Metacognition is defined as the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. In terms of evolution, metacognition is not limited to humans, who by reasoning or subconsciously have been developing metacognitive skills since we became aware of ourselves and our surroundings, but other animals have been doing the same instinctively.
If we help children realise what might be the difficulties and advantages they encounter in their learning process, then they would have learned about learning – metacognition – and realised how to deal with the difficulties whilst making better use of the advantages.
Metacognition can be traced back to Aristotle and would be the most relevant approach nowadays that could transform how children learn. Studies suggest that children who develop metacognitive skills early on, become more resilient and successful in school and other life contexts.
Metacognition can be described as well, as the “processes involved when learners plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours” (CIE).
As an example, when students try to solve a problem in mathematics, they should follow four specific steps:
- analysing the question,
- planning the strategy to solve the problem,
- applying formulas and doing calculations,
- finding and checking the answer.
If they find the problem too difficult to solve, it might be for different reasons. For instance, they are not trained to analyse a question properly (identifying the key information and context, the data provided, or what the question is actually asking us to do), their knowledge is not properly understood, or they make mistakes in their calculations.
When these difficulties arise, students should be aware of what to do. And knowing about their own process of learning, so that they can make significant progress, is what metacognition is about and is at the core of our evolution as humans as we become aware of everything surrounding us.
Planning, monitoring and evaluation – the essential metacognitive skills — help children progress towards their goals, whilst they receive feedback and their plans can be re-evaluated.
In sport, an example of the simple conceptual equation: facts + context = meaning, if children learn to hit a tennis ball superbly well through repetitive drills and instruction, and they learn how to vary the pace and trajectory of the ball and its direction, then they would have been developing metacognitive skills.
Similarly, in a maths lesson about speed, distance and time in a river, pupils could use their imagination and visualise the situation in a problem as if they were protagonists. They could see themselves boating upstream or downstream, and therefore understand the problem more easily. Exercises like this enable pupils to learn about their own learning process, and apply this knowledge in solving other problems.
I continuously try to identify the strengths and weaknesses of my tutees in their learning routines, but most essentially guiding them in becoming aware by themselves of how they learn. For instance, when students struggle recalling concepts or associating ideas, they need to fix these shortcomings by developing effective revision skills or the ability to identify patterns, respectively.
This approach is based on effective communication and constant feedback, providing the students with a sense of positive personal interaction, increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-regulation. These are characteristics that lead to success in and beyond school.
Parents play an important role by:
- encouraging children to reflect on their thinking, e.g. by asking them to describe a topic they have learned at school, if they thought there were parts that were more difficult to understand than others, and if the same occurs with other topics or subjects,
- understanding that if sometimes children act out, their anxious behaviour could be reflecting frustration from not understanding a topic at school, and hence this should be refocussed to help them understand why,
- guiding children to use their own understanding of why they might have difficulties in learning, so that in future similar situations they will recognise the difficulties and be prepared to deal with them, hence minimising anxiety and increasing confidence,
- supporting children in planning and overseeing their own work, and therefore developing metacognitive skills that can be managed by themselves.
As tutors, our task is to pass along the curriculum content in such a way that students will find it useful and meaningful in the context of their own lives, and we need to make meaning from why we as a society feel that education is vital. The simplest answer to this is that our children need to be educated so that they may become the next cohesive and informed generation. And guiding them in becoming aware of their own learning process, and hence developing metacognitive skills, would have been a great contribution to them and our society.
“Getting started with metacognition”, Cambridge International Examinations (CIE).
“Metacognitive Strategies and Test Performance: An Experience Sampling Analysis of Students’ Learning Behaviour”, by U. E. Nett et al.
Dr Daniel Glorioso is an experienced researcher, teacher and tutor at English Guardian.