Encouraging Metacognition for Learning

A critical component of learning is the ability to reflect on one’s learning and the processes that occur while we are engaged in learning. If we are to develop independent, empowered learners then we need to build the skills required for metacognition both directly through the provision of suitable strategies and indirectly via the modelling of effective learning that we provide.

Simply defined metacognition is ‘thinking about our thinking’, it is the process of actively engaging with reflective practices that assist us to understand both what we think, why we think it and how we came to think that which we do. As a process within a learning cycle it can be a powerful tool but its truest power comes when it becomes incorporated as a practice of the independent learner who seeks to understand how they learn. The metacognitive learner is able to leverage the strengths of their learning style, apply prior learning, identify barriers to new learning and develop a deeper understanding through their reflective practices. Beyond metacognition we may think of meta-learning as a process through which the self organised learner brings their intellectual powers to bear on the learning task at hand. The individual who understands how they learn and who can manipulate their environment to best suit their learning needs has a better chance of doing so than an individual who must rely on others. 

Neil Anderson who identifies five components of metacognition offers a nice approach to metacognition. Awareness of these components allows the learner to begin to understand their thinking and assist them to focus their thinking at key stages. The five components are identified as '(1) preparing and planning for learning, (2) selecting and using learning strategies, (3) monitoring strategy use, (4) orchestrating various strategies, and (5) evaluating strategy use and learning’ (Anderson 2002). Applied to the example of a student engaging with a learning task we can see how awareness of the five components provides a structure to their approach to learning. The student begins by becoming open to new learning; they focus on the task at hand, consider expectations for the learning, create goals and possibly reflect on how they have been able to achieve similar learning goals in the past. As the learning begins the students select strategies to assist their learning and enhance their understanding; some will need to take notes, others sketch or manipulate items. Using thinking routines at this stage can provide a set of flexible strategies to engage the mind and promote cognition. As the learning continues the metacognitive learner will monitor the strategies they are using and make modifications and adjustments as needed. Questions will be asked and new methods trialed with prior experience of dealing with difficult learning scenarios as a guide. The metacognitive learner will have a range of strategies to utilise and will be able to make decisions about which is most likely to assist them. When the official learning period finishes and the problem is solved the metacognitive learner reflects on their learning and further enhances their skill set ready for the next experience. Raising awareness of these components will encourage metacognitive practice and coupled with presenting strategies for metacognition will aid learning. 

Those familiar with Habits of Mind will instantly identify with Metacognition as it is one of the sixteen habits. It has a special part to play, as it will allow the learner to consider how the other fifteen habits can be applied to their learning.  The sixteen habits of mind provide a powerful set of actions, dispositions and mindsets that combine to enable effective learning across domains. While each of the sixteen habits are important Metacognition is required as an underlying practice if individuals are to engage habits that are not naturally a part of their approach to learning or recognize which is most suitable in a given circumstance. Metacognition allows for the right habit to be identified and applied to the right situation and for the individuals application of the habits to be evaluated and enhanced over time. More information about Metacognition as a Habit of Mind along with strategies for applying it and Thinking Routines to support it can be found at - http://www.rediquest.com/metacognition/

Metacognitive skills can be developed through collaboration and skills developed thusly are transferable to individuals who can then apply these skills to individual problem solving (Sandi-Urena, Cooper & Stevens. 2011).  Sandi-Urena et al. provided students with a problem and allowed time for reflection and collaboration, enabled by prompts, that enacted meaningful social interaction that they found enhanced metacognition. Being able to share ideas about a problem and then reflect on how the problem solving process had evolved allowed richer, more effective metacognition. Three mechanisms to describe why collaboration is effective in enhancing understanding and task performance are identified by Hausmann, Chi & Roy (2004 p547): ‘other-directed explaining occurs when one peer instructs or explains to another partner how to solve a problem, co-construction is defined as the joint construction of knowledge and self-directed explaining is learning from listening to someone self-explain’. This process was applied by a group of Year Six students as they prepared for a ‘Genius Hour’ project. 

Part of the planning process involved students gathering feedback on their plans from a group of peers during structured collaborative discussions. The aim was to enhance student understanding of their design brief through other-directed explaining, co-construction of a refined plan and self-directed explaining as the students sought to analyse and act on the feedback offered by their peers. To this end students reviewed their plans and prepared a short presentation of this for a group of four to five peers. At the conclusion of the presentation students asked their peers a series of questions that focused on aspects of the plan they had identified for improvement. Students used “The Ladder of Feedback’ (See Below) to gather written feedback from their peers. Students had time to respond to and discuss questions and peers offered additional feedback on the plan as presented. After this collaborative discussion students had time to reflect on the feedback and record brief notes as a record of their self-explaining of the feedback before refining their plan. For the students this was their first experience of preparing and sharing a design plan and the first time they had planned a set of questions to ask their peers about their own ideas.

Late in Term Two the collaborative discussions were held with students self-selecting groups for the purpose. Each student took turns at presenting their ideas and then asking questions to gather feedback on specific elements. For some of the students the process of preparing their questions was a challenge and having access to the ‘Ladder of Feedback’ was a nice support for these students. The experience of the interviews was very rewarding for all the students and they each reported that it had enhanced their understanding of their plans and helped them to identify areas that could be improved. In line with the research of Hausmann et al. students reported that the benefits of the interviews came from preparing for the collaborative discussions the process of presenting the design brief, asking the questions and from reflecting on the feedback offered. The students had engaged in other-directed explaining as they prepared and presented their briefs, co-construction of understanding through collaboration during the discussions and finally self-directed instruction as they made sense of the feedback offered. Students who made up the discussion panels reported that the process of providing feedback allowed them to better understand their own plans and to identify potential problems. 

Throughout this project it was important that the students were in charge of the process. They had already invested much time and energy into developing their plans and this process was designed to encourage their reflection on how they may develop the best possible projects. By allowing the students an opportunity to involve their peers in the planning process while retaining ownership of that process was a powerful tool that encouraged metacognition. In this instance the process of thinking about thinking was both collaborative and individual and while the result of a process instigated by the teaching programme, modelled a process that the students can apply to their future learning. Deliberately incorporating metacognitive practices into the learning process can have real benefits for the learners both immediately as seen here in the improved plans that resulted and long term as students are able to independently apply the strategies they have experienced. 

Anderson, N. (2002) The Role of Metacognition in Second Language Teaching and Learning. ERIC Digest - http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED463659

Hausmann, R. G. M., Chi, M. T. H., & Roy, M. (2004, August). Learning from collaborative prob- lem solving: An analysis of three hypothesized mechanism. Paper presented at the proceedings of the 26th annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Chicago, IL, pp. 547–552.

Sandi‐Urena, S., Cooper, M., & Stevens, R. (2011). Enhancement of metacognition use and awareness by means of a collaborative intervention. International Journal Of Science Education, 33(3), 323-340. 

Adapted by Mary McFarland, 2006; © President and Fellows of Harvard College (and of Project Zero)