Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Metacognition is an extremely powerful ally in learning, as necessary a tool for instructional designers as a hammer is for a carpenter. Building it into a learning experience is not hard. Leaving it out is not wise. 

This is number 7 on my list of Learning Theories That Actually Work.

Metacognition means thinking about thinking, and in learning environments that means getting students past thinking about what they are learning and into  thinking about how they are learning--what that learning means to them, how they can use it. .

The following is taken verbatim from the Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy Fact Sheet (I added the italics):


Metacognitive knowledge refers to what individuals know about themselves as cognitive processors, about different approaches that can be used for learning and problem solving, and about the demands of a particular learning task. Metacognitive regulation refers to adjustments individuals make to their processes to help control their learning, such as planning, information management strategies, comprehension monitoring, de-bugging strategies, and evaluation of progress and goals. [John] Flavell (1979) further divides metacognitive knowledge into three categories:
  • Person variables: What one recognizes about his or her strengths and weaknesses in learning and processing information.
  • Task variables: What one knows or can figure out about the nature of a task and the processing demands required to complete the task—for example, knowledge that it will take more time to read, comprehend, and remember a technical article than it will a similar-length passage from a novel.
  • Strategy variables: The strategies a person has “at the ready” to apply in a flexible way to successfully accomplish a task; for example, knowing how to activate prior knowledge before reading a technical article, using a glossary to look up unfamiliar words, or recognizing that sometimes one has to reread a paragraph several times before it makes sense.
[Jennifer A.] Livingston (1997) provides an example of all three variables: “I know that I (person variable) have difficulty with word problems (task variable), so I will answer the computational problems first and save the word problems for last (strategy variable).”


Here's how metacognition stacks up against my four criteria for making the list:
  • It makes sense on the face of it
This is about taking responsibility my own learning. If I'm doing that, if I'm thinking about how I learn best, modifying my strategies, figuring out how to figure it out, I will learn better. So as a developer of learning, if you build in opportunities for this, or even require it, then you'll increase learning and retention. It's a no-brainer (so to speak).
  • It has a solid history in research and practice
As the excerpt above demonstrates, this has been around a while and as far as I can tell, nobody is debunking anything about it. It's a very real phenomenon, and putting into practice yields good results.
  • It's easy to implement
It is actually far simpler to put this into practice than you might guess. Add discussion questions that require it, assignments that require it, and review sessions that emphasize it... these are simple strategies that take just a little time and thought. One caution: never grade a metacognitive assignment! Explanation below.
  • I've tried it, and it works
The standard higher-education online course has a weekly structure that goes something like this:
  • Start a new week on Monday. 
  • Read/listen/absorb new material by Wednesday. 
  • Post in the discussion forum by Friday. 
  • Turn in a paper by Sunday. 
  • Lather, rinse, repeat.
This can be very a poor model if it's pretty much the whole model, but it can be very good if these Learning Theories That Work are incorporated. My teams have always made metacognition a significant component in higher education... and we call it, the Reflection Paper. (Quick aside: credit here to Barbara Schadlow, who really opened my eyes to the power of this.) We didn't require a Reflection Paper every week, but rather at the beginning, middle, and end of the course, just a few paragraphs describing what you're learning, how it's going, how you plan to use what you're learning, what you need to do differently in order to learn more.

It was never graded, other than a check mark for having completed it. This is important, because you want honesty. The value is in students actually reflecting on their own learning. We also made it private, between the student and the faculty only, which is also important. You don't want people comparing themselves to one another. It should always positioned for the benefit of the learner, which it is, in more than one way. In addition to helping in its own right, it gives teachers the opportunity to help learners with new learning strategies and approaches.

Adding metacognitive activities isn't hard. The concept is research-based. And it works. In my experience, students consistently write Reflection Papers about rededicating themselves to their own efforts, without any prompting, simply because they are taking the time to think about how things are going and how they might go better.

Click here to go to the next learning theory that actually works 

Click in any order:

1. Gagne's 9 Events (Learning Model)
2. Felder-Silverman Learning Styles Model (Global/Sequential, Visual/Verbal)
3. Social Learning Theory (Role Models)
4. Maslow's Hierarchy (Identity-Level Outcomes)
5. Bloom's Taxonomy (Critical Thinking)
6. Active Learning (Discovery, Flipping the Classroom)
7. Metacognition (Self-Awareness)
8. Kirkpatrick's 4 Levels of Evaluation (Outcome Measurement)

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