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Learning About Thinking and Thinking About Learning:
Metacognitive Knowledge and Skills for Intentional Learners

by Karl Wirth, Department of Geology & Center for Scholarship and Teaching, Macalester College


In an increasingly complex and interconnected world it is ever more important that students develop intellectual and practical skills for lifelong learning. Panel reports by the AAC&U (2002, 2007) call for "higher education to help college students become intentional learners who can adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge from different sources, and continue learning throughout their lives." Becoming an intentional learner includes "developing self-awareness about the reason for study, the learning process itself, and how education is used." Intentional, or "expert," learners are more purposeful, they are more aware of themselves as learners, and they "take the initiative to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select an implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes" (Savin-Baden and Major 2004). Research on cognition and learning (e.g., see review in Bransford et al., 2000) indicates that expert learners are characterized by having better-developed metacognitive knowledge (about the learner, learning tasks, learning strategies, and content), metacognitive control (planning, monitoring, and self-evaluation), and reflection (a critical link between knowledge and control of the learning process) (Ertmer and Newby, 1996). If an important goal of higher education is to help students become intentional learners, then our curricula should reflect those aims. Most post-secondary instruction, however, remains focused on disciplinary content. Instruction about metacognitive knowledge and skills need not "displace" disciplinary content, but can instead be used to support ("wrap") learning of that content (Lovett, 2008).

The transition from being a dependent to independent learner involves major changes involving not only how students think, but also who they are. Fink's (2003) taxonomy of significant learning promotes lasting change in the learner through integration of foundational knowledge with learning how to learn and the affective domain (feelings, values, motivations, and attitudes of the learner). To help students develop into self-directing learners I include explicit instruction about learning in all of my courses. This "co-curriculum" on learning is interwoven with geoscience content in each course. The goals of the learning co-curriculum are: (1) to encourage students to be more intentional about their learning; (2) to help students develop their metacognitive knowledge and skills; and (3) to help students construct greater personal meaning with their new knowledge and understanding. This co-curriculum helps provide structure, or scaffolding, in a learning environment that may not always be familiar to all students. Together with Dexter Perkins, I developed a summary article entitled "Learning to Learn" (Wirth and Perkins, 2008) on the essential elements of learning. This document, which is the first reading assignment in all of my courses, explores various meanings of learning, understanding, and thinking. It also highlights research on the brain, learning styles, intellectual development, metacognition, collaborative learning, and the behavioral dimensions of grades. The learning document not only serves to help students develop their metacognitive knowledge and skills, it also helps establish that my expectations for student learning in the course go far beyond memorizing content.

Wirth graph, metacognition essay Figure 1.

After introducing students to some of the elements of learning, I use a variety of activities to help them develop their metacognitive knowledge and skills. At the beginning of the semester students write a letter to the instructor, in the past tense and dated to the end of the semester, that describes what they did and how they changed to earn an "A" in the course. The purpose of this journal activity is to help students set goals and plan their learning. In other journal assignments, students reflect on the learning strategies they are employing, the success of these strategies, and modifications that they might undertake for improving their learning. Knowledge surveys, which have been described elsewhere (e.g., Nuhfer, 1996; Nuhfer and Knipp, 2003; on the SERC website), guide student learning, facilitate student mastery of course content and skills, and help students develop their monitoring and self-assessment skills. Reading reflections, which can be readily implemented in any class or discipline, are completed by students after each reading assignment and before coming to class (see example). These short reflections encourage students to deepen their understanding of the readings by summarizing the important concepts and by describing what was surprising or confusing to them. This activity not only promotes student reading before class and deepens their content knowledge, it also provides opportunities for students to develop their skills for monitoring and evaluating their learning. Although reading reflections constitute only a small fraction (5-10%) of total points in each course, student performance on these activities is a good predictor of their final course grade (Figure 1) suggesting that monitoring and evaluation skills are closely associated with deeper learning. An important goal is that these reflective activities will also help students develop as intentional learners.

References Cited

AAC&U, 2002, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College: American Association of Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC, 62 p.

AAC&U, 2007, College Learning for the New Global Century: American Association of Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC, 76 p.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, A.R. (editors), 2000, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington D.C., 346 p.

Ertmer, P.A. and Newby, T.J., 1996, The Expert Learner: Strategic, Self-Regulated, and Reflective: Instructional Science, v. 24, p. 1-24.

Fink, L.D., 2003, Creating Significant learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 295 p.

Lovett, M.C., 2008, Teaching Metacognition: Presentation to the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting, 29 January 2008, retrieved from: http://net.educause.edu/upload/presentations/ELI081/FS03/Metacognition-ELI.pdf .

Nuhfer, E.B., 1996, The place of formative evaluations in assessment and ways to reap their benefits: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 44, p. 385-394.

Nuhfer, E.B., and Knipp, D., 2003, The knowledge survey: A tool for all reasons: To Improve the Academy, v. 21, p. 59-78.

Savin-Baden M., and Major C.H., 2004, Foundations of Problem-Based Learning: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Berkshire, England, 197 p.

Wirth, K.R., and Perkins, D., 2008, Learning to Learn: online document available from: http://www.macalester.edu/geology/wirth/learning.doc, 29 p.

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