June 21, 2004


In the Forum for the discussion of the Analysis phase of course development, Peter asked:
What exactly is a user's metacognitive ability? "Thinking about thinking"? -- but what does this mean in the context of education and Instructional Design?

In learning, metacognition refers to our self-conscious awareness about how we learn - paying attention to what we learn and how we learn it while we're learning it.

As we learn different ideas and skills throughout our lives, we also learn something about how we learn (at least if we're paying any attention!) and how to approach different tasks. Sometimes we do this quite self-consciously -- for example, when thinking about how to approach a very complex task or when reading something we think might be "over our heads" -- but at other times, we may just be going through the motions.

>>Try this experiment:
Select a piece of reading material -- anything ... an article in the paper, a course reading, this blog entry(!), etc.-- and read through it once without any particular agenda or mental preparation.

Then read it again --but this time, first imagine that you are going to have to write a one-page summary of the piece or teach it to a class.

What was the difference?

Most likely, you consciously paid much closer attention to how you were reading the second time.

Girl-reading.jpg When simply skimming a piece of writing, you might not think about why you're reading it, you might ignore any terms or phrases you don't immediately understand, and you probably wouldn't analyze the structure of the writing or the argument it presents, think about how it relates to other things you've read on the same topic, or reflect on it afterwards. But when charged with writing about or teaching the content, your attention is conscious and focused on how you are going to interpret the content and arguments presented.

When faced with a learning task like the one in the experiment, you focus your attention, monitor and evaluate yourself while you accomplish the task. For example, you might apply the following metacognitive strategy:

  • Plan/Pre-plan - Analyze the task and decide to concentrate on it
  • Direct attention - Focus on the task or on certain aspects of the task (e.g., decide to focus on how to teach the content rather than on how to directly apply the information)
  • Strategize - Decide on a strategy for accomplishing the task (in this case, for example, decide how to pick out the key concepts that will be the focus of the written piece or teaching unit, highlighting important phrases and taking notes as you read)
  • Self-monitor - While accomplishing the task, gauge the success of the strategy chosen and change strategies if necessary (e.g., ask yourself "Am I focusing on the right things, or should I look at this a different way?")
  • Evaluate - Look at outcomes (e.g., "Did I get what I needed to out of this to teach or write about it, or should I look at it again?")

In other words, the task assigned to you in the experiment was a learning intervention that made you become aware of, monitor, and take control over your learning.

Children's metacognitive skills tend to grow as they progress through different levels of education and cognitive development and as they become more skilled at learning how to become independent learners.

Classroom.jpg If you've ever taught in elementary or high school, you probably already know that young students often do their schoolwork without stopping to evaluate their comprehension, to think about the quality of their work, to revise their work as they go along, or to think about how the work connects to other things they've learned. They do the assignments because they are assigned, and finishing the assigned task -- not learning -- is the ultimate goal. In other words, their learning strategies tend to be instructor-dependent, and the instructor must "push" learning to the students.

Adults and mature students generally have more highly developed metacognitive skills, and therefore more independence as learners -- particularly if they are highly motivated to apply themselves. Mature learners are more aware of when they need to check for errors, why they might be having problems in understanding, and how to go about finding another way to approach the task, improve their work, or better comprehend the material.

Of course, this isn't simply a matter of age...personality factors and experience with formal study both play a big part in the development of these skills.

What does all this mean in terms of online instructional design?

knowledge.gif As we've discussed in previous sessions, online courses generally require a greater degree of learner autonomy and independence than do face-to-face courses.... therefore, a learner's success is often in direct proportion to his or her ability to apply successful learning strategies in self-directed learning.

During the analysis phase, analyzing learners' metacognitive skills allows the designer to create an environment tailored to the learners' ability to be self-directed, as well as promoting learners' knowledge and awareness of their own thinking and learning -- in other words, helping them become aware of the learning strategies that they already use and introducing new strategies and exercises.

For example, this information can used to:

  • Determine the level of direction needed in the course (e.g., while self-directed learners might take advantage of a non-linear format, "novice" learners might need a well-defined, linear learning path through the content)
  • Determine whether the course should be blended online/classroom (if learners are not independent enough for 100% online work)
  • Determine whether to track learners and check their progress at various points through the course (e.g., instead of allowing users to monitor their own progress)
  • Determine the types and number of instructional strategies to be employed
  • Determine the types of assessments and evaluations to be employed
Posted by jotz at June 21, 2004 11:12 PM