that’s some of the beauty for the teachers and the students, is that things become relevant across all these different content areas. One of the first places this really came together for my team was a History and English project that was focused on point of view. The students were reading these original primary documents in History. Then they were trying to come up with the other point of view in a narrative.

In Language Arts, we were working on the narrative components and the writing, and what possibilities that point of view could have in a narrative. This really allowed the students to get that relevance and to create something that was really unexpectedly amazing for them and for us.

Was there a bigger student shift that you saw overall… when you were really focusing on the Cognitive Skills, just in terms of how they were thinking about their learning?

Definitely…That element of student choice is really important. There was a shift there that students could really choose where their narrative was going to go. Then having that concrete ability to look at the [Cognitive Skills] rubric and see those actions that they could take allowed them to stop worrying so much about, “Oh, I’m not a very good writer. I guess I’ll just write a not a very good piece,” [and think instead], “Oh, you mean if I add this piece into my narrative, then the writing will be better, and I will be better at this skill.”

It really empowered them and gave them that purpose, where they would attack their writing from a totally different attitude of, “Oh, I can do this. This is a step I can take. This is going to make a big difference in my final product.” That way they could come out with something that they could be really proud of.

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About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.