Implications of Metacognition on Instructional Technology for Today’s Differentiated Learners

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Equipping students with life long learning skills is the goal of every effective, successful educator. The teaching of m...


Implications of Metacognition on Instructional Technology for Today’s Differentiated Learners

Trevor Wasilow Graduate Student Educational Communications and Technology 802 University of Saskatchewan Dr. Richard Schwier February, 2009

ABSTRACT Equipping students with life long learning skills is the goal of every effective, successful educator. The teaching of metacognition not only enhances student learning, but empowers today’s learners to take ownership of their learning, therefore augmenting student success. The purpose of this literature review is to provide a comprehensive definition of metacognition in relation to education as well as give strategies on how to foster its development for all types of learners. While there have been significant contributions to education through the use of instructional design, this paper also outlines suggestions for instructional designers to consider as today’s learners evolve.

Key words: metacognition, learner, differentiated, technology, instructional design Introduction The process of knowing how to learn and knowing which learning strategies do and do not work for an individual are valuable skills that have the potential to differentiate successful, expert

2 learners from less successful, novice learners. This process of knowing how to learn, also known as “metacognition”, can greatly impact not only what a learner has learned, but more importantly, how the learner obtained and retained the taught information. It is this very familiarity with oneself that can lead to future academic and personal successes. Consider and compare the following two cases of metacognition in action. CASE A Unfocused, inattentive and frustrated, 10 year old Logan sits at the back of his fifth grade science class causing a disturbance for his classmates and creating a distraction for his teacher. Constructive participation in class discussions are a rarity and he frequently talks aloud when he is not fully engaged in the lesson or content being taught. Logan has unfortunately been labeled as one of the “bad kids” in his grade. Successes with this student in particular have been intermittent causing multiple teachers to express frustrations while trying to “reach” him, regardless of the instructional strategies being implemented. When given options on an assignment, Logan becomes unnervingly overwhelmed and has great difficulty making the decision that would best benefit his learning style. CASE B Twelfth grade seems to come unnaturally easily to Sienna. She consistently appears focused and attentive during any lectures and regularly participates in class discussions, engaging her teachers and classmates in deep thought. Her study skills are impeccable, preparing herself days and sometimes even weeks ahead of an examination. Sienna has carefully chosen the high school courses that she needs in order to fulfill her dream of enrolling in medical school and her teachers have no doubt that she will indeed obtain this goal. Thanks to learning inventories and metacognitive processes taught throughout her elementary and secondary education, she is fully aware of her individual learning style and uses this knowledge to support and monitor her learning. When given options on an assignment, Sienna never hesitates to choose the option that best supports her learning style, bettering her chances of success. These two young learners clearly differ in several ways. What happened for Sienna that did not, or has not yet happened for Logan? What in fact is metacognition and how does its understanding in elementary and secondary education support self-monitored, successful learners? Are all learners capable of using their knowledge of metacognition to deepen their understanding of concepts or do there exist varying levels of learners, some of whom are capable and some whom are not? What are the roles of the student and the teacher in teaching and supporting metacognition in action? Can the use of technology and instructional design be used to manifest the benefits of this learning strategy? If so, what instructional technology strategies can help? Metacognition What exactly is metacognition? This 21st century term has been defined as, “an awareness of one’s own cognitive processes rather than the content of those processes together with the use that self awareness in controlling and improving cognitive processes” (Biggs and Moore, 1993, p 527). By contrast, Flavell (1976) labeled metacognition as, “monitoring of cognitive processes”.


While the full understanding of this concept is much more complicated, metacognition can be simply thought of as “knowing how to learn” or “thinking about thinking”. This is an integral part of the learning process, showcasing learners’ self-reflection upon their learning. Rather than just focusing upon the subject at hand or the lesson being taught, students need to be able to reflect on how they understand concepts through the use of thinking about how they are learning. This very reflection then allows the student to focus on any successes or areas of improvement. Goals may then be set to improve upon problem areas for future use. If learners are aware of their metacognitive processes, they will more than likely hesitate less when given a problem as well as possess stronger problem-solving skills. Metacognitive learners will do this by: • • • • • •

planning, deciding what their goals are and what strategies to use to get there; decide what further knowledge or resources they need; monitoring progress along the way; am I going in the right direction; evaluating when I have arrived; and terminating when the goals have been met. (Biggs and Moore, p307, 1993)

