Thinking about Metacognition

John Ottenhoff, Vice President, Associated Colleges of the Midwest

I've been thinking a lot about metacognition lately, since I'm hosting a Teagle-funded Collegium on Student Learning that will focus on metacognition; our hope is that participants will get a good overview of recent research on student learning, particularly on metacognition, and then ask questions about their own teaching practice and ultimately make changes. We want our ACM faculty to enact the metacognitive practices we'll be studying in the Collegium—that is, to think reflectively about their teaching, to evaluate current practices against new and evolving evidence, and to make adjustments.

When I describe the plans for the Teagle Collegium to people, they invariable ask, "what's metacognition." My simple answer lately has been that it's "thinking about our thinking." And that, of course, involves many layers of complexity: in order to think about my thinking, I need a certain level of awareness, an understanding that I could be thinking in other ways or that my thinking has been influenced by various factors. I also need some sense of myself as a rational person capable of composing arguments that may be valid or faulty or partially correct and subject to revision. To think about my thinking, I have to become aware of what I believed yesterday and what has changed today, and what might happen tomorrow; that is, I can't cling to some notion of a context-less world of brute facts that appear obviously and unalterably to me and everyone else. And, if I'm going to talk about banjo playing or soccer or the wines of Languedoc, I'll need some sense of how I fit into the conversation: I should recognize the limitations of my knowledge about banjos, my passionate non-playing, somewhat intricate knowledge of soccer, and my participatory, reasonably advanced but by no means expert appreciate of wines from Languedoc. That is, I need some sense of what it is to think as an expert.

As I think about metacognition these days as an administrator, I realize how important the concept was to me in the classroom—even though I would not have invoked the term to describe my practice. Let me explain. For more than 20 years, I taught literature, mostly English literature, specializing in Shakespeare. In most of those classes, my chief goal was to help students find a way to make sense of literature, to not simply take my word for what the texts meant but to actively shape interpretations and to participate in the give-and-take of interpretation. I especially became interested in the question of authority. That is, how do interpretations become authoritative? How do students offer interpretations of a text that are both informed by authoritative traditions of criticism and backed by evidence from the text, shaped by their own experience but also convincing to others? It's a complicated question, one that depends a lot on theories of knowledge that invoke epistemologies of constructivism, notions of interpretive communities, and, perhaps most of all, complex understanding of our ability to think about our thinking.

As a classroom teacher, I was especially interested in how technology, particularly online discussion boards, could help in the process of teaching metacognition—and, overall, to help students develop interpretive authority. In work I did in the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, I analyzed the work that my students did in response to an assignment I made in my Shakespeare seminars that had students posting responses to plays before we discussed them in class and then after classroom discussions. I was especially interested in their ability to reflect in meaningful ways about where the discussions had gone, how their opinions had changed, and what had shaped their interpretations. (Asynchronous discussion was especially helpful for this because it stretched out the conversation and left a written record.)

That is, I was especially interested in students' metacognitive abilities and believed that learning to be a scholar of Shakespeare (that was, after all, part of the task) involved the ability to shape interpretations and to respond to other readings. I became more attentive to the ways in which our discussions included elements of reflection and self-knowledge—being able to step back from the give-and-take of the classroom to understand one's role in the shaping of knowledge. Even as I was leaving the classroom, I was shaping a theory that the most successful students in my Shakespeare classes were not simply those who wrote the best papers (often a measure of learning in literature classes) or who talked the most or could get good grades on factual exams about the plays—but those who learned best how to interact with the various interpretations shaped in the class and to understand the moves they had made as interpreters. That is, on some level, I was interested in metacognition.

There's a lot more to say about this, and I'm still struggling to complete various projects that discuss my use of the online discussions, my sense of authority in classroom discussions, and broader issues of social pedagogy. I look forward to learning more about metacognition from the disciplinary perspective of the geosciences—and in interacting with colleagues who will no doubt embody in eloquent and enlightening ways that central principle of thinking about our thinking.