Defined as ‘thinking about your thinking’ or ‘learning to learn’, the idea of metacognition has been around since the time of Socrates. Socrates taught that to examine your own life and to be aware of your own awareness (or lack of awareness) is key to successful learning and to living a good life.
We now know from the research of Samford psychology professor, Dr. Stephen Chew, that the least successful students are those who approach study with overconfidence. After superficial study, they believe they already know the material, so they stop learning. The best students, on the other hand, approach work with their doubts. Successful students, like Socrates, admit when they know nothing.
The American Developmental psychologist J.H. Flavell first coined the term ‘metacognition’ in 1976. For Flavell, metacognition involves not just thinking about your thinking, but the ability to apply that self-awareness to how you study. Thanks to Flavell, educators now associate metacognition with study skills, memory capabilities and the ability to monitor your own learning.
That said, despite centuries of philosophising on how the mind thinks and why we know what we know, misconceptions abound when it comes to metacognition.
Here are just a few of those common misunderstandings:
1. There’s a set recipe for learning
No two minds are created equal and there’s no single style for metacognition. When teaching study skills, instructors sometimes forget that the most important skill lies in the ability of each learner to develop their own capacity for self-awareness, and the ways a person develops self-awareness will shift over a lifetime. Similarly, the ways students learn across subjects might change and a student doesn’t usually learn French vocabulary in the exact same way they learn to argue in an essay on the French Revolution. While educational theory and practice that emphasises “learning styles,” (which we now know probably don’t exist), have helped break down the belief there’s one way to learn, many classrooms still teach homogeneous study skills.
2. Metacognition is an inborn talent
Despite rigorous research into neuroplasticity, many people still believe that intelligent people are born intelligent and good study habits lie mysteriously encoded in the genes. The good news is metacognition can be taught just like any other skill. Supportive learning environments that foster self-awareness, self-assessment, reciprocal teaching, transparency of methods, modelled thought processes, and learner autonomy have been proven to successfully increase metacognition in all students—despite what’s written in their DNA.
3. Self-regulation should only be taught in school
Learning self-regulation techniques - like learning when we need support from others and when we can implement self-led strategies and monitor our own learning - apply for any environment and any age. Life is about learning. Students in higher education, no matter their age and no matter the subject, will always benefit from learning self-regulation techniques.
4. Metacognition is not as important as subject knowledge
The Education Endowment Foundation finds that metacognition approaches “have consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of eight months of additional progress.” Moreover, in “Metacognition and Student Learning” (2012) in The Chronicle of Higher Education, James. M. Lang states that: “A 40-minute lecture, followed by a 10-minute formative assessment activity, may help our students learn much more effectively than a 40-min lecture followed by weak discussion starters like ‘Any questions?’”
5. Learning Depends on Intention
According to Dr. Stephen Chew in his video series on study skills at Samford University’s Academic Success Center, having an intent to learn has little, if any, effect on whether a student develops proficiency. In other words, you can’t just plan to think about your thinking and hope you develop higher-order thinking skills. While metacognitive strategies for individuals may differ, what appears to work for everyone is what Chew calls “deep level processing.”
The most effective learning strategy is to form “meaningful connections” to any material. Surface-level memorisation or learning with an intent to pass an exam is not as successful as relating to learning material in a personal way. The most effective strategy is for a student to make the process of thinking about thinking relevant to their life. Fortunately, with modern learning technologies, such as Kortext’s electronic bookmarks, highlighting and note creation tools, it’s now easier than ever for students to record what is meaningful to them and learn to develop these deep-level processing skills.
6. Teachers drive students’ metacognition.
While the right classroom environment will foster good study skills, and a skilled teacher can encourage self-regulation and self-awareness, fundamentally, metacognition implies a self-led process with the learner in the driver’s seat. Learners who develop advanced skills of metacognition think independently and rely less on their instructors to initiate tasks. Teachers might instruct learners about cognitive assets, or begin with scaffolding and prompts, but each learner must eventually discover how they best learn.
In other words, study skills can certainly be taught, and the right learning environments can act as fertile soil and sunshine; but ultimately it is up to each mind to be awake, aware and participate in its own growth.