Metacognitive Variables, Problems, and Solutions

Ron Narode, Math and Science Teacher Education, Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction, Portland State University

I think of metacognition as "second order" thinking about one's thinking. It is the reflective cognition about one's own "first order" cognition. Some writers have referred to this type of cognition as "higher order" thinking, as it seems to appear consistently in the documented thought processes of experts. But the metacognitive reflections during activities such as problem solving are not always helpful; they may distract and diminish the thinking that could be directed toward productive problem solving. The challenge of science educators is to teach students to use metacognitive thinking productively.

Metacognitive Variables: Strategy Variables, Task Variables, and Person Variables

Metacognition has at least three large classes of variables that help us to distinguish how it works and how to adapt instruction to assist our students. They are: strategy variables, task variables, and person variables (Narode, 1987).

Most of the literature on metacognition is comprised of studies of reflections about the strategies experts and novices use to solve problems. The real-time conscious reflection about the various strategies that are considered moment-to-moment during problem solving is critical for the iterative process of solution-path evaluation and self-regulation. Some of these factors include: time management; selection of heuristics, templates, and algorithms; reasoning choices such as deductive, inferential, and analogous reasoning; selection of the different means and media of problem interpretation, representation and communication; selection of resources; solution confidence and checking strategies, etc.

Two other important considerations for metacognition have to do with the beliefs that the learner has about themselves with respect to the task at hand and their abilities to manage the task. These beliefs are the background and baggage that the learner brings to the learning activity. The "task variables" are the metacognitive reflections that the learner acknowledges about the problem posed or the learning situation generally. These are thoughts about previous experiences with similar tasks, analagous or not, and both positive and negative. It may be manifest with statements such as: "I remember this. This is a rates problem." In earth science class a student might remark: "I know that the barometer tells if the weather is going to worsen or clear, but I can't remember how."

From the previous example, we note that reflections and beliefs about the learning task are closely related to beliefs the learner has about themselves with respect to those tasks. Students may feel confident about themselves in various learning contexts or they may feel apprehensive, alternately enhancing or retarding their learning of science.

Problems with Metacognitive Skills Training

Having identified how confident experts think and feel about their thinking, educators and curriculum developers may be tempted toward a path of direct instruction on these very issues. Instruction may offer explicit descriptions of various strategies for representing and solving classes of problems including the use of inventories to help students evaluate the "type of learner" they are such as "auditory, visual, and kinesthetic", or if they are "linear or non-linear" thinkers, "right-brained or left-brained" etc. Students are also given opportunities to reflect on their confidence and feelings as learners of science usually in the form of surveys and journal writing. The instructors may even model their own approach to tasks and the strategies used with them as well.

While some of these activities may help some students, there is a very real problem that students will identify the content of the instruction as the goal of their learning. They may learn about the process of metacognition, while missing the opportunity to engage in the process of metacognition --- and to engage in the process in progressively more effective and constructive ways.

Finally, there is the problem of time away from the learning of content. There are important ideas for students to learn in the sciences beyond the psychology and technique of metacognitive skills training. Making the time for teaching both requires creative instruction.

TAPPS, "Think-Aloud Pair Problem Solving": A Solution for the Problem of Teaching Metacognitive Skills And Content Knowledge

One effective model for teaching metacognition and content is the think aloud pair problem solving [TAPPS] method of Whimbey and Lochead (1985, 2000) which is itself modeled after the clinical interviews used by Piaget (1971). The approach requires that one student solve a problem by reading it aloud to the other student (the listener) and verbalizing all thoughts on the problem as they occur. The problem solver does all the writing and all of the talking about the problem. Meanwhile, the listener must suspend solving the problem so that complete concentration and attention is devoted towards understanding the problem solver's solution. By encouraging students to verbalize their thoughts, they are forced to examine their ideas as they communicate. They must evaluate those ideas in the light of another person's interpretation of what they are saying. Requests for clarification and repetition often help students to catch and correct their errors as well as helping to reinforce ideas that they may have held only tentatively. It also forces students to work more slowly (carefully) than they would without a listener, and it requires a much more linear thought process since oral communication is necessarily linear. By exchanging roles of problem solver and listener, students have the opportunity to learn the related skills of problem solving aloud and listening for meaning. Critical to the process is the insistence of teachers that the listeners describe the solutions instead of the problem solver.

The aforementioned metacognitive variables are addressed with this technique in the following ways: the discussion of solution paths with the larger class exposes various strategies and their justifications; the tasks may be viewed differently by different pairs, but success with the tasks may be generalized beyond finding the answers themselves to understanding the various solutions and deciding which of these they like best and why. Finally, the confidence one feels for being a learner comes from the recognition of what one has learned. This recognition is manifest through communication to another person, whether through explanation, argument, or teaching. Nothing is more affirming to a person than being listened to and knowing they are heard.


Lochhead, J. (1985). Teaching analytical reasoning skills through pair-problem solving. In Segal, J., & Chipman, S. (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills: relating instruction to basic research, 109-131. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lochhead, J. (2000). Thinkback: A User's Guide to Minding the Mind. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Narode, R. (1987), "Metacognition in Math and Science Education", Human Intelligence Newsletter, 8(2), Summer. ERIC RIE #SE-291-558

Piaget, J. (1971). Biology and Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.