by Ed Nuhfer (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 208-241-5029)
When those unfamiliar with “metacognition” first learn the term, they usually hear: “Metacognition is thinking about thinking.” This is a condensation of John Flavell’s (1976) definition: “Metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them…” Flavell’s definition reveals that students cannot engage in metacognition until they first possess a particular kind of knowledge. This reminds us that students do not innately understand what they need to be “thinking about” in the process of “thinking about thinking.” They need explicit guidance.
When students learn in most courses, they engage in a three-component effort toward achieving an education: (1) gaining content knowledge, (2) developing skills (which are usually specific to a discipline), and (3) gaining deeper understanding of the kinds of thinking or reasoning required for mastery of the challenges at hand. The American higher educational system generally does best at helping students achieve the first two. Many students have yet to even realize how these components differ, and few ever receive any instruction on mastering Component 3. Recently, Arum and Roksa (2011) summarized the effectiveness of American undergraduate education in developing students’ capacity for thinking. The record proved dismal and revealed that allowing the first two components to push aside the third produces serious consequences.
This imbalance has persisted for decades. Students often believe that education is primarily about gaining content knowledge—that the major distinction between freshmen and seniors is “Seniors know more facts.” Those who never get past this view will likely acquire a degree without acquiring any significantly increased ability to reason.
We faculty are also products of this imbalanced system, so it is not too surprising to hear so many of us embracing “covering the material” as a primary concern when planning our courses. Truth be told, many of us have so long taught to content and to skills necessary for working within the disciplines that we are less practiced in guiding our students to be reflective on how to improve their thinking. Adding metacognitive components to our assignments and lessons can provide the explicit guidance that students need. However, authoring these components will take many of us into new territory, and we should expect our first efforts to be awkward compared to what we will be authoring after a year of practice. Yet, doing such work and seeing students grow because of our efforts is exciting and very worthwhile. Now is the time to start.
Opportunities for developing metacognitive reflection exist at scales ranging from single-lesson assignments to large-scale considerations. In my first blog for this site, I chose to start with the large-scale considerations of what constitutes development of higher-level thinking skills.
What Research Reveals about Adult Thinking
More than five decades have passed since William Perry distinguished nine stages of thinking that successful adult intellectual development (Table 1) produces. The validity of his developmental model in general seems firmly established (Journal of Adult Development, 2004). Contained within this model is the story of how effective higher education improves students’ abilities to think and respond to challenges. Knowing this story enables us to be explicit in getting students aware of what ought to be happening to them if higher education is actually increasing their capacity for thinking. This research enables us to guide students in what to look for as they engage in the metacognition of understanding their own intellectual development.
Enhanced capacity to think develops over spans of several years. Small but important changes produced at the scale of single quarter or semester-long courses are normally imperceptible to students and instructors alike. Even the researchers who discovered the developmental stages passed through them as students, without realizing the nature of the changes that they were undergoing. For learning that occurs in the shorter period of a college course, it is easier to document measurable changes in learning of disciplinary content and the acquisition of specific skills than it is to assess changes in thinking. Research based on longitudinal studies of interviews with students as they changed over several years finally revealed the nature of these subtle changes and the sequence in which they occur (Table 1).
Table 1: A Summary of Perry’s Stages of Adult Intellectual Development
|Stage 1 & 2 thinkers believe that all problems have right and wrong answers, that all answers can be furnished by authority (usually the teacher), and that ambiguity is a needless nuisance that obstructs getting at right answers.|
|Stage 3 thinkers realize that authority is fallible and does not have good answers for all questions. Thinkers at this stage respond by concluding that all opinions are equally valid and that arguments are just about proponents’ thinking differently. Evidence to the contrary does not change this response.|
|Stage 4 thinkers recognize that not all challenges have right or wrong answers, but they do not yet recognize frameworks through which to resolve how evidence best supports one among several competing arguments.|
|Stage 5 thinkers can use evidence. They also accept that evaluations that lead to best solutions can be relative to the context of the situation within which a problem occurs.|
|Stage 6 thinkers appreciate ambiguity as a legitimate quality of many issues. They can use evidence to explore alternatives. They recognize that the most reasonable answers often depend upon both context and value systems.|
|Stages 7, 8 and 9 thinkers incorporate metacognitive reflection in their reasoning, and they increasingly perceive how their personal values act alongside context and evidence to influence chosen decisions and actions.|
In part 2 of this blog, we will provide metacognitive class exercises that help students to understand what occurs during intellectual development and why they must strive for more than learning content when gaining an education.