Science of Learning: Metacognition in Life

Science of Learning: Metacognition in Life

Jesse Martin 03/09/2018 4

As with most of the higher order thinking skills, metacognition plays a wider role in life than just academic work. However, metacognition has, by far, the widest reaching effects in people's lives as the following list demonstrates. This is likely the reason why educators have focussed 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.
  • 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 - becoming 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. 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. Shockingly, first-year university students consistently performed at chance or barely above chance levels of knowing if the answer they provided was the right answer or not. They are not very good at determining whether they know something or not. Their metacognitive monitoring skills, upon which the other metacognitive skills are built are simply not there.

One of the big problems with full metacognitive development is the accurate measurement of metacognitive skills. Metacognitive monitoring is the only one of the metacognitive skills that can be easily measured, and although it is the foundation for metacognitive skills, it is only one part of the package. Other important metacognitive skills, that don't lend themselves to easy measurement, 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.

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.

The lack of metacognitive skills would lie at the heart of knowing things through the method of tenacity - a knowing that is resistant to normal persuasion and evidence. 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 nonexistent, or methods you usually use to carry out work are shown to be poor based on or when the evidence you are not aware of, is much more than any definition of critical thinking I have come across.

In addition, high metacognitive skills allow a person to know when their own cognitive abilities have changed. Individuals who develop cognitive impairments are more aware of the loss of their abilities when they have metacognitive skills. There are some 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 just delays the onset of the symptoms.

Although all higher order thinking skills benefit individuals and society, I believe that metacognitive development should be given a higher priority than some of the others.

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  • Jade Fitch

    Students aren’t going to learn how to be good learners unless we engage them in activities and discussions about how they perceive themselves as learners.

  • Patrick Winfrey

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing.

  • Laura Todd

    Workplaces will become increasingly reliant upon flexible workers who are able to think outside of the box.

  • Nick Vanderleest

    Thoughtful piece !!

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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