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Thinking about Thinking: How Metacognition Can Help Students Learn

Posted in Student Resources on January 22, 2011 by

In our latest research at Knewton into how students learn, we’ve found that one of the best ways to get students to think more deeply is to get them to engage in metacognition, i.e. thinking about thinking. All this thinking about thinking about thinking (meta-metacognition?) has led to a few conclusions that can be applied in any classroom.

1. Students learn better when they understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Studies show that high-performing students tend to have a very accurate understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as learners while low-performing students tend to greatly overestimate themselves. This may appear to be a chicken-and-the-egg type of correlation, but I’m not so sure. I believe that by helping low-performance students gain a more accurate picture of their strengths and weaknesses (gently; nobody needs a laundry list of everything they don’t know), we can help them to hone their studying on the subjects they really need work on, abandon practices that don’t work for them, and embrace ones that do.

To achieve this, we need assessments and feedback that focus on identifying specific areas of weakness rather than assigning scores; we need to ask questions that prompt students to reflect on their strategies, study habits, and thought processes  (whatever they may be), rather than just providing statements that dictate what those strategies should be.

2. Following up closed-ended questions with metacognitive ones helps students — even if they got the first question right.

Metacognitive questions are not just for helping students who are struggling with questions to look back and figure out where they went wrong. They can also help cement already-learned concepts in students’ minds and help prevent moments of “Wait, I got that right — but I have no idea how or why.” By asking students to explain their answers to other students, real or imaginary, or to think about what finally helped them get it right this time (Was there something different about the question itself? Did they change their strategy? Did it just finally click after a certain number of repetitions?), we can help them walk away from a lesson confident that they have truly learned the concept they set out to learn.

3. The magic of metacognition comes from students learning about themselves, not teachers learning about them.

Asking students these types of open-ended metacognitive questions might seem like a good way for us as teachers and course developers to learn about them and change what we do. It certainly can be, but this should not be the real purpose of metacognitive questioning. Studies conducted on students using computer-based learning systems such as ours found that students benefited greatly from being asked metacognitive questions even if nobody ever read their answers. In other words, we don’t necessarily want to ask questions that we’d like to know the answer to; we want to ask questions that will get students to think in ways that support their own learning.

These are the kinds of issues that we at Knewton spend hours, days, and weeks thinking about. This research is an ongoing process, but we’re already excited about the ways in which it’s shaping our approach to teaching, course design, and adaptive learning.