About Metacognition

Thinking about One’s Thinking |  Putting Metacognition into Practice   by Nancy Chick

Thinking about One’s Thinking

Metacognition is, put simply, thinking about one’s thinking.  More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning, and b) oneself as a thinker and learner.

Initially studied for its development in young children (Baker & Brown, 1984; Flavell, 1985), researchers soon began to look at how experts display metacognitive thinking and how, then, these thought processes can be taught to novices to improve their learning (Hatano & Inagaki, 1986).  In How People Learn, the National Academy of Sciences’ synthesis of decades of research on the science of learning, one of the three key findings of this work is the effectiveness of a “‘metacognitive’ approach to instruction” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 18).

Metacognitive practices increase students’ abilities to transfer or adapt their learning to new contexts and tasks (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, p. 12; Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Scardamalia et al., 1984; Schoenfeld, 1983, 1985, 1991).  They do this by gaining a level of awareness above the subject matter: they also think about the tasks and contexts of different learning situations and themselves as learners in these different contexts.  When Pintrich (2002) asserts that “Students who know about the different kinds of strategies for learning, thinking, and problem solving will be more likely to use them” (p. 222), notice the students must “know about” these strategies, not just practice them.  As Zohar and David (2009) explain, there must be a “conscious meta-strategic level of H[igher] O[rder] T[hinking]” (p. 179).

Metacognitive practices help students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses as learners, writers, readers, test-takers, group members, etc.  A key element is recognizing the limit of one’s knowledge or ability and then figuring out how to expand that knowledge or extend the ability. Those who know their strengths and weaknesses in these areas will be more likely to “actively monitor their learning strategies and resources and assess their readiness for particular tasks and performances” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, p. 67).

The absence of metacognition connects to the research by Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, and Kruger on “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence” (2003).  They found that “people tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence,” lacking “insight about deficiencies in their intellectual and social skills.” They identified this pattern across domains—from test-taking, writing grammatically, thinking logically, to recognizing humor, to hunters’ knowledge about firearms and medical lab technicians’ knowledge of medical terminology and problem-solving skills (p. 83-84).  In short, “if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong” (p. 85). This research suggests that increased metacognitive abilities—to learn specific (and correct) skills, how to recognize them, and how to practice them—is needed in many contexts.

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Putting Metacognition into Practice

In “Promoting Student Metacognition,” Tanner (2012) offers a handful of specific activities for biology classes, but they can be adapted to any discipline. She first describes four assignments for explicit instruction (p. 116):

  • Preassessments—Encouraging Students to Examine Their Current Thinking: “What do I already know about this topic that could guide my learning?”
  • The Muddiest Point—Giving Students Practice in Identifying Confusions: “What was most confusing to me about the material explored in class today?”
  • Retrospective Postassessments—Pushing Students to Recognize Conceptual Change: “Before this course, I thought evolution was… Now I think that evolution is ….” or “How is my thinking changing (or not changing) over time?”
  • Reflective Journals—Providing a Forum in Which Students Monitor Their Own Thinking: “What about my exam preparation worked well that I should remember to do next time? What did not work so well that I should not do next time or that I should change?”

Next are recommendations for developing a “classroom culture grounded in metacognition” (p. 116-118):

  • Giving Students License to Identify Confusions within the Classroom Culture:  ask students what they find confusing, acknowledge the difficulties
  • Integrating Reflection into Credited Course Work: integrate short reflection (oral or written) that ask students what they found challenging or what questions arose during an assignment/exam/project
  • Metacognitive Modeling by the Instructor for Students: model the thinking processes involved in your field and sought in your course by being explicit about “how you start, how you decide what to do first and then next, how you check your work, how you know when you are done” (p. 118)

To facilitate these activities, she also offers three useful tables:

  • Questions for students to ask themselves as they plan, monitor, and evaluate their thinking within four learning contexts—in class, assignments, quizzes/exams, and the course as a whole (p. 115)
  • Prompts for integrating metacognition into discussions of pairs during clicker activities, assignments, and quiz or exam preparation (p. 117)
  • Questions to help faculty metacognitively assess their own teaching (p. 119)

