What Do We Mean by “Metacognitive Instruction”?

by Lauren Scharff (U.S. Air Force Academy*) 

Many of you are probably aware of the collaborative, multi-institutional metacognitive instruction research project that we initiated through the Improve with Metacognition site.  This project has been invigorating for me on many levels. First, through the process of developing the proposal, I was mentally energized. Several of us had long, thoughtful conversations about what we meant when we used the term “metacognitive instruction” and how these ideas about instruction “mapped” to the concept of “metacognitive learning.”  These discussions were extensions of some early blog post explorations, What do we mean when we say “Improve with metacognition”? (Part 1 and Part 2). Second, my involvement in the project led me to (once again) examine my own instruction. Part of this self-examination happened as a natural consequence of the discussions, but also it’s happening in an ongoing manner as I participate in the study as an intervention participant. Good stuff!

For this post, I’d like to share a bit more about our wrangling with what we meant by metacognitive instruction as we developed the project, and I invite you to respond and share your thoughts too.

Through our discussions, we ultimately settled on the following description of metacognitive instruction:

Metacognitive instructors are aware of what they are doing and why. Before each lesson, they have explicitly considered student learning goals and multiple strategies for achieving those goals.  During the lesson, they actively monitor the effectiveness of those strategies and student progress towards learning goals.  Through this pre-lesson strategizing and during lesson monitoring awareness, a key component of metacognition, is developed; however, awareness is not sufficient for metacognition.  Metacognitive instructors also engage in self-regulation. They have the ability to make “in-the-moment”, intentional changes to their instruction during the lesson based on a situational awareness of student engagement and achievement of the learning objectives — this creates a responsive and customized learning experience for the student.

One of the questions we pondered (and we’d love to hear your thoughts on this point), is how these different constructs were related and / or were distinct. We came to the conclusion that there is a difference between reflective teaching, self-regulated teaching, and metacognitive instruction/teaching.

More specifically, a person can reflect and become aware of their actions and their consequences, but at the same time not self-regulate to modify behaviors and change consequences, especially in the moment. A person can also self-regulate / try a new approach / be intentional in one’s choice of actions, but not be tuned in / aware of how it’s going at the moment with respect to the success of the effort. (For example, an instructor might commit to a new pedagogical approach because she learned about it from a colleague. She can implement that new approach despite some personal discomfort due to changing pedagogical strategies, but without conscious and intentional awareness of how well it fits her lesson objectives or how well it’s working in the moment to facilitate her students’ learning.) Metacognition combines the awareness and self-regulation pieces and increases the likelihood of successfully accomplishing the process (teaching, learning, or other process).

Thus, compared to other writings we’ve seen, we are more explicitly proposing that metacognition is the intentional and ongoing interaction between awareness and self-regulation. Others have generally made this claim about metacognitive learning without using the terms as explicitly. For example, “Simply possessing knowledge about one’s cognitive strengths or weaknesses and the nature of the task without actively utilizing this information to oversee learning is not metacognitive.” (Livingston, 1997). But, in other articles on metacognition and on self-regulated learning, it seems like perhaps the metacognitive part is the “thinking or awareness” part and the self-regulation is separate.

What do you think?

Livingston, J. A. (1997). Metacognition: An Overview. Unpublished manuscript, State University of New York at Buffalo. http://gse.buffalo.edu/fas/shuell/cep564/metacog.htm

* 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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