Referring to the two case studies, one would be compelled to wonder if both students were indeed capable of the metacognitive process. It seems that the learner in case B is fully aware of her unique learning habits while the learner in case A has not yet developed the strategies needed to be fully metacognitive. This then begs the question: Are all learners capable of using their knowledge of metacognition to deepen their understanding of concepts or do there exist varying levels of learners, some of which are capable and some of which are not? How Does a “Novice” Learner Differ from an “Expert” Learner? All too often, teachers neglect to make the connection that certain individuals in their classrooms lack the ability to self-regulate, monitor personal progress and set goals according to their ability. These novice learners differ greatly from expert learners. Novice learners are the students in the classroom who neglect to stop and evaluate their comprehension of the material being taught. These students typically comprehend more general information as opposed to specific, detailed information. The use of objects, visuals and gestures greatly increase the potential for interpersonal comprehension. They generally don’t evaluate their work as they are completing it nor do they self-assess and make any necessary changes upon completion. Novice learners are characteristically satisfied with completing the simplest step in a problem and tend to overlook the problem in its entirety. Knowing how they know what they know is a skill that seems overly-complex and somewhat unattainable for some novice learners. Conversely, expert learners regularly check for errors as they work and make any changes necessary. Highly motivated, these individuals use the knowledge that they have about themselves and how they learn and apply this understanding to each new situation. Expert learners have the ability to accurately select, control and monitor strategies needed in order to reach a targeted learner outcome. Not only will most expert learners creatively solve each step in

4 a complex problem, they will also think about the circumstances that gave rise to the problem and look for other possible solutions for it. These learners have a strong understanding of how they learn and use this knowledge when confronting a new learning opportunity. Refer to the two case studies to see how different Logan and Sienna are. Let us use the example of reading one chapter of a science textbook and answering chapter questions to compare how they might behave and learn. The more novice learner, Logan, would heavily rely upon his personal background experience in order to make the necessary connections to fully support comprehension. Key words, titles or phrases within the text would greatly increase levels of comprehension for this type of learner. In short, a novice learner would read page after page, thinking that merely reading the words on the pages would be good enough. In contrast, Sienna would not necessarily need to rely upon her personal background experience, but may in fact do so to strengthen her understanding of the text. An expert learner would see the appropriately challenging reading of a secondary science text as an opportunity to think more broadly about the content material and obtain new knowledge as a result. If the reading was too difficult, a typical expert learner would mentally or physically flag a particular passage and either re-read it for understanding, or ask for clarification from an instructor or peers. Expert learners notice when they are not learning and thus are likely to seek a strategic remedy when faced with learning difficulties… Novice learners, on the other hand, rarely reflect on their own performance and seldom evaluate or adjust their cognitive functioning to meet changing task demands or to correct unsuccessful performances (Ertmer & Newby, 1996, p. 6). As the cases illustrate, not all learners possess the potential to deeply involve themselves in the metacognitive process. Learners of all abilities may reflect, self-monitor and guide their own learning, but in order to truly engage themselves in the complexity that is metacognition, today’s learners need to employ a range of strategies. A disconnection from the personal awareness of one’s own learning draws a definitive line between a novice learner and an expert learner. This then begs the questions: • • •

Are all learners capable of reaching their own personal metacognitive state? Can metacognition be taught in a classroom setting? If so, how can it be done and what would it look like? If metacognition can indeed be taught in a classroom setting, can its complexity be broken down into learning chunks, making it easier for today’s classroom learner?

All learners are indeed capable of reaching their own personal metacognitive state. While novice learners may reach the tip of the metacognitive iceberg, oblivious to what lies beneath, expert learners will be fully conscious of the depth and breadth of that very iceberg.

5 Metacognition enables students to benefit from instruction (Carr, Kurtz, Schneider, Turner & Borkowski, 1989) as well as influencing the usage and proper maintenance of previously developed cognitive strategies. The Knowledge and Employability Teacher Workstation (KETW) (2006) states, “As an instruction [sic] strategy, metacognition involves guiding students to reflect on their learning during activities, and then encouraging students to use these behaviours and thought processes on their own when opportunities present themselves.” Howard Gardner would argue that the ultimate goal in teaching metacognition would be moving the students toward absolute cognition which he (1989) defines as, “automatically knowing how to learn and applying the right strategies at the right time.” This automatic understanding of which learning strategies to employ is what differentiates a novice learner from a more expert learner. Regardless of the level of learner being taught and the instructional method being utilized, “learning is enhanced when the students have the opportunity to identify, reflect on and assess how they learn…” (KETW, 2006 p.2). In order to successfully implement metacognition as a teaching strategy, three phases of learning can be used before, during and after a lesson in these ways: Phase 1: Students should know the intent of the lesson. This “before” teaching strategy focuses the learner on the content of the material to be taught, leaving no assumptions as to where the student’s attention should lie. In order to ensure that this first step of metacognition has been obtained, a student may ask the following questions of him or her self while developing the plan of action: • • • • • • • • •

What is the objective of this lesson? What in my prior knowledge will help me with this particular task? In what direction do I want my thinking to take me? How will I approach my tasks? What are the teachers expectations for this learning task? What resources do I have available to me to reach the learning objective? Why am I reading this selection and how will it help me complete the task? How much time do I have to complete the task? How will my performance on this task be evaluated?

