Metacognition and Self-Directed Learning

Metacognition is often described as ‘thinking about thinking.’ It’s about monitoring and controlling your mental processes. When you’re learning something, if you ask yourself questions like “how well do I understand this?” or “will I remember this?” you are engaging in metacognition.

“It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of a task which it is performing and survey what it has done.” —Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach

Metacognition is essential to self-directed learning. During online courses, when you’re reading a book, listening to a podcast, or watching videos, you generally don’t have someone there encouraging you, questioning you, or giving you personal feedback.

It’s all up to you.

This could be a reason why most people who sign up to a MOOC don’t finish it. They hardly get past the first section. Whatever caused them to sign up in the first place dissipates. Good classes should put effort into making things engaging and interesting, but this can’t occur all throughout, eventually students will have to wrestle with something they don’t understand or that appears rather dull.

To succeed you have to be able to motivate yourself, to focus on the material, to ask yourself whether you understand it, to think about what might need more work or exploration.

“Imagine that you’re studying for an exam. As you look over your notes, you might decide that some facts will be easy to remember, and so you’ll devote little study time to them. Other facts, though, will be more challenging, and so you’ll give them a lot of time. Then, while you’re studying, you’ll need to make further decisions: “Okay, I’ve got this bit under control; I can look at something else now” versus “I’m still struggling with this; I guess I should give it more time.” In all of these ways, you’re making metamemory judgments—forecasts for your own learning and assessments of your learning so far.” —Daniel Reisberg, Cognition

Let’s look at one way we go wrong—the concept of fluency. When we read something, we can be misled by how easy it is to read it. The clarity of the font, or the contrast between the colours of the text and background, can make it easier or more difficult to read.

While neither of these is related to the content of the text, the easier we can process it the less likely we are to question it.

“During metacognition, the process of thinking about your own thinking, if you take a step back and notice that one way of looking at an argument is much easier than another, you will tend to prefer the easier way to process information and then leap to the conclusion that it is also more likely to be correct. In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern.” —David McRaney, You Are Now Less Dumb

Evaluating our mind isn’t always easy, and we won’t always know when and where to place our effort, but one good rule is to validate what you think you know by testing yourself. Recalling what you’ve learned, by writing it down or better yet, trying to explain it to someone else, will reveal to you how much you did absorb, what you need to work on, and will even help to reinforce your memory for the material.

A big difference between school and self-directed online learning is that in the latter there’s no teacher watching and evaluating your performance. This is one of the draw cards—you’re in control of where you go. But you have to be able to evaluate yourself. Nobody else will tell you where your education is falling short, so you have to be more aware of that yourself.

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