Metacognition: Self-Awareness of Knowledge Construction Process

Ji-Sook Han, Arizona State University

In the current education field, the process of learning is described as learners' active construction of concepts. That is, learning is viewed as the construction of new knowledge by connecting new information to what learners already have. This is in contrast to memorizing facts and terms presented by teachers or textbooks.

According to cognitive scientists, two types of knowledge are involved when we construct knowledge. One is declarative knowledge that refers to "knowing that". The other is procedural knowledge that refers to "knowing how". Let's think of playing with a picture puzzle. We have lots of small pieces of puzzle at the beginning of a game, but it is not meaningful until we construct the full picture. To understand the full picture, we need to connect each piece, and only after we assemble all of the pieces would the picture reveal a meaning to us. In this metaphor, how to connect each piece of the puzzle means procedural knowledge while the full picture means declarative knowledge. That is, procedural knowledge provides a structure for meaningful declarative knowledge. Similarly, to understand a particular knowledge, we need to connect each concept that we already have. Consequently, without procedural knowledge, we do not obtain conceptual understanding; rather, the most we can expect is rote memorization.

In this view, Hofer (2004) proposed that the nature of epistemology, which is the nature of the theory of knowledge, is an aspect of meta-cognitive awareness that is activated in knowledge construction processes.

Then, as educators, how do we help students develop their metacognition and how do we assess students' metacognition?

Two conditions are necessary to help students develop their metacognition. The first condition is students' actual experience in constructing knowledge through inquiry teaching methods or constructivist pedagogy. Most of literature stated that inquiry teaching is an effective method for students to develop both declarative and procedural knowledge that are activated during that construction process. For example, Smith, Maclin, Houghton, and Hennessey (2000) found that a constructivist pedagogy helped students develop understanding of their own knowledge construction. More specifically, they found that science curriculum in which students work in groups to investigate phenomena, develop their own ideas or theories for explaining the phenomena, engage in experimentation, and discuss with each other was helpful for sixth grade students to develop more sophisticated understanding of epistemology of science.

The second condition is the chance to reflect the process of knowledge construction that students were actually involved in. It is necessary that students actually have experiences in constructing knowledge, but simply involving them in learning to construct knowledge is not enough for students to be aware of the knowledge that was constructed during the learning experience. According to Dienes and Perner (2002), simply thinking of something does not make one conscious of the thought. To be conscious of the thought, they must represent what they have thought. In other words, unless students have a chance to reflect the thought or knowledge that have been developed through experience of knowledge construction, their thought or knowledge might stay in an unconscious level. Therefore, for awareness of the process of knowledge construction, students need to have an opportunity to reflect their thought process of constructing knowledge through various representation tools (e.g., scientific method chart, argumentation tool).

In our introductory biology labs for non-majors, we use the following argumentation tool:

If ... HYPOTHESIS is assumed to be correct

And... we TEST such and such

Then... such and such should be observed (EXPECTED RESULT)

And/But... such and such was observed (ACTUAL RESULT)

Therefore... hypothesis is supported or not supported (CONCLUSION).

This tool uses a format that was fit for argumentation using a scientific method (Lawson, 2003).

Also this representation tool will be able to use as a good assessment tool. That is, through the argumentation tool, not only teachers can see students' thought process step by step but they also check up students' logics and reasoning to construct knowledge.

Why is it important to teach metacognition?

A central goal of science education is to help students become scientifically literate (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1993; National Research Council [NRC], 1996). NRC (1996) defines scientific literacy like this:

Scientific literacy is being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and being able to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it (p. 22).

Align with the main goal of science education, teaching metacognition in science curriculum is able to help not only understanding of important scientific concepts but also improving critical thinking skills.


American Assoication for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy (Project 2061). New York: Oxford University Press.

Dienes, Z. & Perner, J. (2002). A theory of the implicit nature of implicit learning. In French, R. M. & Cleeremans, A. (Eds.). Implicit Learning and Consciousness: An empirical, philosophical, computational consensus in the making (pp. 68-92). Psychology press

Hofer, B. (1994). Epistemological beliefs and first-year college students: Motivation and cognition in different instructional contexts. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. Los Angeles, CA.

Lawson, A.E. (2003) The nature and development of hypothetico-predictive argumentation with implications for science teaching. International Journal of Science Education, 25(11), 1387-1408.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Smith. C., Maclin, D., Houghton, C., & Hennessey, M.G. (2000). Sixth graders' epistemologies of science: The impact of school science experiences on epistemological development. Cognition and Instruction, 18, 349-422.