Cognitive Enablers, Metacognition, The Science of Learning, Thinking & Learning

Metacognition: Knowing what you Know

Metacognition is thinking about thinking or is a set of skills that allows us to control and direct our cognitive abilities.

Metacognition? Cognition first. I was in my first cognition class as a 30-year-old adult before I had any idea what cognition is. I took the class because cognitive psychology was one of the areas I was required to study in order to obtain a psychology degree – I ended up getting a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. Cognition refers to our thinking processes – attention (as in attending to something in the brain), memory, problem-solving, and the thinking processes that make up our everyday existence. So, by that definition, metacognitive skills are those skills that enable you to understand, recognize, control and direct your thinking processes.

Metacognitive Development

As a higher order thinking skill requiring the understanding of and manipulation of multiple abstract concepts, metacognition is a higher order thinking skill that begins to emerge during adolescence. The ability to engage in metacognitive skills forms a critical, and I would say the foundational aspect of formal operational thinking (the final stage of cognitive development). In this stage of cognitive development, adolescents can begin to apply mental routines to abstract material. In Geiwitz’s example, adolescents can understand and can solve a problem like “If a suitcase can eat four rocks in one day, how many can it eat in two days?” Prior to the rudimentary development of metacognitive skills, a suitcase that eats rocks is an imaginary construct that does not exist in the real world, so children have difficulty understanding how to answer the question as a serious exercise; the content of the problem (its concrete aspects) gets in the way of solving the abstract components of the problem because they are unable to reason in a purely hypothetical way.

As metacognitive skills begin to emerge, young people spend time thinking about thinking (one of the basic definitions of metacognition), however, the exercise is usually one of curiosity rather than one of exploration and understanding. Developing any higher order thinking skill must be explicitly taught, and cannot be taught before the brain develops to the stage where abstract concepts can be understood and manipulated. As a result, once an adolescent has developed a rudimentary set of metacognitive skills, that is usually where they stay for the rest of his or her life, developmentally.

Metacognitive abilities are something that we should foster and develop in our students in higher education. During grade school and high school, there are many teachers who feel that it is important to develop a metacognitive skill set. Given a pre-adolescent’s inability to understand and manipulate abstract concepts, this energy should be directed toward cognitive skills and tasks that children are able to do. The responsibility to develop metacognitive abilities lies in higher education.

Metacognitive Benefits

As with most of the higher order thinking skills, metacognition plays a wider role in life than just academic work. Metacognition has, by far, the widest reaching effects of all the higher order thinking skills in people’s lives, as the following list demonstrates. This is likely the reason why educators have focussed on and tried to develop metacognition in children. Unfortunately, because it is higher order, the ability to think this way only emerges during adolescence, and the evidence that students entering university have, even the rudimentary foundational metacognitive skills, is poor. Here are the areas of life that research has demonstrated to be effected by metacognitive skills:

  • Academic success depends on thinking – if IQ is the engine, metacognition is the driver.
  • Intellectual ability contributes for about half as much as metacognition to learning something.
  • Cognitive flexibility requires you to know what cognitive options you have available – metacognition.
  • Deep reasoning involves real thinking about what you already know – metacognition.
  • One of the aspects of critical thinking and analysis is all about evaluating the new against what you already know about the subject – metacognition.
  • Logical thinking requires you to know how you think – metacognition.
  • Making rational decisions requires you to think about what you already know – metacognition.
  • Creativity means that you become aware of yourself enough to stop imitating others – Metacognition.
  • Mindfulness – an awareness of the moment requires you to be aware of your own thought process –  metacognition.
  • Increases in metacognition significantly reduce relapse in people who suffer from depression.

The foundational metacognitive skill upon which other metacognitive skills are based is called metacognitive monitoring. This is the ability to determine whether or not you actually know something with any degree of certainty.

Developing and Measuring Metacognitive Monitoring

As one of my areas of research, I looked at how we could measure and begin to develop the most basic metacognitive abilities in first-year university students – knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. I worked in a fairly selective school and fully expected that the students would arrive with some solidly established basic metacognitive skills. My students and I studied this for several years and devised a method of both accurately measuring and developing this skill. What we did was simply ask subjects a general knowledge content question, and then asked them to indicate how certain they were that the answer they gave was the correct one. By measuring first-year university students’ certainty in this manner, we are able to calculate just how good they are at really determining what they know.

I have to say that I was shocked when using an a’ signal detection measure to determine their basic metacognitive function, the majority of the students scored a 0.50 – they were simply guessing whether they knew something or not. I was pleasantly surprised to see that after six weeks of practice (about an hour a week) their performance had increased to an average of 0.80. They were pretty good at discerning what they knew and what they didn’t know. We can teach metacognitive skills, but teachers in higher education have to actually teach them. They don’t just happen.

One of the big problems with full metacognitive development is the accurate measurement of the whole range of skills that make up what we call metacognitive skills. Metacognitive monitoring is the only one of the metacognitive skills, and it can be easily measured and monitored, and although it is the foundation for metacognitive skills in general, it is only one part of the package. Other important metacognitive skills, that don’t lend themselves to easy measurement and would include the ability to take a problem apart, determining what thinking strategy would be the best one for the problem at hand, ongoing evaluation of the progress of solving a problem, and then the evaluation of how well you have done in solving the problem. The kinds of problems I’m talking about here are complex problems, not simple math like equations.

Metacognitive Abilities

Being able to understand and direct our cognitive processes underlies the ability to understand and direct complex problems in management situations, view problems as an expert, and gain a clearer understanding of complex social and societal interactions. The greater an individual’s metacognitive skills have been developed, the greater the individual is able to control their cognitive functions in order to direct and manage their interactions in the world around them.

Full metacognitive training is largely about the process that you could use to deal with a problem, along with a recognition that there are many ways that a problem can be approached, with a number of the approaches yielding a positive outcome. It also involves the ongoing monitoring of the thinking processes that you might use, and a willingness to change an approach, a willingness to back up and go a different direction, a willingness to throw away work you have already done when progress is impeded, slow, or nonexistent. It is about monitoring your thought processes, searching through what you already know that might help solve a problem and a penchant for trying out something else if the cognitive tools you have at hand are not sufficient.

Although normally listed as a part of critical thinking, the ability to, monitor which of your thinking processes that you might use, demonstrate a willingness to change an approach or way of doing things, a willingness to back up and go a different direction, a willingness to throw away work you have already done when progress is impeded, slow, or nonexistentwhen the evidence demonstrates that the methods you usually use to carry out work are shown to be poor or the evidence tells you that your direction of enquiry is wrong, encompasses, but is more than critical thinking.

In addition, high metacognitive skills allow a person to know when their own cognitive abilities have changed. Individuals with highly developed metacognitive abilities who later develop cognitive impairments are much more aware of the loss of their abilities than those with less well developed metacognitive skills. There are some Alzheimer’s dementia researchers who believe that well developed metacognitive skills are the reason that some individuals who develop Alzheimer’s have a profound delay in the emergence of their symptoms. According to this theory, metacognition doesn’t cure the condition, it delays the onset of the symptoms.

Because metacognitive skills play a foundational role in developing any of the other higher order thinking skills, and because highly developed metacognitive skills have such massive benefits to both individuals and society, the development of metacognition needs to be a central component in our efforts to educate young adults.

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