What do we mean when we say “Improve with metacognition”? (Part One)

by Lauren Scharff (U.S. Air Force Academy*) and John Draeger (SUNY Buffalo State)

This website is being built to help instructors, students, and researchers improve with metacognition.  We and many others are convinced that the use of metacognition has many benefits. Yet, in conversations between ourselves and others, we realize that, while the term ‘metacognition’ is used widely and its usage is growing, it is potentially used differently by students, instructors, and researchers within and across institutions.  To get a sense of how the term is being used, we gave an informal survey to a convenience sample of faculty and students at our institutions. A self-selecting group of volunteers (30 faculty and 11 students) provided quick thoughts on what they believe is meant by the term ‘metacognition’ and why they believe metacognition is important. This post will focus on some perceptions of metacognition and next week’s post will focus on some of its perceived benefits.

When asked “what is metacognition?,” the majority of student and faculty respondents answered “thinking about thinking.”  While this response captures the essence of the topic, it is also fairly cliché and too vague to be useful by itself. It signals, for example, an intentional and conscious effort (thinking) about a process (thinking). It is unsatisfying in itself because it does not say enough about what is meant by thinking.  Thus, it would be difficult for someone to use if wanting to implement metacognitive practices.

For the majority of the faculty, the response of ‘thinking about thinking’ was the opening shorthand for further elaboration. Refinements to “thinking about thinking” often fell into three broad categories. In particular, metacognition might involve:

(1)   an awareness of how problems are set up, how ideas are worked through and  which learning strategies seem most effective.

“…an awareness of one’s own thinking and decision-making processes.”

“…being aware of how you most effectively learn something or think through complex issues.”

“…recognizing how he/she learns.”

(2)   some level of intentionality or purposeful choosing of a learning strategy. Even if it turns out not to work well, students are exhibiting metacognition when they make a conscious decision about how to approach a learning task (e.g., how to study, solve a problem, make a decision).

“…ability to regulate (or choose) the best cognitive process for solving a problem or engaging a task.”

“…taking time to figure out how we best learn, remember, and use information.”

(3)   Understanding or developing an understanding of processes related to thinking and learning

“Metacognition is the process of understanding our own thinking, including capabilities, limitations, biases.”

“…an understanding of how we learn and incorporate new knowledge.”

“…getting a student to think about why they hold a certain point of view, how did they come to hold that point of view.”

For students, ‘thinking about thinking’ was all that most could say about metacognition, with more than half of the students responding that they had no idea at all. Only one student gave a more elaborate answer:

“It is being aware of the thought process that goes on inside one’s own mind, and being able to understand how one thinks and makes decisions”

As instructors who might try to or who are currently incorporating metacognitive practices into our courses, we should remember that the vast majority of our students are likely to have either no concept of metacognition or only a superficial understanding of it. Thus, we must be as explicit as we can about what we mean by the term and what precisely we are aiming for when we teach metacognition. By going beyond the simple definition of “thinking about thinking,” we will be able to better develop specific behaviors related to effective learning.

However, rather than choosing to focus on just one of the three categories of refinements as if they were interchangeable, we believe that each of the refinement categories offers distinct contributions to our ability to understand and develop metacognition. Awareness is not the same as understanding; without understanding, one may choose less appropriate learning strategies. On the other hand, one can technically understand aspects of learning without being aware of one’s own learning processes, which is also likely to lead to less effective choice of strategies. Finally, a student’s intentional choice does not guarantee learning effectiveness, but using learning techniques out of convenience or ignorance of alternate strategies is even less likely to consistently lead to success.

In sum, while ‘metacognition’ encompasses a relatively complex set of processes, the quick shorthand offered by many of our participants, “thinking about thinking,” gets us going in a useful direction. If we also consider the various refinements offered, then ‘thinking about thinking’ might be approximated as “intentional awareness to achieve understanding about a process, such as learning, in order to enhance the development of that process.”

Next week we will explore reasons why it might be important for faculty and students to learn about and begin to incorporate and practice metacognition within academic settings.


* Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U. S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U. S. Govt.

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