Building Metacognitive Awareness

Metacognition is the awareness of one's thinking and the strategies one is using. It enables students to be more mindful of what they're doing (or learning) and why, and of how the skills they're learning might be used differently in different situations. Research indicates that learners who are skilled in metacognitive self-awareness are more strategic and perform better than those who are unaware." (Rivers 2001; Schraw and Dennison 1994). According to a research review by Susan Imel (ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, 2002):

Metacognition refers to the ability of learners to be aware of and monitor their learning processes (Peters 2000). Although related, cognition and metacognition differ: cognitive skills are those needed to perform a task whereas metacognitive skills are necessary to understand how it was performed (Rivers 2001; Schraw 1998). Metacognitive skills are generally divided into two types: self-assessment (the ability to assess one's own cognition) and self-management (the ability to manage one's further cognitive development) (Rivers 2001). Successful adult learners employ a range of metacognitive skills and effective teachers of adults attend to the development of these skills.

Metacognition is not something you teach with discrete activities, but should rather be woven through all your learning activities. Questions that build metacognition by drawing attention to how we use strategies to learn and accomplish tasks include:

  • What did we learn today? (This is especially useful in helping students recognize that they've been learning, even if they haven't been doing workbooks.)
  • How will you use what you're learning outside of class?
  • Why are we practicing X (whatever the exercise)? How will it help you do Y (the students' purposes)?
  • Use an example (cooking, driving, etc.) to discuss how context affects how skills are used. Do you (cook, drive, etc.) the same way in every situation (cooking for the kids vs. guests, driving in heavy rain, etc.)? Shift to the skills you're working on - How might you use them differently in different situations?
  • When you're going to do X (a task that involves the new skill), what do you need to think about?
  • When you are doing X (a task that involves the new skill) and you get stuck, what do you do?
  • Have learners teach each other an activity they do well. Questions from their "students" will prompt them to be explicit in their instructions. Reflect on how challenging it is to name what you've always done automatically/unconsciously; reflect on how such specifics are helpful when you're learning something new.

Metacognition and Second Language Teaching

Excerpted from Neil J. Anderson, "The Role of Metacognition in Second Language Teaching and Learning," ERIC Digest, April 2002.

Metacognition combines various attended thinking and reflective processes. It can be divided into five primary components: 1) preparing and planning for learning, 2) selecting and using learning strategies, 3) monitoring strategy use, 4) orchestrating various strategies, and 5) evaluating strategy use and learning.

On Selecting and Using Learning Strategies:

. . . readers have a variety of strategies from which to choose when they encounter vocabulary that they do not know and that they have determined they need to know to understand the main idea of a text. One possible strategy is word analysis: for example, dividing the word into its prefix and stem. Another possible strategy is the use of context clues to help guess the meaning of a word. But students must receive explicit instruction in how to use these strategies, and they need to know that no single strategy will work in every instance.

On Monitoring Strategy Use:

. . . students may be taught that an effective writing strategy involves thinking about their audience and their purpose in writing (e.g., to explain, to persuade). Students can be taught that to monitor their use of this strategy, they should pause occasionally while writing to ask themselves questions about what they are doing, such as whether or not they are providing the right amount of background information for their intended audience and whether the examples they are using are effective in supporting their purpose.

On Orchestrating Various Strategies

The teacher also needs to show students how to recognize when one strategy isn't working and how to move on to another. For example, a student may try to use word analysis to determine the meaning of the word antimony, having recognized anti as a prefix meaning against. But that strategy won't work in this instance. Anti is not a prefix here; antimony is a metalic chemical element that has nothing to do with being against or opposed to something. When the student find that word analysis does not help her figure out what this word means, she needs to know how to turn to other strategies, such as context clues, to help her understand the word.