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Metacognition: The Brain is a Muscle

Posted in Ed Tech on August 6, 2014 by

Alisa Gross is the Director of Professor Partnerships at Acclaim, and Editor-in-Chief of the Acclaim Blog. The Acclaim Blog is dedicated to showcasing the innovations of teachers and entrepreneurs who are taking creative approaches to using education technology within higher education. Alisa has also worked as an a math and writing instructor and tutor to high school students in New York, London, and Philadelphia over the course of ten years. You can find her on Twitter at @getacclaim or @alisag1728.

This is the second piece in a series of articles about metacognition. Coined by the psychologist J.H. Flavell, metacognition refers to a learner’s understanding of his own process of knowledge acquisition. Metacognitive strategies encourage learners to reflect on their learning activities, monitor them, and refine them to enhance memory, retention, and understanding. Metacognition is such a powerful concept in education because it presupposes that goal-oriented thinking, planning, and reflection can have a positive effect on learning outcomes.

Within formal and discussion-based formative assessment, students have the chance to exercise their metacognitive capacities by identifying areas of weakness or misunderstanding. They also have the chance to recall what they’ve learned within a short period of learning it. But even more vital is the chance to notice when and where they might have lost focus, and to classify the strategies that best help them remember something.

Leonardo da Vinci certainly never sat in a 500-person lecture hall, but he did contemplate how to best activate his own memory. Young students, he said, may learn to remember images from nature through sketching in a notebook immediately. However, older students must preserve an image in their mind, and not sketch until they have returned from their walk. He also counselled students to think of the images and ideas that they wanted to represent right before they went to sleep, in the dark, as well as in the morning before they woke up. He advised that short breaks can be restorative, and help with self-perception.

It is also good to get up and take a little recreation elsewhere, because when you return to your work your judgement will have improved. If you stay doggedly at your work, you will deceive yourself.”

Leonardo understood that the brain is a muscle which must be exercised, nourished, and rested in order to achieve facility and strength.

Believing in the Learning Process

Beliefs about the learning process have a huge impact on student motivation. Weaker students, or students who are experiencing unexpected or new challenges (e.g., freshmen in college), are more likely to make generalizations about their intelligence, or to lose drive when they do not initially succeed. Students who believe that learning should be easy are less likely to make sustained efforts towards approaching more challenging materials.

However, by teaching metacognitive strategies, instructors can work to change student attitudes. In both K-12 and higher education, teachers who emphasize metacognition in the classroom have demonstrated success at increasing student achievement. Knowledge of metacognition motivates students, whether they are introduced to the concept through reading an article, or more carefully directed through a prompted regimen of self-monitored study.