The Role of Metacognition in the Classroom
Jon N. Parker


It is always interesting to analyze ones strengths and weaknesses and helping the student to use that knowledge for improvement. This idea of helping others led me to my career choice as a teacher and coach. After much research, I discovered that relaying information of one’s cognitive processes and developing ones own awareness of their learning is a lot of what I do as a coach. I constantly tell my athletes there is only one aspect of their game that they can absolutely control and that is what they think internally, what they say externally, body language, and emotions. These are all aspects of the mental game. The physical aspect, the winning and the losing is out of their control. This idea of controlling your thinking processes and becoming more conscious of your learning is called metacognition. It is a buzzword in teacher education. It is an old term in a new age of education reform. It goes hand in hand with authentic assessment, constructivism, and holistic learning. Higher-order thinking skills are what teachers are striving for in the classroom, yet highest-order ought to be our new goal. After exploring the definition of metacognition, I will discuss the need and the application of metacognitive skills in the classroom.

There are several professional definitions of metacognition. Through research I came across four definitions that fully explored every aspect of metacognition. As you read through each definition, reread it and then read the next one and reread it as well. Do the same for each definition. Then compare and contrast each definition and write your own definition that makes sense to you! The following are the examples that I extrapolated from different texts.

  • Metacognition is the process of planning, assessing and monitoring one’s own thinking; the pinnacle of mental functioning (Alvo, 1990; Cotton, 2001).

  • Metacognition having (cognition) and having understanding control over, and appropriate use of that knowledge (Tei & Stewart, 1986; Collins, 1994).

  • Metacognition  has to do with the active monitoring and regulation of cognitive processes.  It represents the “executive control” system that many cognitive theorist have included in their theories (unknown, 2001).

  • Metacognition -  is an awareness of oneself as “an actor in his environment, that is, a heightened sense of the ego as an active, deliberate storer and retriever of information.  It is whatever “intelligent weaponry the individual has so far developed” is applied to mnemonic problems (Flavell, 1971; Hacker, 2001). 

In fact, John Flavell, developmental psychologists, conducted extensive studies in child development. He was the first to explore, “the ways in which children think about their thinking processes and the human mind (Alic, rtv., 2001).” Flavell incorporated Piaget into American psychology and through his research, contributed to modern developmental psychology. Finally, Flavell’s eighteen-year research at Bing Nursery School had developed comprehensive cognitive developmental stages from infancy to age 4 years. Flavell borrowed Piaget’s theory of child development and created his own theory that is backed up with more research and case studies, than Piaget’s. It is a wonder why undergraduates are never introduced to Flavell along with Piaget during their course work for teacher education. 

It seems by the definitions of metacognition that it is a multi-task skill that “ripens with age” and improvements can be made throughout one’s lifetime! The definition’s multi-tasks are (a) goal directed (b) recognition of the variable, (c) appropriate cognitive strategy to use for controlling the learning process, and (d) self-regulation and self-evaluation. 

For example, if I were to read a professional article about metacognition and Lev Vygotsky was the author, then in order to extract meaning I would have to implement a strategy of comprehension compared to if I were reading a comic book for pleasure. This notion of assessing the variable before I take on the task is metacognitive thinking. The older I get the better I am in recognizing such difficult text. “Ambiguous words or confusions within the text affect cognitive processing.  Experienced readers will adjust their rate for anomalous texts and may return to an inconsistent sentence or passage several times, comparing what they know with what is written in the text (Collins, 1994).” Recognizing the task, as to its level of difficulty, is a step towards metacognitive learning. Recognition leads directly to control of cognitive learning. If cognitive processing fails then the implementation of a learning strategy would seem to be the next step. For instance, the use of underlining, note-taking, summarizing, and self-questioning are common study strategies (Collin, 1994). If I felt satisfied with the results, then my experience would yield a positive transfer and my goals would be met. If I did not feel satisfied with my results, then my experience would yield a negative transfer and I would adjust my cognitive processes enough to yield a positive transfer. This is an example of self-evaluation and self-regulation. “In short, metacognition appears to be a large component of what we consider to be intelligent behavior (Osborn, 1998).” Why is metacognition such an important concept to the classroom teacher? Because, unlike distinct learning styles and multiple intelligences, metacognition is a series of learned behaviors. To become aware of these behaviors throughout development means they can also be acquired. Once acquired, improvements can be made and improved learning and better performance will take place (Osborne, 1998).

