• April 17, 2014

Metacognition and Student Learning

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

This evening, my family will sit down on the couch together to enjoy the opening episode of America's favorite spectacle of poor metacognition. Along with millions of others, including some of you, we will marvel at the sight of so many human beings eager to put their deficient cognitive skills on display for the world.

I'm talking, of course, about the season premiere of American Idol, where lousy metacognition will join lousy singing for two cringeworthy hours tonight and another hour tomorrow night, as amateur musicians audition for the opportunity to win fame, fortune, and a recording contract. The opening two episodes of each season have become notorious for featuring the worst singers who auditioned for the show, encouraging viewers to engage in some gentle schadenfreude as Idol participants make fools of themselves on national television.

What makes so many of those atrocious singers laughable to us—excepting the ones who put on deliberately bad performances in order to get on camera—turns out to be a problem that plagues many undergraduates, especially the weakest among them: an inability to judge accurately their own level of skill or knowledge in a specific area.

Poor metacognition means that some terrible yet hopeful singers on American Idol are unable to assess their own weak vocal talents. And it means that some students have a mistaken sense of confidence in the depth of their learning.

Cognitive psychologists use the term metacognition to describe our ability to assess our own skills, knowledge, or learning. That ability affects how well and how long students study—which, of course, affects how much and how deeply they learn. Students with poor metacognition skills will often shorten their study time prematurely, thinking that they have mastered course material that they barely know.

I was introduced to this concept by Stephen Chew, professor and chair of the psychology department at Samford University, who wrote to me in response to my column last month on teaching and human memory. Chew's credentials in this area immediately caught my attention: In 2011 he was named one of four outstanding professors of the year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. His work focuses specifically on the implications of cognitive research for learning and instruction.

As a part of his work in this area, Chew has produced a series of videos for students on how to study effectively. After watching all five of the videos in his series—which I highly recommend to all administrators and faculty members who work with first-year students—I thought it worthwhile to devote one more column to drawing out a principle from cognitive psychology that could help many of us do our jobs better.

I asked Chew to give readers a basic definition of metacognition, with some illustrations of the concept both from education and everyday life. "Metacognition," he explained in an e-mail, "is a person's awareness of his or her own level of knowledge and thought processes. In education, it has to do with students' awareness of their actual level of understanding of a topic. Weaker students typically have poor metacognition; they are grossly overconfident in their level of understanding. They think they have a good understanding when they really have a shallow, fragmented understanding that is composed of both accurate information and misconceptions."

That leads weak students, he said, to make poor study decisions: "Once students feel they have mastered material, they will stop studying, usually before they have the depth and breadth of understanding they need to do well. On exams, they will often believe their answers are absolutely correct, only to be shocked when they make a bad grade."

As for examples outside of education, Chew had no trouble pointing them out in a variety of areas, including reality television shows.

"Poor metacognition is a big part of incompetence," he explained. "People who are incompetent typically do not realize how incompetent they are. People who aren't funny at all think they are hilarious. People who are bad drivers think they are especially good. You don't want to fly on a plane with a pilot who has poor metacognition. A lot of reality shows like American Idol highlight people with poor metacognition for entertainment. Everyone knows people who are seldom in doubt but often wrong."

Yes, I know quite a few of those people. I'm related to at least one of them.

But let's assume that I want to help people with poor metacognitive skills, instead of just trying to avoid them at our next holiday gathering. I asked Chew what faculty members can do to assist students do a better job of assessing their own skills and knowledge.

"The best way to reduce the impact of poor metacognition," Chew said, "is to use formative assessment during teaching. Formative assessments are brief, low-stakes activities that students do in order to give both themselves and the teacher feedback about their level of understanding. There is a wide assortment of assessments that faculty can use, such as think-pair-share activities, minute papers, and so-called 'clicker' questions."

"I like to use ConcepTests, developed by Eric Mazur, in which I present the class with a multiple-choice question similar to ones that will be on the exam," he added. "Students select their answers individually, and I poll the class. They can then discuss their answer with other students, after which I poll the class again. Finally, we discuss the answers as a class. This gives me a sense of how well students understand the material. I can identify and address problem areas."

Most important, he said, these ConcepTests—which can be used quite simply even in the most overcrowded lecture courses—help give students a more accurate assessment of their own understanding.

"I emphasize," Chew said, "that the question I use is similar in difficulty level to questions they will see on exams, so if they did not answer correctly or were confused, they need to improve their understanding. Formative assessment helps students study and learn more effectively before exams, and they are less likely to feel 'tricked' by questions they didn't expect. The actual exam should never be the first time the faculty or the students get feedback about the actual level of student understanding."

Chew's recommendation for the frequent use of "brief, low-stakes" assessments echoes a key pedagogical principle that came out of last month's column—and that corresponds with what just about every expert in learning theory and pedagogy will tell you. An understanding of metacognition, and the influence it has on our students, gives us one more reason to shift our courses away from providing students with a steady diet of lectures, punctuated by a few high-stakes exams.

Lectures do have a place in the college classroom of course. Just about every teaching strategy we can imagine may have its place over the course of the semester. But I know from my own experience—as I am gearing up to teach a literature survey course in the spring—how easily we can allow lectures to become the sole or dominant mode of instruction, especially as the semester wears on, and we feel the urge to cram as much material into the course as possible.

A 40-minute lecture, followed by a 10-minute formative-assessment activity, may help our students learn much more effectively than a 40-minute lecture followed by weak discussion starters like "Any questions?" And, as Chew pointed out in response to an early draft of this essay, students frequently don't ask questions precisely because their poor metacognitive skills have convinced them that they understood the lecture perfectly.

Incidentally, formative-assessment activities can be even simpler than the one Chew describes. The most basic activity a faculty member can use to check understanding at the end of a class is the now-classic "minute paper," described in Thomas K. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross' Classroom Assessment Techniques. At the end of a lecture or discussion, ask students to pull out a half-sheet of paper and answer some variation on the following two questions: "What was the most important concept you learned in class today?" and "What concept did you find the most difficult or confusing?"

When students identify a throwaway example you used as the most important concept they learned, you know you have more work to do. And when you point that out to students in the next class session, they should know that they have more work to do as well.

For readers interested in learning more about metacognition, and its influence on what we experience in our classrooms, begin by checking out the first episode in Chew's video series. In addition to his clear explanation of the topic, he provides an interesting example from one of his own courses, in which he graphs out the test scores his students expected to receive and the scores they actually received.

Chew also supplied me with a list of additional reading materials in this area. If you wish to delve deeper into the subjects of both metacognition and formative-assessment activities, visit my Web site at http://www.jamesmlang.com, where I have posted his reading recommendations and brief overviews of each source.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.

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