Cognitive Development, Metacognition

Knowing What You Know & Knowing What You Don’t Know

This insight is the foundation of metacognition.

“Knowing what you know” and “knowing what you don’t know” is based on something called the “feeling of knowing”. When you know (or think that you know) that you know something, there is a feeling of certainty. Studies into the feeling of knowing have found that individuals consistently overestimate their surety about the knowledge they have. We are all certain that we know more than we really know.

My students and I looked into this a few years ago. Our measurements showed us that the ability of first-year university students to ascertain whether or not they really knew something was very close to chance. After a period of time, we were able to teach them to accurately recognize their feeling of knowing with a great degree of certainty. They began to accurately discriminate between what they actually knew and what they thought that they knew. The foundation for their individual metacognitive abstract enabler was developed.

The method we developed is quite simple. We had students come into the lab and engage in a “Pub Quiz”. They were given general knowledge questions to answer, and we calibrated the quiz so that they would usually get about half of the questions correct. In addition to answering the questions – a question stem with four alternatives – they had to indicate whether or not they knew the answer was correct (Sure) or were just guessing.

The scoring contingency that they were working on was as follows:

  • Incorrect answer with a guessing response was worth     0
  • Incorrect answer with a certain response was worth       -6
  • A correct answer with a guessing response was worth     1
  • A correct answer with a certain response was worth        3

They got immediate feedback after each question with a new tally of their score. After the first session, we found that they had just above-chance performance when determining whether their feeling of knowing accurately reflected their own reality (on average, about 0.55 with an a’ signal detection calculation). We demonstrated this on a number of different groups of incoming students over a number of years. For each cohort, after repeating the pub quiz exercise over a period of time, the students improved their signal detection score from about 0.55 to between 0.85 and 0.90. They developed a recognition of the feeling of “knowing what they know” and “knowing what they don’t know” with a great degree of certainty that closely reflected reality.

And they enjoyed the task.

We were working with adults. Can this developmental method be used with children to lay a solid foundation upon which metacognition can be built? I have looked at how upper-middle aged children (age 10 – 12) performed with this method for learning how to recognize their “knowing what they know” feeling. I observed that children this age are able to increase the accuracy of this certainty feeling down to about age 11. I haven’t studied any children younger than that.

A pretty simple and effective method of developing the foundation of metacognition along with the added benefit of developing some self-insight.

I am in the process of building a free mobile app (IOS and Android) to make this method of building a solid foundation for metacognition available to anyone with a device. Right now, I am targeting my efforts at adults, but as soon as I have the app in service, I will be adding the capability to use this method for children as well.

Given the ease of use and wide availability of the tools for doing this, I am hoping to continue research in this area and can, hopefully, shape the tool so that it can work with younger children.

With the help of the community, I have the privilege of belonging to, that is focussed on the improvement of learning across all ages, I am hoping for a wide distribution of the app so that I can carry out ongoing research and provide an enjoyable research-backed opportunity to develop the foundation to an abstract cognitive enabler for anyone willing to take it.

I will keep the community apprised of my progress.

2 thoughts on “Knowing What You Know & Knowing What You Don’t Know

  1. Dear Jesse,
    I am at a time where I am formulating a research topic that can improve Nursing learning and teaching strategies here in Jeddah, KSA. I came across your topic on metacognition, and hoping to understand this construct further.
    I am hoping you can help me have a better understanding on what metacognition is.

    Thank you very much.

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