Metacognition is a key theme in my research and something I’m really interested in. I’ve recently spent some time revisiting the literature to strengthen my understanding of the topic, and it’s left me feeling really revitalised and reinvigorated about how useful metacongiition is for a range of learners. The purpose of this post is to outline the concepts behind, and processes involved, in metacognition. Additionally, I’ll discuss some of the benefits explicit instruction in metacognitive strategies in the classroom.
What is metacognition?
Metacognition, literally means ’thinking about thinking’ and is an individuals’ capacity to monitor and regulate mental activities, including cognitive processes and products (Ozsoy, 2011). Metacognition encompasses far more than this simplistic description suggests. Aspects of metacognition include:
- reflecting on the nature of thinking and learning;
- understanding one’s own mental capacities and memory capabilities;
- an understanding and appreciation of effective learning strategies; and
- planning, monitoring, and evaluating successful task completion
It is clear from this description that any initial conceptions of metacognition as a simple concept have been quickly allayed, however, this description has also served to signal some of the benefits of development of metacognition that will be later highlighted.
Metacognition incorporates the executive functions of self-monitoring and self-regulation. These two concepts are closely related, but distinct. Self-monitoring is a general awareness of what knows, understands and remembers. By contrast, self-regulation refers to specific executive control processes, including planning and evaluating thoughts and cognitive behaviour. Hattie and Timperley (2007) consider self-regulation to be a combination of commitment, control, and confidence.
Metacognitive knowledge can be broken into three categories: knowledge of person; knowledge of task; and knowledge of strategy. Knowledge of person refers to a learners’ awareness of their (or others) thought processes. For example, you may have a student that describes themselves as ‘a good problem solver’ or ‘prone to distraction.’ As a teacher you may be aware that one particular learner is ‘focused’ and another has good attention to detail. By acknowledging these characteristics students and teachers develop an understanding of the skill-sets and attributes that particular learners bring to the table.
Understanding that different tasks require different skills and strategies falls under the banner of task knowledge. As we develop as students we learn that creating a concept map is an effective way of understanding a dense textbook chapter, that regularly reviewing difficult content improves our recall, or that attending certain lectures requires large amounts of coffee and/or lollies.
Finally, strategy knowledge means knowing which strategy to use and when in order to successful complete a task. If a learner has good strategy knowledge it means they will be able to work more efficiently to select the most appropriate strategies based on their needs (Kaur & Areepattamannil, 2012).
We can best understand how to develop metacognitive knowledge by breaking it down into three phases. Depending on which literature you are reading these may be referred to as the planning or forethought phase; the monitoring phase; and the reflection or evaluation phase.
Firstly, the forethought phase involves knowing what learners do and do not understand (Giselaers, 1996) and setting goals for the task. This may be encouraged through the use of questions such as:
- What type of task is this?
- What am I going to do?
- What skills or resources do I need?
- What is my time-frame for completion?
During the performance (monitoring) phase students check how they are progressing towards meeting their goals. Students and teachers will use questions such as:
- How well am I going?
- What changes do I need to make to meet my goals?
- How are my motivation levels?
- Do I need to make adaptions to my goals?
Finally, the reflection phase (evaluation) prompts students to consider whether their goals were attained. Students will use self-assessment questions such as:
- How well did my strategies work?
- What could I do better next time?
- What did I do well?
How can teachers help students develop metacognition?
There are number of strategies teachers can employ to develop metacognition. The above mentioned questions can be easily modelled by teachers: the more often they are modelled the more likely it is that students will develop the habit of independently asking these questions of themselves. Within my classroom, I have employed such questions at the end of lessons as a way of reviewing and reflecting upon the learning that has taken place, and to help students set intentions for study they will be completing at home. Alternatively, metacognition may be developed through activities such as journal writing, directed whole-class discussions.
Why do it though?
Too often we teach students content without really instructing them on how to make sense of it. Metacognition affords students the opportunity to understand their own learning process. The chances of students mastering concepts after a series of failures will not improve unless they understand where they have gone wrong (Ormrod, 2006). The purpose of metacognition is to equip students with skills and tools to understand their own learning processes better, so they can become more effective learners. As students grow their skill-set they will begin to acknowledge that learning outcomes are within their control: hence their sense of autonomy over their learning will increase. The result of this is learners that are engaged and self-directed.
Some other benefits of metacognition include:
- Learning is more effective as learners have more adept strategies in goal setting, strategy selection, goal evaluation and reflection
- Improving students critical thinking skills
- Improving students capacity for deep understanding and cognition
- Increased sense of student autonomy
- Improved capacity to articulate ideas
- Improved ability to monitor (and communicate) understanding and seek help for areas of confusion
- Better problem-solving skills as students are able to select from a wider range of strategies. Ozsoy (2011) determined metacognitive ability accounts for 37% of success in problem solving
- Poor problem solving is linked to lower metacognitive awareness
Metacognition is a skill that benefits teachers and learners alike. It is important that students are aware of the benefits of developing metacognitive strategies, so that students can appreciate their utility. In addition, it is important that care is taken to integrate metacognitive instruction, so that it is not viewed as an optional ‘add-on.’ Finally, teachers need to feel confident in employing these strategies within the classroom flexibly and with confidence. Due care must be taken to ensure that classroom environments are conducive to the development of the metacognitive strategies to ensure that teachers and students can successfully engage with and appreciate just how powerful these strategies are.