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Ms. Leber

February 12, 2024


Metacognition: The Secret Skill to Effective Learning

In a time when standardized tests direct curriculums, everything is rushed and teachers do the heavy lifting for students. Information is spoon fed at mach speed to be memorized and regurgitated on one exam or another, either in the classroom or school-wide. But this isn’t learning, which explains why reading, writing, and math scores are at historic lows. When teachers are forced to do the thinking for students and provide no time or space for students to meaningfully reflect on the material, students only learn that information is meant to be processed and assessed, then forgotten. Under this system, schools deprive students of the most essential skill for deep learning: metacognition.

What is metacognition?

In simplest terms, metacognition (or metacognitive skills) is “thinking about thinking.” Metacognition is a complex umbrella of skills that can be applied to learning any concept. Students may do it instinctively when they recall prior information before learning more information on a subject, utilize a specific formula to solve a math problem, or decide to leave a noisy space to avoid distraction.

When approaching a new task, students use this skill in three different ways:

  1. Personal variables: Evaluating strengths and weaknesses regarding the specific task. Ex: Knowing that they have strong writing skills, but struggle with effective persuasive writing.
  2. Task variables: Determining the nature of the task and processing the demands necessary to complete the task.
    Ex: Understanding that reading a technical article will be more difficult than a short story, and may require more annotating and re-reading to fully comprehend.
  3. Strategy variables: Knowing which methods will best meet the demands of the task and utilizing them effectively.

Ex: Using prewriting methods such as a “braindump” to generate a list of ideas, then using a graphic organizer to outline those ideas for an informative essay.

Why is Metacognition necessary for learning?

The most important aspect of metacognition is that it focuses on learning, not getting the highest score possible, or even the correct answer. In fact, students learn more by making errors and mistakes than seeking perfection, giving them an opportunity to reflect on what went wrong. What does this look like in action? 

The teacher hands out a test, and a student looks over the assessment in panic. Despite studying, they don’t feel prepared. When reading the questions, they feel confused and overwhelmed, fighting the urge to give up because it’s too hard. Instead, the student takes a deep breath and decides to use a “divide and conquer” strategy to approach the test. By looking at the entire test before beginning, they identify areas they have more confidence in than others, and start there. By chunking the test into sections, focusing on the questions they know rather than ones where they might guess, they strengthen their belief that the test is manageable. Once the easiest parts are complete, they move onto the harder sections, but recall that some of the questions they completed have information that will help them answer other questions they struggled with. By “using the test to take the test,” they are able to successfully answer questions they second-guessed previously. After they are done, they review the test answers for accuracy, and happen to catch a question they missed and correct a wrong answer. By self-reflecting on their ability and determining effective methods for approaching a difficult task, they successfully complete a test they first thought impossible, and secure a higher score.

How does one learn metacognition?

For most successful, college-educated adults, the above example seems like a familiar scenario with an obvious solution. But the truth is that while some students develop metacognitive skills independently, the majority of students need them to be taught explicitly. For students with weak metacognition, here are four ways to strengthen the “learning muscle”:

  1. Cultivate a growth mindset. The first step in learning anything is believing it can be learned, regardless of difficulty. By approaching setbacks as “learning opportunities” rather than “failure,” students adopt resilience for when learning gets hard. These students ask for help and use feedback to improve.
  2. Self-reflecting is critical. Having confidence goes a long way when learning, as does identifying areas of improvement. Empowered students lean on their strengths, and focus on weak points for improvement. They also recognize impediments to their learning such as distractions, lack of motivation, poor time management, processing difficulty
  3. Setting short and long term goals. Objectives keep students on target and guide them toward specific outcomes. Setting short term goals (improving grammar) and long term goals (earning a specific SAT score) motivates students with a rewards system for achieving those goals.
  4. Improve basic academic skills. Students with strong foundational skills are effective planners, organizers, note-takers/annotators, active readers, summarizers, paraphrasers, inferencers, predictors, and evaluators. They ask thought provoking questions and analyze information at deeper levels. Each of these skills can be learned and improved with time and practice.

Metacognition is a complex skill that serves as the key to deep, long-term learning. Without this skill, students never move past the surface of most concepts and lack critical skills for success in studying, reading, writing, and demonstrating their knowledge. In the post, we will examine ways to utilize these metacognitive skills specifically in ELA.

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