May 15th, 2017

Using Metacognition to Reframe our Thinking about Learning Styles

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students studying in class

References to learning styles have become commonplace when faculty and students discuss learning experiences. Although learning styles seem to provide a useful explanation of why students perform differently on different tasks, there is a lack of methodologically sound research confirming their existence in the way they are most often described (Reiner & Willingham, 2010). In fact, most research suggests that people do not use one discrete style to learn new information but vary considerably in the methods they use to learn (Paschler, et al., 2009). Rather than relying on learning styles, focusing instead on metacognition can provide students with strategies that can be adapted and applied based on the learning environment and task. In this article, we briefly address the research on learning styles and metacognition and provide examples of activities to help students develop key metacognitive behaviors.

There are many different categories of learning styles, but most commonly learners are labeled as either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Instructors sometimes use these labels as a pedagogical guide: “If I have a class of all visual learners, shouldn’t I teach all information visually?” According to research, however, even “visual learners” learn some information best in other ways—for example, learning correct pronunciation of a foreign language. Like other labels, learning style labels may contain a grain of truth. A student who prefers to learn auditorily may find studying more productive when her notes are spoken aloud into a recording device and revisited later. But she may also find that when studying for a geometry test, drawing diagrams (visual) and physically manipulating shapes on paper (kinesthetic) work best for her.

In contrast, metacognition, often referred to as “thinking about thinking,” is a construct originally proposed by Flavell (1979) and developed by Brown (1987), Schraw (1998), and others in educational and cognitive psychology. A metacognitive student is aware of his or her own learning processes and adjusts these processes accordingly. When one approach fails to yield the anticipated results, a metacognitive student will quickly realize his or her mistake and try another. Ultimately, metacognitive students know themselves as learners, yet they realize that each learning task may require a slightly different tactic.

Teaching for metacognition helps students discover their own individual learning preferences and abilities, which will change depending on the task at hand. When students understand the principles of metacognition, they are able to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own learning. Focusing on metacognition rather than learning styles provides students with the opportunity to develop strategies that can be adapted and applied in any class or learning situation.

Instructors will find many activities in the literature (e.g., Girash, 2014; Steiner, 2016; Tanner, 2012) that can make metacognition easy for their students to understand and apply, including the following:

  • Think-pair-share reflections, in which students reflect on their own learning individually before sharing in smaller and larger groups;
  • Minute papers, where students reflect on a prompt in a stream-of-consciousness fashion;
  • Post-exam analyses, often called “exam wrappers,” where students analyze the results of a graded exam to discover their individual patterns of mistakes and areas for improvement;
  • Metacognitive promoting that is focused on a particular task (e.g., “What is the task?” “How is it similar or different from other tasks?” “What strategy or approach might you take to complete the task?”), which can be an effective way for students to begin problem solving in a group or collaborative team; and
  • Reflective journals that provide students with an opportunity to self-monitor their learning and identify the gaps in their learning about a particular concept.

Although any student will likely benefit from understanding metacognition, first-year courses are often an ideal environment to introduce students to new ways of learning, adapting, and applying learning strategies. Helping students discover who they are as learners and the ways in which the learning process works can create opportunities for deeper and more integrative learning to occur. Metacognition is a vehicle to foster this type of learning by allowing students to embrace their personal cognitive differences and leverage them to develop dynamic approaches to learning. Moving from a focus on learning styles to metacognition represents a significant but important shift in teaching. Moreover, the implications for this work extend beyond the classroom and into individual interactions with students that may occur in academic coaching, tutoring, or advising sessions. In addition to the utility of the specific metacognitive activities and tools, instructors can use research on learning styles and metacognition described in this paper to advocate for reframing the focus across first-year seminars or other courses at their institutions.

Hillary H. Steiner is an associate professor of psychology and associate director of learning communities at Kennesaw State University. Stephanie M. Foote is a professor of education and director of the master of science in first-year studies program at Kennesaw State University.

References
Brown, A. L. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms. In F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive- developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906-911.

Girash, J. (2014). Metacognition and instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Girash, J. (2011). Talking with faculty about cognitive science and learning. Essays on Teaching Excellence, 22(3), 1-5. Retrieved from http://podnetwork.org/content/uploads/V22_N3_Girash.pdf

Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3), 105-119.

Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26 (1-2), 113-125.

Steiner, H.H. (2016). The strategy project: Promoting self-regulated learning through an authentic assignment. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28(2), 271-282.

Tanner, K.D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113-120.


  • David Bozak

    You left out a reference (an important one!), Paschler et. al. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf

    • Hillary Hettinger Steiner

      Thanks so much, David. We’ll make the correction!

  • Trey Brown

    Learning Styles is pseudoscientific garbage that harms children

    • Laura Shulman

      care to say more regarding your provocative statement? How does it “harm”?