Metacognition: Learning to Think About Learning

Metacognition: Learning to Think About Learning

By: Julia Daley

During your journey to create a classroom full of lifelong learners, you might well have come across the term “Metacognition.” The premise behind it seems straightforward enough: thinking about thinking. Yet there’s quite a bit more involved in practicing metacognition beyond just being aware of our own thoughts. Metacognition is more like a process to become a better learner, requiring us to recognize what we know and what we want to know, and figuring out how to bridge the gap between these two points.

Before we dive any deeper into metacognition, it’ll be helpful to review some of our previous issues that cover aspects of this topic: positive psychology, self-efficacy, mindfulness, and outside lives. The ideas of fixed/growth mindsets, motivation, self-reflection, and personal interest all interconnect in metacognition. Metacognitive research posits that we can become better learners by making a conscious effort—that learning is in essence a skill like any other. Certain techniques and strategies result in better learning, but they take time and practice to master.

Let’s look at the graphic of Bloom’s Taxonomy below and reflect on our own learning. When studying for a compulsory course, one you had mild interest in, what level of thinking did you achieve? How about the learning you did for a topic you are passionate about? Recall the last professional development seminar you attended—where did you end up on the taxonomy then?

There’s no right or wrong answer to any of these questions; no form of thinking is inherently superior to another, as they all have their place, depending on the task or learning goals at hand. Still, in an ideal world, it can be presumed that we’ve learned something more thoroughly if we’re able to engage in higher-order thinking on the topic. Reaching these higher levels of thought is the goal of metacognition, so let’s get into the “how” of it all!

Plan, Monitor, and Evaluate: The Three Pillars of Metacognition

Metacognition occurs in three phases: before-learning (planning), during-learning (monitoring), and after-learning (evaluating). All three of these phases require conscious thought on the part of the learner. While these phases can be built into lessons by the teacher (more on that later), an advanced learner is able to initiate all three processes themselves.

Planning

The first step in learning something new is to determine what you know already and how well you know it. (If you’re looking for a reasonably quick demonstration of this, as well as a good synopsis of metacognitive beliefs, Katy O’Brien’s TED Talk is a great place to start!) While this sounds simple, it does take a decent amount of self-awareness and self-reflection to accurately determine what we do in fact know. Looking back at Bloom’s Taxonomy is a good way to start—think of a topic, and then reflect on the different verbs you can use to demonstrate your knowledge of it. The higher up you can go, again, the more deeply you’ve learned it.

The next step is to figure out what you don’t know (and presumably want to learn). Maybe you want to achieve a higher level of knowledge on a topic, or perhaps learn something new entirely. Decide what successful learning will look like: recall a definition for a test, give another person a summary of what you learned, apply the concept in a real-life situation, etc.

Once you’ve decided on what you know and what you want to know, you need to determine how much time it will take you to accomplish your goal. The amount of time you have will affect which learning strategies you employ. (I’ll introduce some strategies in a later section!)

Monitoring

This next phase takes place while actively in the process of learning. You must monitor your own progress while you are listening to a lecture, reading a text, watching a video, or whatever you’re doing to learn something new. This means periodically pausing to reflect on your own learning by asking yourself questions: “What did I just read?” or “Did I understand what the professor just said?” Depending on your answers to these questions, you might need to adjust your learning while in the middle of it. Maybe you need to sit up straighter and take notes; maybe you need to stand up and stretch for a moment; maybe you need to reread a troublesome passage aloud—whatever it takes to get your learning back on track.

Evaluating

The final phase takes place immediately after a learning session, you evaluate your progress by again engaging in self-reflective questions: “What did I just learn?”, “How can I explain what I learned to a friend?”, “What still confuses me?”, and “Did I reach my learning goal within the time I set?” among others. Self-assessment is another valuable strategy during this phase—you can use ready-made materials from your instructors or texts, or create your own tests to check your understanding of what you’ve learned. This is an important chance to reflect on what worked or didn’t work during the learning phase.

Metacognitive Strategies

Another important aspect of metacognitive thinking is that the learner must consciously deploy various learning strategies. There are lots of strategies out there, but here’s a few that I find particularly worth mentioning:

Make predictions before lectures / readings / videos

Before you begin the learning session, ask yourself predictive questions about the text / lecture / video. Scan the headings and subheadings, looking for keywords and concepts you’re going to encounter. Ask yourself if you know what they mean already.

