Using Metacognition as a Tool for Learning
By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant
Noah has had a crush on Wendy for almost a year. After spending weeks working up the courage, he finally overcame his shyness and asked her out on a date. For their date, Noah picked Wendy up around 7 p.m. and took her to a nice Thai restaurant before taking a walk through the town’s well-known art museum. Fast-forward a few hours, and Noah is driving home after dropping Wendy back off at her place. Noah is anxious. Did the date go well? Did she have fun? Did he talk enough? Were his jokes funny? Should he have worn a tie? These questions and many more like them are racing through his head. By reflecting on how this first date went, Noah is hoping to figure out what went well, what went wrong, and how he could make a second date (if she will go out with him again) more successful.
This self-reflective process is something we’re all are familiar with. Whether it is reflecting on a first date, an encounter with a boss, or our performance in a recent basketball game, everybody has experience thinking about past events. By reflecting on our past successes and failures, we place ourselves in a better position to be successful in the future. The same process of reflection—metacognition—is important when we are trying to learn. Metacognition is the, “Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.” (Flavell, 1976) In other words, metacognition is the awareness and understanding of how you learn best. By becoming more metacognitive and thinking about our learning experiences, we allow ourselves to identify what types of learning experiences or strategies work best for us, and which ones we struggle with. By doing so, we allow ourselves to become better learners.
The benefits of being metacognitive
Studies show that students who make an effort to be more metacognitive learn more and perform better in the classroom than students who do not engage in this type of self-reflection and assessment. The reasons for this are twofold.
First, metacognitive students are more likely to know which learning strategies work best for them than students who do not make an effort to be metacognitive. As you know, learning and mastering information is more difficult than simply reading through it once and hoping it sticks in your memory. Information doesn’t automatically get stored into our long-term memories like that. Instead, repeated and meaningful interaction with information is necessary, especially if it’s really difficult material. So, rather than reading through a chapter once and falsely believing they learned everything in it, metacognitive students identify specific learning strategies (e.g., comparing/contrasting the different concepts, creating flashcards, and taking detailed notes) and applying them to that material.
Second, metacognitive students are more likely to embrace the growth mindset championed by Carol Dweck (1999). If you take time to think about your learning process, then you’re going to feel more confident in your ability to control your learning outcomes. The blog post Perspective is Everything: How Mindset Influences Your Success explained how students with a growth mindset understand that intelligence can be grown incrementally over time and are more motivated, work harder in the face of difficulty, and achieve higher than students with a fixed mindset. When you think about it, metacognition is really just the growth mindset in action. There is a difference between believing that you’re in control of your learning outcomes (growth mindset) and actually figuring out how to take control (metacognition). When students make an effort to be more metacognitive, they experience the benefits of taking control of their learning outcomes, which reinforces the growth mindset.
How can you be more metacognitive?
So, now that you know what metacognition is and its benefits, you’re probably wondering how to become more metacognitive. Fortunately, metacognition is something that can be developed. Outlined below are a couple of learning strategies you can use right now to become a more metacognitive learner.
Retrieval-based learning. Most of our study strategies are geared towards committing information to memory – memorizing definitions, reading a chapter over and over, and taking notes, for example. However, success in school is largely based on our ability to pull information from memory. Yet most students rarely practice, waiting until they take a dreaded test or quiz to attempt to retrieve information for the first time. This routine harms performance! Studies show that the more times you pull information out of long-term memory, the easier recall becomes. This is known as retrieval-based learning (RBL).
RBL is beneficial for two reasons. First, the more times you pull information out of memory, the easier it becomes. Just like doing a push-up or running a mile, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Second, trying to pull information out of long-term memory provides you with an honest assessment of whether or not you actually know something. You’ll know if you have the quadratic formula memorized if you can recite it from memory and you will know if you have a firm grip on the four stages of mitosis if you can describe each of them from memory. So, things like trying to recall as much information about a topic as possible, practicing writing an essay about something, or having a friend create a practice test for you (or making one yourself) would help you practice retrieving information from memory.
Regulating your environment. As you may remember from the Obstacles to Effective Learning blog post, many factors besides your specific study strategies impact your learning outcomes, such as your study environment. Metacognitive students are aware of this. Not all environments are created equally, which means you should carefully consider how to arrange or select an environment conducive to learning. Think about the things that commonly distract you and make a plan to combat them. Leave your cell phone at home when you go the library (or at least silence it and leave it in your bag). Only bring your laptop if absolutely necessary so you don’t feel tempted to check Facebook once every ten minutes. Or use something like FocalFilter.com to temporarily block specific websites while you study or do homework. Also, think about whether or not you work best alone or with a group. Studying with a group of friends might seem like more fun than doing it alone. But do you usually end up wasting time talking about off-topic things? Lastly, think about how your lifestyle (sleep and exercise habits, for example) might be impacting your learning outcomes and make adjustments accordingly. Being particular about these sorts of things can help you create an environment conducive to success.
Setting and monitoring goals. You may also find it helpful to get into the habit of establishing specific goals for your study sessions. How long do you plan to study? How many chapters or terms do you want to get through? How many math problems do you want to finish? By setting these kinds of goals, you provide yourself with criteria to assess your studying and homework sessions.
Are you getting the most out of the session? Are you wasting most of your time? Are you moving through the material as quickly as you would like? In addition to assessing the quality of your session, you can also reflect on the obstacles standing in the way of your goals. If you were unable to get through two chapters in American History, then maybe a specific topic is confusing and slowing you down. If so, it’s important to identify the problem and dedicate more time and effort to it. Setting goals helps you stay on track, provides you with criteria for assessing the quality of your homework and study sessions, and also provides you with a starting point for identifying areas of difficulty.
By making metacognition a priority, you can make yourself a stronger, more efficient learner. For most of us, effective learning strategies do not come naturally. Instead, we need to take time to reflect on our learning experiences. Which study strategies are the most helpful for you? Which topics do you tend to struggle with? Figure out who you are as a learner and tailor your studying and homework sessions accordingly. Just like professional athletes and musicians constantly practice to get better and better, making an attempt to become more metacognitive can advance your abilities as a student, researcher, and life-long learner.