Metacognition: a way to strengthen teaching and learning

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In this article, Michel Grangeat from the University of Grenoble Alpes in France shares some of his expertise on metacognition as a way to strengthen teaching and learning.

Introduction to metacognition

Metacognition is a way to anticipate, monitor, control and assess cognition. At school, it relies on the student’s awareness of what is to be learned and achieved, what is an accurate and feasible strategy, and what is his or her progress status.

Enabling students to supervise their own learning enhances their feeling of responsibility and motivation. In addition, by reducing the teachers’ workload, it allows them to spend time on specific students’ needs (i.e. low or high achievers, those who are struggling with the problem and those who understand it quickly).

Cognition and the brain

Cognition is a combination of three systems in the brain that are not necessarily equal in speed and effectiveness.

The first system is fast, effective and economical: it relies on immediate perception to resolve the problem at hand. When the situation is relatively stable, System 1 is sufficient and allows us to save energy for other tasks.

The second system is slow, logical and expensive: it consists in reflecting on the situation, identifying the main factors in a new problem and finding an adapted solution for it. System 2 is energy-consuming, since it requires attention and perseverance.

The third system prevents the other systems from reacting automatically with outdated methods and connections. In other words, System 3 prevents System 1 from responding too rapidly to the question at hand, and prevents System 2 from indulging in poor reasoning.

As we can see, System 3 is very precious at school! System 3 is based on metacognition.

Metacognition necessitates resources

First, we need to be aware that learning is a long and non-linear process. Some struggling students believe that learning is automatic and does not require any effort. Unfortunately, the way the high achievers act in the classroom often reinforces this misunderstanding.

Second, we need to know the specificity of the task at hand. It is obvious that reasoning entails different methods and constructs in each discipline, and sometimes at different levels within the same discipline, even if the teachers use the same words. Without a clear understanding of what is expected of them, struggling students tend to activate System 1 too quickly, which leads to an inaccurate understanding of the problem.

Third, a set of strategies needs to be available for overcoming the problem, steering the inquiry, or achieving the expected task, be it a mere exercise or a complex project. For instance, different methods exist for memorising a lesson or a text, but they may be unknown to low achievers. Often, they believe that they must rewrite the text many times, or read it just before sleeping, just before class, etc.

Students’ ideas about learning are never totally false, but often not totally appropriate. Consequently, they should have the opportunity to discuss these issues with their teachers.

Metacognition is not general but linked to a specific activity

General knowledge of cognition is no longer considered sufficient for improving learning, since cognition is always bound to very specific content and tasks.

Accordingly, it would be a waste of time to teach the students how to memorise, demonstrate, or understand a problem in a general way. There is always one and only one problem, and metacognition must be adapted to it.

The questions that one asks when approaching a problem are:

  • Is this problem similar to, or different from the usual problems?
  • What is the specificity of this problem?
  • How do I overcome these inherent difficulties?
  • How do I know if my chosen strategy is likely to be effective?
  • How do I know if I will succeed in achieving this precise task?

The only general procedure that is described as relevant by the latest research resides in establishing a classroom climate that supports motivation. Students need to be encouraged to ask questions, respond even if they are uncertain, comment on the work of their peers and accept comments from them in turn. Therefore, students’ metacognition depends on teachers’ prior reflection on how they structure and facilitate interaction in the classroom.

Michel Grangeat is an emeritus professor of educational science, whose research aims for a better understanding of the processes that underline professional activity and development in education.