The Science of Learning: Metacognition

Metacognition is a set of skills that allow 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

According to Piaget, metacognitive skills begin to emerge during adolescence. He didn’t call them metacognitive skills but referred to them as a critical part of formal operational thinking (the final stage of his cognitive development model). In this stage, children 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. As a result, once a person has developed a rudimentary set of metacognitive skills, that is usually where they stay, developmentally.

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 direct their cognitive functions in order to direct and manage their interactions in the world around them.

Metacognitive abilities are something that we should foster and develop in our students. During grade school and high school, there are many teachers who feel that it is important to develop a metacognitive skill set. Given that the ability to understand and manipulate completely 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.

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 basic skills. 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 (one 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.

In the absence of this most rudimentary skill I am very dubious when I hear about how well the metacognitive abilities of children and youth can be developed using the techniques touted by many educators.

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