METACOGNITION: WHAT IS IT? WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Literally, “metacognition” refers to a process coming “after” or “beyond” (meta-”) the act of acquiring knowledge (cognition). It is “thinking about thinking,” or the space beyond thinking where we can plan, monitor, and assess our efforts to think, know, or learn about something.
All people engage in metacognition to at least some extent. They plan on developing knowledge or skill in a certain area. They think about strategies they can use to develop those skills. They evaluate how well their chosen strategies work, as well as their current level as they try to determine what challenges are appropriate to take on next. And they revise their practice accordingly.
But many — perhaps most — of us do this without being fully conscious of what we are doing it. It’s difficult to spend sufficient time or resources articulating our goals, planning how to acquire skills, and monitoring progress. It’s much easier to just jump into the work and play it by ear. But the costs of haste and lack of strategic planning can be great.
Too often, metacognition remains in the background, engaged in only half-consciously and half-heartedly. The result is too much time spent employing unproductive learning strategies and spinning our wheels. More explicit metacognition can help teachers, parents, and students work smarter and learn more efficiently.
Watch metacognition in action in a classroom, featuring learning expert Regan Gurung.
METACOGNITION AND COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT
The capacity for metacognition is a crucial step in children’s cognitive development. Pioneering child psychologist Jean Piaget identified the “formal operational stage” as the point at which children, around the age of 11, become capable of reflecting on their thinking and working with more abstract ideas. But more recent research has identified metacognitive abilities in much younger children, from around the age of three.
This has important implications for early childhood education. Research shows that metacognitive awareness is a good predictor of school achievement. Moreover, improvements in metacognitive awareness and practice are among the most impactful students can make. As they learn to systematically reflect on their learning, students learn to overcome frustrations and defeatism; they learn to recognize and take pride in moments of mastery; they target new goals and are better motivated to reach them.
How exactly can parents, educators, and students develop metacognitive habits of mind? At every stage of the learning process, time must be devoted to making learning goals and strategies explicit. At the outset of a new learning task, students should map out goals and strategies. Teachers should model the kinds of reflective thinking they want students to practice. One of the most effective tools is writing that encourages reflection on what students need to learn and how they plan to go about learning it.
This is sometimes at odds with standard educational practice, especially for younger children, who might not ordinarily be thought ready for this higher-level reflective thinking. But the results can be surprising and encouraging.
METACOGNITION AND LEARNING
According to learning scientist Dr. Regan Gurung, metacognition is “broken down into three main processes. How we plan, how we monitor and then how we assess.” For example, when a student can plan out how they are going to study, and how they will tackle a complex task, their studying and learning improve, according to Gurung.
Several different lines of research support the idea of teaching metacognitive strategies to students. First, students who have high levels of metacognition—who are better at monitoring their own learning and better at assessing what they know–consistently learn more, and more deeply than students with low levels of metacognition.
As part of a Learning Agency project that examined the skill in practice, teachers Jessica Anderson and Brittany Bush worked with Gurung to learn more about metacognition, and, like many skilled instructors, they had already integrated some metacognition activities in their classroom. Specifically, they both practiced the use of “exit tickets” where students could share their confidence level on a particular topic at the end of the class.
Through the project, the teachers made adjustments including having students check-in with themselves, and each other, throughout the day. Bush states that, at first, the change caused some confusion, but then students “realized that the ratings were for themselves and not for me…they started being more honest…they didn’t want to be overconfident any more.”
Teachers can also prompt students to regularly reflect on and evaluate their own level of mastery. They can identify what works and what doesn’t through exercises identifying what they have mastered and what they’re still struggling with. This gives teachers added insight into how to focus instruction.
Capitol Elementary, East Baton Rouge, Louisiana and teachers Jessica Anderson and Brittany Bush
HOW TO IMPROVE METACOGNITION
“The more we can make the thinking process visible, the better we can understand how to make it more effective – and that’s what metacognition is all about,” states Gurung. The ultimate goal of metacognitive strategies is for people to become more self-directed in their own learning. Students, for example, should be able to figure out the areas that they are weak in and take appropriate steps to address those areas.
Everyone can improve metacognition. For one, keep in mind the problem of overconfidence. We’re all often arrogant. We think we know something. But we don’t. So we need metacognition, to review what we know. So ask yourself questions or have your students ask themselves these questions:
- What do I know?
- How do I know it?
- Could I explain this to a friend? Could I give an example? Or provide a theory?
External checks are key. Sometimes these are quizzes or even some written notes about a topic. Sometimes these are peers who listen to use explain an idea.
Either way, if you’re learning or teaching, make sure you check for understanding. Part of this is reflection: How does this material all come together? Part of this is just a simple gut check: Do I have this right?
Looking forward and backwards can help too when it comes to metacognition. These questions are different. More along the lines of:
- Looking backward, ask: What did I learn? How has my thinking changed?
- Looking forward, ask: What do I need to learn next? What will make me an expert?
In the end, metacognition is a type of learning superpower. It makes people better learners. Or as Anderson notes, “Once [students] feel better about themselves, or just feel comfortable answering the questions, I find that they dig deeper and not just read and do things on the surface level.”
Author: Ulrich Boser