Developing Metacognition

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

Metacognition is thinking about thinking, knowing "what we know" and "what we don't know." Just as an executive's job is management of an organization, a thinker's job is management of thinking. The basic metacognitive strategies are:

  1. Connecting new information to former knowledge.
  2. Selecting thinking strategies deliberately.
  3. Planning, monitoring, and evaluating thinking processes. (Dirkes, 1985)

A thinking person is in charge of her behavior. She determines when it is necessary to use metacognitive strategies. She selects strategies to define a problem situation and researches alternative solutions. She tailors this search for information to constraints of time and energy. She monitors, controls and judges her thinking. She evaluates and decides when a problem is solved to a satisfactory degree or when the demands of daily living take a temporary or permanent higher priority.

Studies show that increases in learning have followed direct instruction in metacognitive strategies. These results suggest that direct teaching of these thinking strategies may be useful, and that independent use develops gradually (Scruggs, 1985).

Learning how to learn, developing a repertoire of thinking processes which can be applied to solve problems, is a major goal of education. The school library media center, as the hub of the school, is an ideal place to integrate these types of skills into subject areas or students' own areas of interest. When life presents situations that cannot be solved by learned responses, metacognitive behavior is brought into play. Metacognitive skills are needed when habitual responses are not successful. Guidance in recognizing, and practice in applying, metacognitive strategies, will help students successfully solve problems throughout their lives.

Strategies for Developing Metacognitive Behaviors

  1. Identifying "what you know" and "what you don't know."  At the beginning of a research activity students need to make conscious decisions about their knowledge. Initially students write "What I already know about..." and "What I want to learn about...." As students research the topic, they will verify, clarify and expand, or replace with more accurate information, each of their initial statements.
  2. Talking about thinking.  Talking about thinking is important because students need a thinking vocabulary. During planning and problem-solving situations, teachers should think aloud so that students can follow demonstrated thinking processes. Modeling and discussion develop the vocabulary students need for thinking and talking about their own thinking. Labelling thinking processes when students use them is also important for student recognition of thinking skills. Paired problem-solving is another useful strategy. One student talks through a problem, describing his thinking processes. His partner listens and asks questions to help clarify thinking. Similarly, in reciprocal teaching (Palinscar, Ogle, Jones, Carr, & Ransom, 1986), small groups of students take turns playing teacher, asking questions, and clarifying and summarizing the material being studied.
  3. Keeping a thinking journal.  Another means of developing metacognition is through the use of a journal or learning log. This is a diary in which students reflect upon their thinking, make note of their awareness of ambiguities and inconsistencies, and comment on how they have dealt with difficulties. This journal is a diary of process.
  4. Planning and self-regulation.  Students must assume increasing responsibility for planning and regulating their learning. It is difficult for learners to become self-directed when learning is planned and monitored by someone else. Students can be taught to make plans for learning activities including estimating time requirements, organizing materials, and scheduling procedures necessary to complete an activity. The resource center's flexibility and access to a variety of materials allows the student to do just this. Criteria for evaluation must be developed with students so they learn to think and ask questions of themselves as they proceed through a learning activity.
  5. Debriefing the thinking process.  Closure activities focus student discussion on thinking processes to develop awareness of strategies that can be applied to other learning situations. A three step method is useful. First, the teacher guides students to review the activity, gathering data on thinking processes and feelings. Then, the group classifies related ideas, identifying thinking strategies used. Finally, they evaluate their success, discarding inappropriate strategies, identifying those valuable for future use, and seeking promising alternative approaches.
  6. Self-Evaluation.  Guided self-evaluation experiences can be introduced through individual conferences and checklists focusing on thinking processes. Gradually self-evaluation will be applied more independently. As students recognize that learning activities in different disciplines are similar, they will begin to transfer learning strategies to new situations.
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