The need for learning metacognitive skills are clearly stated in many case studies and field reports that I have read. Jason Osborne, Ph.D, from the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Oklahoma discovered the need of metacognition in the classroom. His findings are numerous and the following are some of the many in his review.

  1. Jausovec, 1994, looked at average students, taught them about types of problems, strategies for each problem and when the strategy should be applied. Jausovec demonstrated that “performance of “average” students can significantly improve, especially on well-defined, or closed tasks.”

  2. Alexander, Carr, & Schwanenflugel, 1995 looked at the relationship between giftedness and metacognition. 

  3. Cardelle-Elawar, 1995, showed how low-achieving students can improve math skills with metacognitive training.  In fact, a 249% increase of improvement was recorded as well as a better attitude towards math.

  4. Franks, Vye, Auble, Meszynski, Perfetto, Bransfor, Stein, & Littlefield, 1982  used metacognitive learning techniques to train fifth graders in remembering. They were able to improve retention as well as give the students control over their learning processes and which strategy is best for difficult passages. 

  5. Volet, 1991, showed how metacognitive training can improve exam grades, grades in classes, retention and student satisfaction.

It is obvious that metacognition is an important concept and a critical strategy to teach in the classroom.  From all the research over metacognition, it is a learned behavior that can vastly improve students of all performing levels. “If people are taught metacognitive awareness concerning the utility and function of a strategy as they are taught the strategy, they are more likely to generalize the strategy to new situations (Hacker, rtv., 2001). Given the importance of high-stakes test and the use of standards such as the TEKS in Texas or the PASS in Oklahoma, it would be a crime not to teach metacognitive skills in the classroom. In service training for teachers before the start of school would be the best time to train teachers about metacognition.  

In order to apply metacognition in the classroom, it is my belief a teacher ought to be familiar with learning styles. This way the teacher will have a deeper understanding of the type of metacognitive skill that will fit the student’s learning style. Yet, it is wise to tailor lesson plans or vary teaching delivery methods to all types of learning styles in the classroom. Research on learning styles varies from theorist to theorist. Bernice McCarthy identifies four types of learners and some learners are flexible to be more than one type  David Kolb describes a theory of experiential learning that involves four stages and four types of learners. The common theme to most learning style theories is that teachers need to incorporate all learning styles in their curriculum. “Traditionally, instructional techniques commonly used in public schools best address the needs of the Type 2 Analytic Learner, with heavy emphasis on linear sequential processing of information (McCarthy, 2001).”  It is time teachers research their students  Instead of labeling students with disabilities or as low-achievers teachers ought to consider a learning style difference. A. F.  Gregore, a popular learning style theorist made three observations about learning. “First, we reassess our individual and collective viewpoints on the nature of learning. The “average child concept” is wrong! Second, we must consider multiple approaches in our teaching presentations. There are indeed “different strokes for different folks." Thirdly, we need to talk with students and verify differences within ourselves.” All I have to say  to this quote is that it is time for teachers to receive training in learning styles, during teacher in service.

Metacognitive strategies range from simple processes such as underlining, outlining, notetaking, summarizing, self-questioning to more elaborate methods such as hierarchical summaries, conceptual maps, thematic organizers, and metaphorical thinking. The older students best handle the more elaborate methods. Learning strategies vary by degree of difficulty. The most important task to teach to the students is when to use such a strategy. The awareness of knowing when to use a metacognitive strategy is of more importance that the how to use the strategy. Most learning strategies are procedural in form. The best example of a procedural learning strategy is the SQ3R.  The five-step step process is (1) survey, (2) develop questions, (3) read (4) recall, and (5) review.  

Other types of strategies include actual changes in the development of classroom instruction. For example, a pre-bell activity could be useful to start the class, during the time the teachers are on hall duty and while they are taking attendance. The bell activities may be open-ended question or questions about material from the day before or the future. Bell activities may be time students can write entries in their classroom journals.  Whatever the case, the teacher needs to discover the benefits of metacognitive strategies and teach them to their students.  

Many learning theories emphasize learning strategies and some involve metacognitive features such as self-regulation and control of cognitive processes. The learning theories most relevant to metacognitive behavior are double loop learning (Argyris, 1976), lateral thinking (DeBono, 1971), conversation theory (G. Pask,1975), and experiential learning (Kolb, 1993). All these learning theories offer exquisite ideas to use in the classroom. It is interesting to read these theories and I recommend all teachers to explore such learning theories.  

