Developing Metacognition

Metacogntiion is often referred to as “thinking about thinking” and can be used to help students “learn how to learn”. Specifically, metacognition refers to students’ automatic awareness of their own knowledge and their ability to understand, control, and manipulate their own cognitive processes (Flavell, 1979). Metacognition consists of several essential elements: 1) planning (developing a plan of action), 2) monitoring (maintaining the plan), and 3) evaluating (evaluating the progress). Below we elaborate on these elements:
  • Planning: During the planning process students need to have an understanding of what prior knowledge they have is useful for a particular task and what other knowledge is needed to complete the task.
  • Monitoring: During the monitoring process students attempt to keep themselves on the right track of problem solving and iterate back and forth between the planning process and use of knowledge and learning strategies are needed to achieve the set learning goals.
  • Evaluating: During the evaluating process students evaluate whether they have reached their goals, what gaps in their understanding or skills still need to be filled in, and most importantly recognize how they obtained the necessary knowledge for problem solving.
Metacognition has been interchangeably used with the term self-regulation, which emphasizes students’ ability to adjust their learning processes in response to their perception of feedback regarding their current status of learning.

Why is metacognition an important practice? Engaging students in metacognitive process guides students’ thinking and helps follow a wise course of action as they think through a problem and make decisions. Davidson and Sternberg (1998) has argued that metacognitive knowledge allows the problem solver to better encode and represent the givens in a problem context (i.e., what information is provided in the problem), break down the problem into smaller ones that are relevant procedures, and therefore derive a better solution to the problem.

The following example is from Liu & Hmelo-Silver’s study (2010a) of embedding conceptual representations of the respiratory system in hypermedia to promote students metacognitive skills applied in collaborative discourse. The following dialogue between students shows that students ”N” and “V” were co-regulating each other and supporting their decisions in the science task (they were deciding which link to click on in the hypermedia in order to understand how oxygen and carbon dioxide get in and out of the body). They tended to connect their prior knowledge with the content they read (e.g., student V mentioned “I thought we just expelled carbon dioxide”). It is notable that both students N and V were questioning themselves as to whether the content answered their questions. Such reflection may help them to make sense of the content they read and monitor their progress toward learning goals.

V: Yeah, the whole oxygen, carbon dioxide thing I am really not too sure about, I kind of thought we expelled carbon dioxide.
N: That’s what I thought.
V: But I don’t know if we push a button will it give us the answer?
N: Maybe. . . oh.

V: Oh it does, ok (Reading)
V: I don’t think that answered the question.
N: Right, that didn’t at all.
V: It just told us that we need cells to produce, cells use, that is it. It doesn’t tell us anything about it.
V: Should we go back?
N: Can you click on the diaphragm?
N: Maybe if we go to “need for pump and vessels”

Challenges with assessing this practice: It is particularly challenging to assess students’ metacognitive processes as they are often hidden in thinking. In the assessments, digging out students’ metacognitive thinking is even harder considering its multifaceted forms. Traditionally, students’ metacognition is assessed through Likert-type self-report surveys (e.g., LASSI: Weinstein, Zimmerman, & Palmer, 1988; Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1993). Some other research is focused on providing metacognitive scaffolds to make students’ thinking visible by asking students to think aloud verbally or to write down their thinking. To this end, some virtual learning environments in science (e.g., ThinkerTool, WISE) build in functions to log students’ pathways to problem solving so that students can visualize their thinking process during problem solving. Although there have been some advances in the measurement of metacogniton, more work is needed establishing the reliability and validity of the available measures.

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