August 11th, 2010

Metacognitive Skills for Self-Directed Learners


Principle: To become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed.

That’s one of seven research-based principles for smart teaching proposed by authors of the new book, How Learning Works. They make this observation: “Unfortunately, these metacognitive skills tend to fall outside the content area of most courses, and consequently they are often neglected in instruction.” (p. 191) Research also documents that these skills are developed much more efficiently by direct instruction than by happenstance.

Here are some suggestions for developing each of these important metacognitive skills. More are proposed and discussed in the book.

· Help students assess the task by being more explicit than you may think necessary. Don’t assume that a basic description is enough. Fill in the details so that students know what they are being asked to do.

· Help students evaluate how well they’re equipped to do the task by providing opportunities for self-assessment early and often. Show students how these kinds of assessments are helpful—how the self-knowledge they reveal enables students to better understand what the task requires.

· Help students plan an appropriate approach by first implementing a plan you’ve provided and then by creating their own plans. It also helps if you make planning a central goal of the assignment. That means making time for it and letting it be a part of the assignment that counts.

· Help students apply selected strategies and monitor progress by having students do guided self-assessments. Give them a set of criteria and help them apply those to what they’ve accomplished so far. Make reflection a part of the assignment by having students explain what they are doing and why. Peer review can also help students be realistic about their own progress and that of other students.

· Help students adjust their strategies by encouraging them to analyze the effectiveness of what they’ve done. They need to reflect on their progress as they work on the task and on their performance once the task has been completed. They also need to know that there are multiple ways of tackling the task so that if what they tried did not work very well, they can use another approach next time.

Reference: Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

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  • Larry Spence

    I have to demur on this. “Metacognitive” is a bloated way to say self-coaching or self-teaching, more familiar ideas to students. Anyone who has learned to read has learned how to teach themselves. Similarly anyone who has mastered a skill has learned something about self-coaching. Converting these familiar, if sometimes rare, processes into something “meta” or beyond makes things murky.
    Maybe self-coaching and teaching cannot be taught, but are rather a byproduct of successful learning. A novice doesn’t have the full information to be self-teaching, but they can reflect on how they learn and make adjustments. And they can do that without all the jargon that these authors propose.
    This is probably another example of academic “bullfrog” where terms are bloated into larger and less meaningful terms. Once inflated, the ideas are of little use to teachers or students. The authors’ suggestions seem to be common teaching lore. As I read them I didn’t get any new insights for improving student learning and I think if students read them they would just get confused.
    When I read the word “metacognitive” I always want to hit delete.

  • chris

    Larry — I think I understand what you're saying in your comment. I have sometimes found creating or using jargon helpful in teaching. If I use a disruptive word like metacognitive in class, I get about a second or two opening to frame (as you point out) the "common teaching lore" in a different way. It might be a way that helps a student become conscious about what he/she has always been doing. It does not work all the time, obviously; and it can be over done. But sometimes, in an environment where "yada yada yada" has semantic content, jargon does not suck.

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