Weimer’s “Deep Learning vs. Surface Learning: Getting Students to Understand the Difference” (2012) offers additional recommendations for developing students’ metacognitive awareness and improvement of their study skills:

“[I]t is terribly important that in explicit and concerted ways we make students aware of themselves as learners. We must regularly ask, not only ‘What are you learning?’ but ‘How are you learning?’ We must confront them with the effectiveness (more often ineffectiveness) of their approaches. We must offer alternatives and then challenge students to test the efficacy of those approaches.” (emphasis added)

She points to a tool developed by Stanger-Hall (2012, p. 297) for her students to identify their study strategies, which she divided into “cognitively passive(“I previewed the reading before class,” “I came to class,” “I read the assigned text,” “I highlighted the text,” et al) and “cognitively active study behaviors(“I asked myself: ‘How does it work?’ and ‘Why does it work this way?’” “I wrote my own study questions,” “I fit all the facts into a bigger picture,” “I closed my notes and tested how much I remembered,” et al).  The specific focus of Stanger-Hall’s study is tangential to this discussion,1 but imagine giving students lists like hers adapted to your course and then, after a major assignment, having students discuss which ones worked and which types of behaviors led to higher grades. Even further, follow Lovett’s advice (2013) by assigning “exam wrappers,” which include students reflecting on their previous exam-preparation strategies, assessing those strategies and then looking ahead to the next exam, and writing an action plan for a revised approach to studying. A common assignment in English composition courses is the self-assessment essay in which students apply course criteria to articulate their strengths and weaknesses within single papers or over the course of the semester. These activities can be adapted to assignments other than exams or essays, such as projects, speeches, discussions, and the like.

As these examples illustrate, for students to become more metacognitive, they must be taught the concept and its language explicitly (Pintrich, 2002; Tanner, 2012), though not in a content-delivery model (simply a reading or a lecture) and not in one lesson. Instead, the explicit instruction should be “designed according to a knowledge construction approach,” or students need to recognize, assess, and connect new skills to old ones, “and it needs to take place over an extended period of time” (Zohar & David, p. 187).  This kind of explicit instruction will help students expand or replace existing learning strategies with new and more effective ones, give students a way to talk about learning and thinking, compare strategies with their classmates’ and make more informed choices, and render learning “less opaque to students, rather than being something that happens mysteriously or that some students ‘get’ and learn and others struggle and don’t learn” (Pintrich, 2002, p. 223).

Metacognition instruction should also be embedded with the content and activities about which students are thinking.  Why? Metacognition is “not generic” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, p. 19) but instead is most effective when it is adapted to reflect the specific learning contexts of a specific topic, course, or discipline (Zohar & David, 2009).  In explicitly connecting a learning context to its relevant processes, learners will be more able to adapt strategies to new contexts, rather than assume that learning is the same everywhere and every time.  For instance, students’ abilities to read disciplinary texts in discipline-appropriate ways would also benefit from metacognitive practice.  A literature professor may read a passage of a novel aloud in class, while also talking about what she’s thinking as she reads: how she makes sense of specific words and phrases, what connections she makes, how she approaches difficult passages, etc.  This kind of modeling is a good practice in metacognition instruction, as suggested by Tanner above. Concepción’s “Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition” (2004) includes his detailed “How to Read Philosophy” handout (pp. 358-367), which includes the following components:

  • What to Expect (when reading philosophy)
  • The Ultimate Goal (of reading philosophy)
  • Basic Good Reading Behaviors
  • Important Background Information, or discipline- and course-specific reading practices, such as “reading for enlightenment” rather than information, and “problem-based classes” rather than historical or figure-based classes
  • A Three-Part Reading Process (pre-reading, understanding, and evaluating)
  • Flagging, or annotating the reading
  • Linear vs. Dialogical Writing (Philosophical writing is rarely straightforward but instead “a monologue that contains a dialogue” [p. 365].)

What would such a handout look like for your discipline?