Paraphrase what you just listened to / read / watched

To paraphrase something means to put it into your own words and syntax—it’s not a matter of just replacing a few words with their nearest synonyms. You have to understand something to paraphrase it properly, so if you struggle, then it means you need to revisit the material.

Connect new material to old

Actively reflect on the new content and draw on your and previous knowledge. The more connections you can make between new and old, the more fully you’ll tie this new information into your long-term memory.

Test yourself regularly

This comes back to evaluating your learning. Information is usually “freshest” right after we’ve learned it, but how well can you remember it a day after your learning session? A week? A month? When you encounter a keyword in your learning materials, pause and reflect on how well you remember the concept before moving on. If you have access to pre-made tests or quizzes, use those as well!

Analyze your assessment results

After taking a test, doing a presentation, writing a report, etc., take a close and careful look at the feedback from your instructor and ask yourself some reflective questions: Does your score match your learning goal? Does it reflect what you think you learned? Did you learn the content as well as you thought you did? What areas of your learning plan were a success, and what needs to change for next time?

Teaching Metacognition

The first step in teaching metacognition is to practice it yourself! As the teacher, and as a presumably masterful learner, you need to be able to narrate your thinking process to students so they can see it in action. We can’t expect our students to become lifelong learners if we don’t model it in ourselves. To become teachers, we’ve had to become expert learners, and many of us already use a lot of these metacognitive strategies with some success. Students, especially in younger grades and earlier levels of university courses, are very much still novice learners, so they need a role-model to follow. Prior to entering university, many students have achieved good grades in their courses without reaching the higher tiers of learning, and they’ll need the most assistance with thinking metacognitively.

As teachers, it’s not too difficult to embed goal-setting and self-reflective questions into our activities. This can be a good way to model the three pillars of metacognition and help students practice them. We can help students set goals at the beginning of a class or unit. During activities, we can periodically pause and have students check their own understanding (i.e. monitoring). Each class can end with a “wrapper” activity, which consists of self-reflective questions that students answer; teachers can choose to collect the answers (with or without names) and share the results in the following class. (Reading through students’ answers is an excellent way to engage in self-reflective teaching as well!) We can also include reflection questions after each evaluation in our courses.

And while not necessarily a step, another important aspect of teaching metacognition is to be consistent and explicit with it. We can’t just teach a strategy once and assume our students are now always engaging in metacognitive processes. We have to teach the processes repeatedly, and we need to check for student understanding and mastery of these metacognitive skills along the way. At the same time, we can’t do this alone—our colleagues need to incorporate metacognition into their class activities as well. The more students can experience and practice metacognition, the greater the chances become that they’ll improve their learning abilities. Not every metacognitive technique is easily applicable to each subject or classroom and trying to teach all of them in a single class could soon overtake the actual content.

The final teaching advice, and perhaps the hardest to consistently implement, is to have materials ready in advance. Previewing is an important strategy, so if students have access to PowerPoints, readings, or videos prior to class, they can prepare themselves and choose their learning strategies beforehand. Sample test questions as well are very useful for students to check their understanding prior to taking an assessment and allow for students to adjust their strategy use if they realize their learning was not up to par. Test question formats shouldn’t be kept a secret, so that students can prepare properly for exams. Of course, all of this is hard to do as teachers if we’re building our courses on the fly! Still, when possible, sharing materials in advance (where appropriate) really can improve learning outcomes in our students.

Final Thoughts

With metacognition, learners really must stretch their cognitive muscles and work hard to achieve a higher level of learning. As with any new skill, it takes time, effort, and persistence to be successful. I’ve only scratched the surface of it in this piece, and our other authors go into different areas of metacognition with more depth in the remaining articles in this month’s issue. Consider practicing some of these metacognitive strategies and techniques as you progress further into the issue!

Julia Daley is a lecturer at Hiroshima Bunkyo University, where she teaches English conversation and writing. She earned her MA in TESL at Northern Arizona University and is certified to teach secondary English in Arizona. She spends an inordinate amount of time reflecting on her own thinking.

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