Metacognition: ignite learning within educational contexts

June 28, 2016 | By Sudeshini Fernando

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Why are flowers brightly coloured? Why do polar bears have such an acute sense of smell? Why do trapdoor spiders exist? The answer is simple. Learning and adaptation are prerequisites for survival. This applies to all organisms in all spheres of life.

Thinking about thinking

For man (the “rational being”), thinking becomes more complicated. The learning that is expected of human beings requires relatively quick behavioural adaptation based on complex reasoning processes. Not only do we need to think logically, but we also need to be able to think about our thinking. This is referred to as metacognition, or awareness of one’s own cognitive processes. Metacognition is the single most powerful tool for effective reasoning, learning and problem-solving.

Through metacognition, a person can: be aware of what they already know, determine whether they understand certain information, strategise about how to approach a problem, monitor and control their own thinking in terms of certain criteria and re-evaluate and modify their conclusions (in other words, learn).

Can metacognitive awareness be taught?

Within the educational context, the training and internalisation of metacognitive awareness, or self-awareness, is crucial.

The development of metacognition occurs naturally when parents or peers repeatedly ask questions such as: “is this clear” or “what is important here” or “how can we map and represent this information”. Over time the learner internalises these critical questions that have been posed and starts asking themselves the questions independently. This has a profound impact on the effectiveness of a person’s information processing competence and learning capability.

Multiple research studies indicate that metacognitive skills can be taught to learners to improve their problem-solving and learning skills. The results are surprising – researchers have found significant improvements in critical and independent thinking in students after only 10 hours of metacognitive training.

What is the role of the teacher?

The internalisation of metacognitive awareness is best facilitated by teachers when they refrain from providing answers to learners, but rather continually pose appropriate metacognitive questions and prompt learners to ask these questions themselves.

What kind of task material works best?

The ideal task material for developing metacognitive skills is practical or difficult, where mistakes can easily be made and where the learner has to investigate where they went wrong. Examples include cooking, woodwork, music, computer programming and mathematics.

Awareness of own thinking processes can also be stimulated through the discussion of one’s own approach and typical errors with others, through journaling to keep track of frequent errors, through the use of reminders (such as cards on one’s desk) and through the deliberate practice of metacognitive questioning when dealing with new information.

What does it look like in practice?

The goal of metacognitive training is to ensure that learners always:

  • plan how they would approach a learning task (“what must I focus on”, “do I have sufficient knowledge”)
  • monitor their progress according to certain metacognitive questions or criteria ( “is this relevant”, “is this clear”, “is this accurate”, “am I being systematic”, “does it make sense”, “is this purposeful”)
  • evaluate their progress in retrospect (“where did I go wrong”, “what did I learn”, “how can I improve my approach”, “did I achieve my goal”).

The aim of teaching metacognitive strategies is therefore to ensure independent and critical thinking.

How can it be assessed?

A person’s degree of metacognitive awareness can be measured. To find out more about the assessment and development of metacognitive awareness, contact Cognadev about the Learning Orientation Index (LOI). The LOI is a simulation exercise designed to measure the cognitive processes of millennials and generation Ys, school, college and university leavers or youth already in the workplace. It is used for purposes of diagnosis of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, for career guidance processes and for the selection of bursary candidates.