“Cognition” is another word for “thinking”. Metacognition, then, is thinking about your own thinking. Cynthia Brame at Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has this terrific quote by John Flavell in her post, Thinking About Metacognition:

I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B.   John Flavell (1976)

Metacognition is thinking about your own thinking.

Metacognition is thinking about your own thinking.

One of the key findings about how people learn is that we need to metacognitive about our learning. Indeed, one of the signs of expertise is an “internal dialogue” — a little voice in your head — that continually questions what you’re doing, how well you’re doing it, why you’re doing it.

If teaching is about making your students more like experts, metacognition should be important. It’s already challenging to draw out and build on student’s pre-existing knowledge and teach the multitude of facts and concepts AND the conceptual framework which link those facts together. (These are the other two Key Findings of How People Learn.) How do you teach students to be metacognitive? It’s not like there’s a switch you flick on (“Everyone, please think about your thinking. Thank-you.”) Like any skill you’re teaching, students need practice being metacognitive before they’re good at it.

My frustration with coming up with metacognition practice made me all the more amazed and pleased by the responses I got when I asked my students to write a blog post. The course I’m teaching, The College Classroom, is about teaching and learning in higher education. My students are advanced Ph.D. students and postdocs about to embark on academic careers. Prior to our class on deliberate practice, I asked them to write a blog post about a time when they’ve engaged in deliberate practice. Write they did, and over and over, their posts progressed from a description of what they did to how well they did it and why they did it. They wrote about time management, aiming high, running, running, learning Zapotec, driving, rodent neurosurgery, entrepreneurship, guitar, math, practice, teaching, coaching volleyball, learning English, piano, math, learning Italian, studying, soccer, tae kwon do, soccer, guitar, learning Spanish, soccer, regret, writing, macroeconomics, writing, piano, Scabble, improv, soccer, crafting conversations, and Vespas.

It’s metacognitive blogging
– meta-blog-nition –
pouring out onto the page!

The moral of the story: if you’re an instructor struggling to create opportunities for your students to practice being metacognitive, get them blogging. As an added bonus, their posts are a wealth of pre-existing knowledge and experiences you can build on. That’s a win for everyone.

What about you? When are you metacognitive? What do you do to get your students to think about their own thinking? Leave a comment to share it with the rest of us!