Metacognition and Learning

Metacognition is the process of thinking about one’s thinking.  Experts do this intuitively as they consider ideas, approaches and crosschecks in solving a problem, but students need to learn how to do this.  As a teacher, walking through your thinking about an example, as well as the steps of the new technique, models expert metacognition and offers additional value across the range of student abilities and backgrounds.

Teaching using metacognition steps:

  • Planning:  Outline a solution approach so students can follow the big picture flow of solving the problem rather than getting lost in the detailed steps.
  • Implementing:  Use subheadings to label the chunks of the solution such as:  applying boundary conditions, integrating over the time the force is applied, applying a mass balance, applying equilibrium conditions, refining client needs, estimating an answer, etc.  Use the terminology of the field in subheadings to highlight the structure of the solution.
  • Reflecting:  Go back over how the planning led to the subheadings in the solution process.  Then describe your thought process in testing the solution.

IF you put this structure into your examples and homework answer sheets, it will help students internalize the big picture approaches to solving the problems in your course.  Even if it feels repetitious to you, the structure helps students follow new material and develop more field specific, expert problem-solving strategies.  

Reinforce this higher-level thinking by adding an extra part to some problems leading students to reflect on the solution.  For example, ask “what if this changed” or “how do you know this technique can be applied”, or “what does your answer imply for xxxx”, or “does your answer meet the problem constraints or physical boundary conditions”, or “how would this scale if you had more data”, etc... Or ask students to go back and label the parts of the solution similar to how you do in lecture.  The goal is to get the students to pause and think for a few minutes about and assess the problem and solution, as an expert would intuitively do, rather than just hurry on to the task.  This helps them remember the ideas as well as increases their ability to apply those ideas in a new situation outside of class, or maybe even on an exam.

When students start asking about the exam, suggest they review and compare the flow of the problems and the decisions made as well as practice the details.  Ideally, they will better understand the bigger picture approaches and new problems on the exam, or on the job, won’t be as intimidating.