The Science of Learning: Metacognition, Reflection and Self-Assessment

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     The last installment of The Science of Learning briefly examined learning styles. Harold Paschler and others have claimed that existing research does not sufficiently support the claim that learning is improved when instructors differentiate instruction and assessment according to student learning styles. Importantly, however, they did not claim that humans do not have learning preferences. Most of us, in fact, are very aware that different learning environments are better suited to our different personalities. Some of us know/believe that we learn best in a quiet room, alone with a book. Others of us know/believe we are social, hands-on learners. Some of us like the structure of teacher-led instruction, while others of us zone out as soon as a professor pulls up a powerpoint. But might there be a disconnect between how we prefer to study and those study practices that actually help us learn more. This leads us to this issue’s tri-topic: metacognition, reflection and self-assessment.

     Metacognition is generally defined as thinking about thinking, and the term refers to a form of self-reflection. Perhaps the most famous example of metacognitive reflection was provided by the 17th Century French philosopher, Renee Descartes. He mused “cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” Libraries of books and articles have been written to unpack and critique this one phrase. But that is another story. The point here is that you are a thinking being with self-awareness. You can think about the fact that you are thinking, and you can analyze your own thought processes. Sometimes the experience of thinking about our own thinking gives us the sensation of possessing a transcendental ego: a semi-independent consciousness that hovers above our mind. It seems to look down into the inner workings of our consciousness and thought processes. No such thing exists, of course, but the act of reflection sometimes often makes it feel like it does.

     So, metacognition is thinking about thinking. That’s cool to know, but how might metacognition help you as a student? What I suggest today is that you can enhance your academic performance with a combination of metacognitive reflection and academic self-assessment.

     You probably already have some sense of the general environment in which you prefer to study–a library, the AAC, a coffee house, your dorm room, the kitchen table, etc. But to really elevate your academic game, you might want to make your academic reflection more systematic. One simple way to do this is to keep a learning journal. There are several varieties that work. You can keep a general learning journal that includes all your classes, or you can keep separate journals; the notes can be written on paper, or they can be typed. I prefer using an electronic journal because it is searchable, and I tend to scribble, but you do what works best for you.

     The purpose of the journal to collect data on your preparation and to reflect on how your preparation affects your performance. In your journal, you should record how much time you spend outside of class studying. You can then break that down further. How much time did you spend between class meetings reading and rereading (or solving problems); how much time did you spend taking notes; how much time did you spend reviewing your reading notes and class notes; how much time did you spend on other sorts of things related to this course? Try to be precise. Use a watch. We all tend to overestimate the time we spend studying and reading. In self-assessment (as in most things), fudging the numbers is ultimately counterproductive. If you use bad data, you will get poor results. In addition to how much time is spent doing what, you should also jot down some notes about the ambiance: where, with whom, background noise, time of day, etc. Just write (or type) all of this down in your journal at the end of your study session.

     In addition to this sort of data, it will also be helpful to end each study session with a review and a self-assessment. Reflect by asking yourself what you learned and what you did not fully understand. Write this down. When you go to class, instead of spending those few minutes before class begins watching youtube fail videos, memes or scrolling social media, review your notes so that they are fresh on your mind, and you are prepared to ask and answer questions.

     If you really want to ramp up your academic metacognition and performance, think of each class as a performance. You are not necessarily performing for others. You are performing for yourself kind of like training for a 5K, a piano recital or softball tryouts. Ask yourself, how well am I performing in class today? Do I understand the concepts? Can I answer the questions the professor asks? Is the skill I am learning in this class improved over the last class? As you answer these questions, they should be followed by other ones. What part of my preparation was most helpful? Are there unexpected holes–things I don’t understand? Did I encounter this in the homework? Are we building on something that was discussed in the last class? Record these learning reflections as you take notes. You might write them out to the side, Cornell Note style.

     The next time you sit down to study, review not only the course material but also your class performance notes. If you were surprised by gaps in your knowledge, examine the notes you took before class to try to understand why you missed A or did not understand B as well as you thought you did. Consider how you might study differently to improve your performance in the next class.

     So, treat each class as if it were a test. Check your performance against how you studied. Determine what is working, what is not working, and adjust. Then, after a big test or assignment is given (an external measure of performance), repeat this process, but on a broader scale. Review what you missed and/or what you got correct (did well or poorly on) and make a quick chart of variables. Do you see any trends? Does time of day or location seem to matter? How about ambiance or total time of studying? Did reading and re-reading make a big difference? Analyze this and adjust your practices based on your performance data.

     As you participate in this reflective process, your academic metacognition will improve. You might also discover that as you cultivate an interest in your own learning process and in your academic performance, it is easier to focus even on the content you don’t find as interesting. You are basically turning to learn into something like a game. One final thing to keep in mind is that during a self-reflective assessment, you want to focus on those things that you can control. You might be tempted to attribute failures to external sources. You might say I have a crappy instructor, the textbook is dry, the content is boring, I wasn’t well-prepared in high school and so on. These things might even be true but attributing your lack of success to these factors will not help you improve your performance. And this leads us to the next installment of the Science of Learning: Mindset.

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