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Learning to Learn and Metacognition

Since the time of the Greek philosopher Socrates, educators have realized that teachers cannot possibly teach students everything they need to know in life. Thus, a major goal of educational systems has been to prepare students for a lifetime of learning. To this end, a large part of the educational endeavor involves teaching general skills and strategies that can be applied to a variety of problems and learning situations.

Although strategy instruction has been shown to improve learning, knowledge of strategies may not be sufficient to produce higher levels of learning. For instance, in 1973 Earl C. Butterfield, Clark Wambold, and John M. Belmont taught learning disabled students a strategy for learning a list of items. When these students used the strategy, their performance reached the level of normal achieving students–however, the learning disabled students did not spontaneously use it. To obtain higher levels of performance, learning disabled students had to be told when to use the strategy.

Similarly, young children may have knowledge of strategies but fail to use them. Michael Pressley, John G. Borkowski, and Julia T. O'Sullivan suggested in 1984 that strategy instruction should therefore provide students information about the utility of the strategy and when and how to use it. Put differently, strategy instruction should also include a metacognitive component.

Metacognition broadly defined is knowledge that a person has of his own cognitive processes. In 1979 John H. Flavell proposed that metacognitive knowledge consists of three components: (1) knowledge of self (e.g., knowing that one learns better when studying in a quiet setting than in front of the television); (2) knowledge of task (e.g., knowing that it's easier to prepare for a multiple-choice test than an essay test); and (3) knowledge of strategies (e.g., when and how to use them).

There is a significant relation between learning outcomes and knowledge of specific strategies. For instance, when strategy-training programs include assessing knowledge of the strategy and the utility of the strategy being taught, test performance is greater for children with more knowledge of the strategy than for children with less knowledge. Thus, knowing about a strategy is important. It is also important to know when to use one strategy versus another.

Ideally, children will be able to monitor the effectiveness of a particular strategy in a given situation and change strategies if necessary. To do this, they must accurately monitor their own learning (the degree to which material has been learned). Models of self-regulated learning provide a theoretical framework for understanding the role of metacognition in learning.

These models suggest that a person begins study by setting a learning goal (desired state of learning). As a person studies, she monitors how well the material has been learned. If this monitoring indicates that the goal has been reached, the person will terminate study. By contrast, if the learning goal has not been reached, the person will adjust her study (e.g., selecting a different study strategy or allocating more study time to the material).

According to this framework, accurate metacognitive monitoring is necessary for effective regulation of study, and these together contribute to more optimal learning. Thus, if a person does not accurately monitor his current state of learning, the person may fail to regulate study effectively. For instance, if a person inaccurately assesses progress toward a learning goal, he may prematurely stop studying or may continue using a less-effective strategy when another would be more effective. Therefore, accurately monitoring learning is critical.

A number of factors affect how accurately learning is monitored and how well this information is used to regulate study. Age-related differences are perhaps most relevant to educators. The capability to monitor the effectiveness of one strategy versus another develops with age. Adults discover the utility of a strategy spontaneously by using the strategy and through experiences with tests, and they will use this information to regulate subsequent study–selecting more effective strategies. Older children, although less accurate than adults, also monitor the utility of a particular strategy by using it and gaining feedback through tests; however, they fail to use this information to regulate study without explicit feedback regarding test performance. Young children do not appear to accurately monitor the utility of a strategy even when given an opportunity to monitor their test performance.

One approach to improving the accuracy of monitoring strategy effectiveness is to provide strategy-monitoring training. Marguerite Lodico and colleagues in 1983 trained young children to monitor their performance while using different strategies and to explain how the strategy influenced their performance. Throughout this training, the children received feedback regarding their answers. Children who received this training were better able to derive the utility of the strategies and, in subsequent study, more frequently chose to use the more effective strategy.

The capability to monitor learning during study (prior to test) also develops with age. Annette Dufresne and Akira Kobasigawa showed that children as young as third grade recognized that it was easier to learn related items (e.g., bat and ball) than unrelated items (e.g., frog and table), whereas first graders fail to monitor the difference between these items. This difference in monitoring accuracy influenced regulation of study. Older children chose to restudy the more difficult items, whereas younger children appeared to randomly select items for re-study.

In some cases, adults quite accurately monitor their own learning (e.g., when monitoring associative learning after a delay). That is, in these situations, adults accurately discriminate better-learned material from less-learned material. However, in other cases, such as attempting to monitor comprehension of texts, even adult's monitoring accuracy is less than remarkable. Nonetheless, adults use this monitoring to guide subsequent study, typically opting to restudy material perceived as less well learned over material perceived as better learned. Moreover, monitoring accuracy is related to learning–higher accuracy is associated with greater test performance.

These findings regarding the importance of monitoring lead to the question of how educators can improve monitoring accuracy. First, they can encourage students to assess their own learning. As noted above, strategy-monitoring training involves giving students practice at monitoring the effectiveness of strategies. With practice, students also become more accurate at discriminating better-learned material from less-learned material. Second, they can frequently test student learning and provide explicit feedback on performance. Tests and feedback related to performance helps at least older students monitor the effectiveness of strategies. Tests also help students monitor their learning.

Learning to learn requires that students accurately monitor the effectiveness of their study and problem-solving behavior. Higher-achieving students engage in more self-assessment than lower-achieving students. By encouraging self-assessment and developing monitoring skills in students, teachers can provide students with skills that will help them well after they leave the classroom.


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