To best explain a metacognitive strategy, I would like to relate a personal experience that helped myself through college and I hope can help other understand the importance of metacognitive strategies.

Back in my undergraduate days, I took a very intense Botany course that changed my view of studying and heightened my awareness that I can control my cognitive processes with strategic planning. With this sense of control it gave me the belief that I can compete with the best. The first day of class the professor took great pride in explaining the fact that not many earn A’s and the same number will fail and typically most will receive C’s if not drop the course. She went on about norm-reference tests and how closely the grades in her class are distributed much the same way in according to the bell-shaped curve. Then of course the syllabus was handed out and it became apparent that tests were the single factor in determining grades.

The second class, the professor began lecturing feverishly, without a break and never knowing if she was a human or artificial intelligence. She lectured with the desire to prove she was the toughest professor on campus. She definitely had her own style, Ultra Direct Instructional Approach.

My spin of UDIA is when instruction is delivered by lecture and lecturer rarely pauses for drink, or turns their back to use transparencies or chalkboard. A fast and monotone language is necessary and class discussions are of the professor answering their own questions within seconds. The only break in voice would be a snicker or laugh whenever the professor answered his or her own questions. No one asks questions in fear that total humiliation would result.

Whenever, on those rare occasions, the professor did use the chalkboard the sweet sound of pencils dropping onto the cool granite top tables could be heard in unison. Then down go the heads onto those cool granite top tables for a quick resting of the eyes. Early in the semester, during this brief down time, you would notice students rummaging through their backpacks for those drop/add forms and class schedules. By the end of the class I knew I had a tough situation and a very strategic plan had to be enforced.

The metacognitive process took form initially as a goal.  When the professor was quite certain that only a very few will earn A’s, I took that as a challenge and a goal was set. I figured that a strategic study method had to be developed, because from past performances in this type of class, I would be that average group of mid-achievers. A method was developed that fit my style of learning and through the course of the semester, I had fined tuned my method well enough to earn an A and in the course. In fact, I wanted to set the curve on every test.  It was primarily self-competition.   I never wanted anyone to know what I ever made on tests and especially in the class.  At the time of experimentation, I did not overly think about each phase. It was more of piecing together techniques that worked from past experience and putting it together into a strategic routine.  

Stage (1) I tape-recorded each lecture. That way I could listen to the lecture a second time. During the second listening I would record any information I missed the first time as well as copy down the big ideas.  

Stage (2) I would generate test questions on note cards and put the answers on the back. I would create a variety of test questions that included completion, short answer and multiple choice. When I created multiple choice I would create four choices and make each choice as close to the right answer as I could.

Stage (3) I would rehearse the test questions. During this “zone of proximal educational development” I would review and role-play as the teacher. If I missed a question I would start completely over until I was able to complete all of the questions correctly. In order for scaffolding to take place I had to create punishments and dialogue to myself quite a lot. Since, I had no friends to review with, I used what Vygotsky termed as egocentric and inner speech.  

I could not study in study groups and so my learning style is definitely Type-4 Dynamic Learner with a sprinkle of Type 2, according to Bernice McCarthy’s Learning Styles. Yet, it was fun to study in small groups, this way I could compare where I was at and where I need to be. I never studied in study groups to actually learn. I did it to size up to the others.  

Study time was regimented. I made sure I exercised before I studied. This way I would not need to stimulate myself with caffeine. I could study more efficiently and in less time when I would exercise prior to studying. This method of exercise and study became very habitual; my body craved both everyday. I linked the two seemingly different activities together, and soon if I missed one of the other I felt guilty. I would not stop studying until I was sure I would make an A on the exam.  Sometimes finding the method or strategy that best fits your learning style or even your schedule is hard. Yet, anything worth having is worth the hard work.

Metacognition is a topic that will catch on and become a part of every classroom. With state standards and standardized testing taking the stage, our students will need more than just knowledge they will have to learn to think. Along with improved thinking skills, students will need to assess their own learning and control their cognitive processes in order to become better students. “Those with greater metacognitive abilities tend to be more successful in their cognitive endeavors. The good news is that individuals can learn how to better regulate their cognitive activities (Livingston, 1997)



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