New Year Metacognition

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by Lauren Scharff, Ph.D., United States Air Force Academy

Happy New Year to you! This seasonal greeting has many positive connotations, including new beginnings, hope, fresh starts, etc. But, it’s also strongly associated with the making of new-year resolutions, and that’s where the link to metacognition becomes relevant.

As we state on the Improve with Metacognition home page, “Metacognition refers to an intentional focusing of attention on the development of a process, so that one becomes aware of one’s current state of accomplishment, along with the situational influences and strategy choices that are currently, or have previously, influenced accomplishment of that process. Through metacognition, one should become better able to accurately judge one’s progress and select strategies that will lead to success.”

Although this site typically focuses on teaching and learning processes, we can be metacognitive about any process / behavior in which we might engage. A new year’s resolution typically involves starting a new behavior that we might deem to be healthier for us, or stopping an already established behavior that we deem to be unhealthy for us. Either way, some effort is likely to be involved, because if it was going to be easy, we wouldn’t create a resolution to make the change.

Effort alone, however, is unlikely to lead to success. Just like students who “study harder” without being metacognitive about it, people who simply “try hard” to make a change will often be unsuccessful. This is because most behaviors, including learning, are complex. There are a multitude of situational factors and personal predispositions that interact to influence our success in obtaining our behavioral goals. Thus, it’s unlikely that a single strategy will work at all times. In fact, persisting with an ineffective strategy will lead to frustration, cynicism, and the giving up on one’s resolution.

Now, typically, I am not the sort of person who actually makes new-year resolutions. But this new year presents a new situation for me. I will be on sabbatical and working from home. I have prepared a fairly ambitious list of professional development activities that I hope to accomplish. I know I am capable of each of them. But, I also know that I will be working in an environment with a different group of distractions and without many external deadlines. Instead of committee work, grading, short turn-around taskers, and meetings with students and colleagues preventing me from working on my publications and other professional development activities, I will have a dog with big brown eyes who would love to go for a walk, children who need attention when they’re home from school, and projects at home that I usually can put out of mind when I’m at the office.

My resolution to myself for the coming 6 months of my sabbatical is that I will create a positive work environment for myself and accomplish my list of professional development activities while maintaining a balance with my family and personal goals. I know that I will need a variety of strategies, and that I will need to take time to reflect on the state of my progress and show self-regulation in my choice of strategies at different times. I plan to use a journal to help me with my awareness of the alignment between my daily goals and the activities in which I choose to engage in order to accomplish those goals.[1] This awareness will guide my self-regulation when, inevitably, I get off track. I also plan to make some public commitments and provide updates to my friends and colleagues regarding specific goals I plan to accomplish at specific times, as public commitment provides motivation, often results in social support, and is another way to encourage self-awareness and self-regulation, i.e. metacognition.

I’ll let you know how it goes in 6 months. 🙂  Meanwhile, Happy New Year and all the best to you with your new-year resolutions. Try using the tools of metacognition to help you succeed!

[1] See our preliminary research summary about the effectiveness of instructors using journals to enhance their metacognitive instruction.