Students can even be metacognitively prepared (and then prepare themselves) for the overarching learning experiences expected in specific contexts. Salvatori and Donahue’s The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty (2004) encourages students to embrace difficult texts (and tasks) as part of deep learning, rather than an obstacle.  Their “difficulty paper” assignment helps students reflect on and articulate the nature of the difficulty and work through their responses to it (p. 9).  Similarly, in courses with sensitive subject matter, a different kind of learning occurs, one that involves complex emotional responses. In “Learning from Their Own Learning: How Metacognitive and Meta-affective Reflections Enhance Learning in Race-Related Courses (Chick, Karis, & Kernahan, 2009), students were informed about the common reactions to learning about racial inequality (Helms, 1995; Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 1997; see student handout, Chick, Karis, & Kernahan, p. 23-24) and then regularly wrote about their cognitive and affective responses to specific racialized situations.  The students with the most developed metacognitive and meta-affective practices at the end of the semester were able to “clear the obstacles and move away from” oversimplified thinking about race and racism ”to places of greater questioning, acknowledging the complexities of identity, and redefining the world in racial terms” (p. 14).

Ultimately, metacognition requires students to “externalize mental events” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, p. 67), such as what it means to learn, awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses with specific skills or in a given learning context, plan what’s required to accomplish a specific learning goal or activity, identifying and correcting errors, and preparing ahead for learning processes.

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1 Students who were tested with short answer in addition to multiple-choice questions on their exams reported more cognitively active behaviors than those tested with just multiple-choice questions, and these active behaviors led to improved performance on the final exam.

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References

Originally written by Nancy Chick, Vanderbilt CFT Assistant Director

Revised by Judith Littlejohn, Instructional Designer, SUNY GCC – Updated URLs, changed images to CC images from Pixabay, added additional resources.

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Licensehttps://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/metacognition/

About Learning Styles

 

What Are Learning Styles?

The term learning styles is widely used to describe how learners gather, sift through, interpret, organize, come to conclusions about, and “store” information for further use.  As spelled out in VARK (one of the most popular learning styles inventories), these styles are often categorized by sensory approaches:  visual, aural, verbal [reading/writing], and kinesthetic.  Many of the models that don’t resemble the VARK’s sensory focus are reminiscent of Felder and Silverman’s Index of Learning Styles, with a continuum of descriptors for how learners process and organize information:  active-reflective, sensing-intuitive, verbal-visual, and sequential-global.

There are well over 70 different learning styles schemes (Coffield, 2004), most of which are supported by “a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks” and “professional development workshops for teachers and educators” (Pashler, et al., 2009, p. 105).

Despite the variation in categories, the fundamental idea behind learning styles is the same: that each of us has a specific learning style (sometimes called a “preference”), and we learn best when information is presented to us in this style.  For example, visual learners would learn any subject matter best if given graphically or through other kinds of visual images, kinesthetic learners would learn more effectively if they could involve bodily movements in the learning process, and so on.  The message thus given to instructors is that “optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals’ learning style[s] and tailoring instruction accordingly” (Pashler, et al., 2009, p. 105).

Caution!

Despite the popularity of learning styles and inventories such as the VARK, it is important to know that there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.  It is not simply a matter of “the absence of evidence doesn’t mean the evidence of absence.”  On the contrary, for years researchers have tried to make this connection through hundreds of studies.

In 2009, Psychological Science in the Public Interest commissioned cognitive psychologists Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork to evaluate the research on learning styles to determine whether there is credible evidence to support using learning styles in instruction.  They came to a startling but clear conclusion: “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous,” they “found virtually no evidence” supporting the idea that “instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preference of the learner.” Many of those studies suffered from weak research design, rendering them far from convincing.  Others with an effective experimental design “found results that flatly contradict the popular” assumptions about learning styles (p. 105). In sum,

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing” (p. 117).

Why Are They So Popular?

