Developing Affective Abilities through Metacognition Part 2: Going Granular

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Ed Nuhfer, California State Universities- retired

In Part 1, we noted that the highest stages of thinking are not merely cognitive, but they require cognitive knowledge and skills with the addition of metacognitive reflection involving affect. We also promised to present some ways to help students increase the capacity for reaching these highest levels of thinking through using metacognition to understand and develop affective reasoning.

Granular components make up a whole shape

This contributed post, Part 2, has three components. The first recognizes that understanding a way of knowing can take two forms, global and granular. The second provides research-based evidence that gaining an understanding of a metadiscipline’s way of knowing (e.g., science) by gaining awareness of the essential interconnections (granular approach) that constitute the metadiscipline is more effective than trying initially to understand the metadiscipline through considering it as a whole (global approach). The third introduces an example of a heavily affective way of knowing—ethics— and its interconnected components.

  1. From describing to understanding

The popular definition of metacognition as “thinking about thinking” invites a universal response: “OK. So, now what do we think about?” No individual invented or discovered any complex way of knowing, such as science or ethics. Instead, these ways of knowing developed over a long time through the collective contributions of many workers. Over centuries, added insights made awareness of new concepts possible, and better understanding allowed an improved global articulation of each specific way of knowing.

In a few years of college education, we strive to produce understanding of bodies of knowledge that took centuries to develop. We believe that an effective sequence of gaining understanding of a metadiscipline usually recapitulates the historical order of its development. This parallel process for understanding a complex way of knowing involves first becoming aware of the essential interconnected concepts. Afterwards, scholars have increased capacity for constructing their global understanding of a way of knowing by learning how each concept contributes to the reasoning process that characterizes that way of knowing. To aid teaching and assessments of major ways of knowing, it is valuable to distinguish how global and granular queries elicit different ways of thinking and understanding.

Global approaches to understanding address complex issues with a single question. Examples are “How do you treat others ethically?” and “How well do you understand science?”

Granular approaches to thinking address the interconnected concepts that enable specific ways of knowing. For example, the Science Literacy Concept Inventory (SLCI) (Nuhfer et al. 2016a) is a granular instrument. It addresses a dozen interconnected concepts that science rests upon through twenty-five multiple-choice challenges. The composite score on all twenty-five items provides the measure of competence to answer the global challenge of “How well do you understand science as a way of knowing?” It achieves this measure without either directly asking participants the global question or asking them to name any of the specific concepts.

An example query from the SLCI follows. 

  1. Which of the following statements presents a hypothesis that science can now easily resolve? 
  1.  Warts can be cured by holding quartz crystals on them daily for a week.
  2. A classmate sitting in the room can see the auras of other students.
  3. Radio City Music Hall in New York is haunted by several spirits.
  4. People with chronic illnesses have them as punishment for past misdeeds.

The query tests for a granular understanding of science as a way of knowing the physical world through testable hypotheses. The query seeks to see if a student can recognize which of the statements is testable and addresses the physical world. All four options present possible hypotheses, but only one option offers a testable hypothesis and addresses physical phenomena. Note that the query tests for understanding, not for a memorized definition of “hypothesis” or “science.” Answers to twenty-five such questions that address a dozen concepts give a highly reliable assessment of understanding science as a way of knowing.

Now comes the rub. Experts can perform effective metacognition of their understanding in direct response to a single complex global question because their understanding has already assimilated the essential granular concepts that underlie science. Their knowing “what to think about” now comes intuitively from long experience. Novices (students) who directly try to address a global question about a complex issue don’t yet have the experiences that enable experts to respond quickly by unconsciously incorporating the most essential granular concepts in their informed response.

Novices need to methodically consider each of the granular concepts as checkpoints before they can reach a well-informed response. With practice in doing so over time, they can internalize the concepts and intuitively employ them more holistically. An early start in recognizing that granular-to-global-understanding process helps to achieve internalizing earlier in one’s career or education. Without instruction, the process will not begin until a challenge makes the need for the skill apparent, and an inept response can prove costly if the challenge involves a high-stakes decision.

  1. Granular disclosure deepens understanding quickly — the evidence from science

As noted, experts have the advantage of experience. However, their traditional educational experiences rarely included metacognitive reflection, so few of our current experts had the privilege of early understanding that might have resulted from undergraduate instruction on how to achieve an understanding of an ambiguous problem through metacognitive reflection on the most relevant underlying checkpoints of a relevant way of knowing. Many experts achieved this only after high-stakes challenges forced them to adopt more appropriate thinking.

If instructors explicitly engaged in relevant metacognitive instruction, might we be able to produce better future experts than exist now? Research says “yes” by showing that minds gain an increased global understanding of science simply from responding to a granular spectrum of queries that address the interconnected concepts that underlie science (Nuhfer et al., 2016b; 2017).

These research measures started with a global query that honestly disclosed the nature of the SLCI and asked students to estimate their anticipated scores. Our current dataset consists of 1576 participants, and the correlation between their estimates from this initial global self-assessment and their actual test scores was r = .28.

