Metacognition: Thinking about Thinking and Learning

Dexter Perkins, Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, University of North Dakota

Starting in 1948, Benjamin Bloom and coworkers developed a classification scheme for educational goals and objectives. They identified three "domains" (kinds of learning): the cognitive, the affective, and the psychomotor domains. The cognitive domain involves knowledge, and all kinds of thinking, from rote memorization to complex analysis and synthesis. The affective domain involves attitudes, feelings and emotions that may hinder or promote learning. The psychomotor domain involves physical/motor skills – and will not be discussed further here.

For many years, as I sought to improve teaching and learning in my classroom, I focused on the cognitive domain. My belief was that if I could just find the correct way to "teach," students would effectively "learn." My unrecognized assumption was that learning simply involved thinking – that it was all a cognitive exercise – and so all I had to do was to get students to think. During the past four or five years, however, I have come to realize that the #1 barrier to learning is not cognitive, it is affective. Beyond that, however, I have realized that for students to become better learners, they must be self-reflective learners, they must be intentional learners, and they must care about improving their learning. So, we need to encourage them to think about their thinking and learning, to practice different learning skills, to be critical of themselves, and to try new learning strategies when old ones do not work. If we want them to improve their learning skills, we need to have them focus on thinking about learning and learning to think. This is metacognition.

A good summary of what constitutes metacognition comes from Wirth and Perkins (Learning to Learn, 2007 and later):

Intentional thought about one's own thinking (metacognition) is generally regarded as an essential component of successful thinkers and learners. Studies show "experts" constantly monitor their understanding and progress during problem solving. Critically, their metacognitive skills allow them to decide when their current level of understanding is not adequate. This type of planning, self-monitoring, self-regulation, and self assessment not only includes general knowledge about cognitive processes and strategies, but also appropriate conditions for use of those strategies, and general self-knowledge. Research suggests that metacognitive skills cannot be taught out of context. In other words, one can't just take a course on metacognition. You need to learn it and apply it within the context of disciplinary content. As you are learn, you should engage in constant questioning (e.g., What am I trying to accomplish? What is the best strategy for learning? How is my progress? Did I succeed?). This sort of self-monitoring and reflection not only leads to deeper and more effective learning, but also lays the groundwork for being a self-directing learner.

So, how do we promote metacogntion in the classroom? Ay, there's the rub. The goal is to make metacognition a standard part of what goes on in a class. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that have already been proven effective, although not all were developed specifically with metacognition in mind. Some of the strategies that I have employed include:

  • Having students read a learning document, such as Leaning to Learn (Wirth and Perkins) that discusses how learning skills are developed and . . .
  • Making them responsible for learning what is in the document.
  • Using knowledge surveys to encourage students to think about what they know, don't know, and what they can do about it.
  • Having students keep learning portfolios and . . .
  • Having them review their learning portfolios and writing critical essays about themselves and their learning.
  • Having students follow exams or other assessments with self-reflective essays about what worked for them and what did not work.
  • Using Small Group Instructional Diagnosis in the class room so students can provide meaningful feedback on what is helping them learn and what is not.

Other approaches that I have not used might include (ideas from Ed Nuhfer):

  • Having students develop learning philosophies.
  • Employing student management teams to probe the process of thinking and learning ongoing in the class.
  • Involving students in the design of rubrics used for their assignments.
  • And I am sure there are many others . . . and I would like to learn about them at the workshop.

When I first started some of the things above, I was worried that students would object. I expected some to ask why we didn't just focus on mineralogy or petrology or . . . instead of wasting our time talking about learning philosophy and thinking. That has not happened. In the four years that I have been focusing on helping students develop metacognitive skills, not a single one has complained. More important, many have told me that it is very valuable and they wish they had been forced to think about learning a long time ago.