Pashler and his colleagues point to some reasons to explain why learning styles have gained—and kept—such traction, aside from the enormous industry that supports the concept.  First, people like to identify themselves and others by “type.” Such categories help order the social environment and offer quick ways of understanding each other.  Also, this approach appeals to the idea that learners should be recognized as “unique individuals”—or, more precisely, that differences among students should be acknowledged—rather than treated as a number in a crowd or a faceless class of students (p. 107). Carried further, teaching to different learning styles suggests that “all people have the potential to learn effectively and easily if only instruction is tailored to their individual learning styles” (p. 107).

There may be another reason why this approach to learning styles is so widely accepted. They very loosely resemble the concept of metacognition, or the process of thinking about one’s thinking.  For instance, having your students describe which study strategies and conditions for their last exam worked for them and which didn’t is likely to improve their studying on the next exam (Tanner, 2012).  Integrating such metacognitive activities into the classroom—unlike learning styles—is supported by a wealth of research (e.g., Askell Williams, Lawson, & Murray-Harvey, 2007; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Butler & Winne, 1995; Isaacson & Fujita, 2006; Nelson & Dunlosky, 1991; Tobias & Everson, 2002).

Importantly, metacognition is focused on planning, monitoring, and evaluating any kind of thinking about thinking and does nothing to connect one’s identity or abilities to any singular approach to knowledge.

Now What?

Learning styles are a myth when people are told that their preferred learning style is the only way they can learn. It is important to be aware that all people (barring physical or intellectual disabilities) learn in all ways. People learn by using all their senses.

Often children are told that they have a specific learning style and that they can only learn that specific way; this both limits the child’s ability to learn and serves as a crutch later on in life when they say things like, “I can’t be expected to learn or do that unless you show me how in my learning style.”

There is, however, something you can take away from these varied approaches to learning—not based on the learner, but instead on the content being learned.  To explore the persistence of the belief in learning styles, Vanderbilt CFT Assistant Director Nancy Chick interviewed Dr. Bill Cerbin, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and former Carnegie Scholar with the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  He points out that the differences identified by the labels “visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing” are more appropriately connected to the nature of the discipline:

“There may be evidence that indicates that there are some ways to teach some subjects that are just better than others, despite the learning styles of individuals…. If you’re thinking about teaching sculpture, I’m not sure that long tracts of verbal descriptions of statues or of sculptures would be a particularly effective way for individuals to learn about works of art. Naturally, these are physical objects and you need to take a look at them, you might even need to handle them.” (Cerbin, 2011, 7:45-8:30)

Pashler and his colleagues agree: “An obvious point is that the optimal instructional method is likely to vary across disciplines” (p. 116). In other words, it makes disciplinary sense to include kinesthetic activities in sculpture and anatomy courses, reading/writing activities in literature and history courses, visual activities in geography and engineering courses, and auditory activities in music, foreign language, and speech courses.  Obvious or not, it aligns teaching and learning with the contours of the subject matter, without limiting the potential abilities of the learners.

Related Ted Talk:

References and Resources:

Originally by Nancy Chick, Vanderbilt CFT Assistant Director

Revised by Judith Littlejohn, Genesee Community College

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Image, “Fiction”, Pixabay.

Growth Mindset Discussion

Help raise students’ awareness of how they receive new ideas by incorporating the following discussion into an online/hybrid course or face-to-face class.

Watch this five minute video on Fixed versus Growth Mindset: https://youtu.be/KUWn_TJTrnU  

Think about the quote from Samuel Beckett in this video:

“Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.”

  1. What do you think “fail better” means?
  2. How does “fail better” relate to developing a growth mindset?
  3. Do you have a growth or fixed mindset?
  4. Can you share examples that show what type of mindset you have?
  5. How can we move from a fixed to a growth mindset?
  6. How can a growth mindset help us learn?

Refer students back to this discussion as new topics arise to which they are resistant or about which they have pre-formed biases.

Judith M Littlejohn, September 3, 2018

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This Teaching Tip is part of a series. Faculty and staff of SUNY Genesee Community College are encouraged to join the TLC Organization for more professional development opportunities. To request enrollment or suggest a topic, email tlc@genesee.edu