Following the global query, participants completed the SLCI knowledge survey. Knowledge surveys are granular self-assessment instruments that direct students to reflect metacognitively on the interconnected, granular components underlying a comprehensive topic. The SLCI contains 25 test items. For this research, participants first rate their competency on each item and then they answer all the questions. The correlation between the cumulative self-assessment on all 25 items on the entire knowledge survey and participants’ demonstrated competence from their score on the SLCI was r = .6. On later postdicted global queries (recorded after taking the knowledge survey and after taking the Inventory), the correlations between the global self-assessed scores and the actual SLCI scores all remained high at between r = .5 and r = .6.

These results offer a valuable insight: students knew no more content about science after taking the knowledge survey than they did before taking it because no instruction or study was involved. However, taking a knowledge survey provided a granular disclosure of what they must “think about” and conveyed a significantly better understanding of the complexity of the global query than did a detailed global description of the query. Improved metacognitive understanding of the challenge relative to one’s immediate competency is not the same thing as improved content knowledge. Rather, the former clarifies to the learner the specific content learning that one needs to get to improve his or her overall competency.

 When we decide to teach a complex way of knowing, conveying an understanding of what the knowing involves (i.e., conveying the granular concepts) will contribute to success. Further, metacognitive exercises are more effective than hearing the key points in lectures, because metacognitive reflection is focused interactive engagement with the problem. The focused conversation with self that is the hallmark of metacognition enlists sufficient parts of the brain to build understanding. Listening alone engages relatively little of the brain’s neural network and produces little understanding that can be retained. Metacognitive exercises will be most effective if we build students’ competence through taking a granular approach from the very start. We want to direct our students to think about and internalize the checkpoints rather than to try to answer the global question directly from unexamined feelings.

  1. From science to ethics

Science focuses on cognitive thinking that uses testable evidence. Instructors are most familiar with developing such thinking, which lies within Perry’s stages 4, 5 and 6. Developing highest level thinking abilities, (stages 7, 8 and 9) requires additional components that allow us to go beyond constructing strong, defendable arguments and enter the realm of using our results for making decisions and acting on them. These highest levels of thinking are metacognitive and affective. Reaching them requires that we develop an awareness of how our own affective feelings are an influence on our decisions, and it further requires that we develop capacity for empathy so that we truly understand how our actions impact others.

Like science, ethics constitutes a complex way of knowing, but the latter is a way of knowing that involves more affect. We treat one another ethically because we feel that we should do so, even when competing feelings and pragmatic arguments may exist to do otherwise in our perceived self-interests. Thus, an understanding of ethics requires understanding a different set of interconnected concepts.

The four granular ethical principles or concepts are, beneficence – “do good;” nonmaleficence – “do no harm;” justice – “treat equals as equals,” and autonomy – “respect others’ control over their own lives.” These provide our checkpoints for granular understanding.

To help readers initiate a global understanding of an ethical decision as experienced through a granular approach, I’ve included a short module exercise with this blog entry. Open it; read it. The text is less than 900 words. Afterwards, confront a few of the reflective exercises at the end of the module.

In Part 3, we can pick up our discussion with deeper exploration of the role of affect and metacognition in making ethical decision. Afterwards, we can explore the role of metacognition in other affective dimensions of thinking.

About Ed Nuhfer

Ed Nuhfer received his PhD in geology from University of New Mexico, and served as a geologist and researcher in industry and government before starting an academic career. He held tenure as a full professor at four different universities, authored publications on environmental geology, sedimentary geology, geochemistry, petrology and geoscience education, served as a mentor for hundreds of geology and reclamation students. He served as a regional/national officer for the American Society for Surface Mining and Reclamation, the American Institute of Mining Engineers and as national editor for The American Institute of Professional Geologists from which he received three presidential certificates of merit and the John Galey Sr Pubic Service Award. His book, The Citizens' Guide to Geologic Hazards, won a Choice award for "outstanding academic books" from the Association of College and Research Libraries. While on sabbatical on 1988-1989 in Colorado, he discovered faculty development and returned to found one the first faculty development centers in Wisconsin. He subsequently served as Director of Faculty Development for University of Wisconsin at Platteville, University of Colorado at Denver, and Idaho State University, as Director of Faculty Development and Assessment of Student Learning at California State University Channel Islands, founded the one-week faculty development program "Boot Camp for Profs," which he directed for nearly twenty years, received the national Innovation Award Finalist and the Faculty Development Innovation Award, from POD and served in his last full-time job as Director of Educational Effectiveness at Humboldt State University "years beyond when I thought I would want to retire" before finally retiring in 2014. He has authored over a hundred publications in faculty development, and served as an invited presenter and featured speaker of workshops for The Geological Society of America, POD, AAC&U, WASC, Lilly Conferences, and as an invited presenter of workshops and keynotes on faculty development and assessment for many universities and conferences. He continues to work from as a writer and researcher, as a columnist for National Teaching and Learning Forum for which he has written Developers' Diary for over twelve years --a column based on the unique theme of using fractals and chaos as a key to understanding teaching and learning. Ed remains on as a member of the editorial review boards for several journals and publishers and is winding up a seven-year project with colleagues as principal investigator in developing and testing the Science Literacy Concept Inventory.