Phase 2: Throughout the lesson, students should have the opportunity to reflect upon not only their though processes, but their behaviours that may be guiding these processes. This “during” teaching strategy allows to students to self-reflect and make any changes necessary to guide their learning toward the obtainable goal. Questions used to maintain or monitor the plan of action may include: • • • • •

How am I doing? Am I on the right track? How should I proceed? What information is important to remember? Can I summarize the passage or paraphrase key ideas from it?

6 • • • •

Will discussing the information in a group allow me to attain a different perspective on this topic? Am I meeting all of the expectations for the task? If not, where do I need to go from here? Can I arrange the information that I have compiled in a different manner to better my understanding? What should I do if I do not understand?

Phase 3: Upon completion of the lesson, “students should assess the usefulness of the skills and strategies and how they will apply their learning in the future.” (KETW, 2006) This selfassessment evaluates the plan of action and guides future learning. Questions that a student may ask of him or her self during this phase of metacognitive learning may include: • • • • • •

How well did I do on this task? Can I use this skill in a different class or different situation? Did my particular course of thinking produce better or worse results than I had thought? What could I have done differently to better my learning in a future opportunity? How might I apply this line of thinking to other problems? Do I need to go back through the work that I have completed to deepen my understanding?

Returning to the case studies, metacognition would appear far more intriguing for Sienna than it would for Logan. While a novice learner might create a simple To Do list to organize a set of tasks on a scrap of paper, an expert learner may want to create a complex, detailed graphic organizer to use as a reference point throughout the lesson. Considering time management, a novice learner may refer to the clock to ensure that he or she will get done in the time allotted, while an expert learner would allow him or her self time at the end of the lesson to review what has been done and fix errors accordingly. Segregated into specific learning chunks, these phases can be taught throughout any lesson, regardless of the level of learner. The teacher would need to repeatedly model metacognition in action with the students in order for them to take ownership of this learning approach. This could be done by pausing the lesson at carefully chosen points and engaging all students in a class discussion, and incorporating the above questions at the respective phase of the lesson. The students would then have the tools and strategies necessary to reach their individual levels of cognition. Although we typically think of cognition and metacognition as related directly to brain function, there are also external resources that may be recruited. These external resources further develop one’s understanding of and proficiency with metacognitive strategies. David Kirsh (1999) illustrates this point by stating, “We look at the clock to see how quickly we are making progress. We look ahead to see how many pages are left in our text, or whether there is an example of how to do the assignment we are stuck on.” If used efficiently and frequently, these physical resources have the potential to help a novice learner become more expert in their own right.

7 As students of all ages and learning competencies become more skilled at using a metacognitive approach to their own learning, they gain confidence and tend to become more independent as learners. This newfound independence leads to the ultimate goal of metacognition: ownership. Once students have come to the realization that they can pursue their own intellectual needs, they will discover a world of information at their fingertips and the tools needed to fully take advantage of resources. As previously mentioned, the important job of an educator is to acknowledge any problem areas, and model the metacognitive process. An educator must then cultivate and exploit the abilities of each learner in the classroom, helping students individually reach their full potential. Lastly, an effective educator must enhance the metacognitive capabilities of all learners. As today’s learners have become more aware of the technologies available to them, they have begun to add the use of these technologies to their learning repertoire. As such, “teachers have experienced increasing expectations to incorporate computer technology into their teaching” (Russell & Bradley, 1997, p. 5). Successful educators are aware of this shift and have begun to incorporate the use of technology to support their metacognitive learners. This point is further argued by Gordon (1996), “The computer as a microworld by engaging the learner, acts as an interactive medium and allows for the development of the learners personal knowledge acquisition and representation by amplifying their thinking skills” For these teachers, a large percentage of whom are of the baby boom era, the gap between perceived technological competence and learning to use computers in their teaching is often threatening and overwhelming (Ropp, 1998). Furthermore, these feelings of inadequacy and incompetence may be magnified by the sometimes strong technological skills of some of their students. As a result, teachers thus need to develop adaptive computer skills, including an ability to learn from colleagues, support personnel and students (Rea, Hoger & Rooney, 1999). A seemingly simple way to ensure that future educators have the skill set necessary to integrate technology would be to make educational technology classes mandatory for pre-service teachers. However, this would not guarantee that lessons learned in post-secondary education could always be carried over in every classroom environment. There exist learning environments that cannot bear the financial load that most technologies unfortunately carry. In regards to teachers who are actively practicing in the field, there are many supports available to them to reach individualized technological competencies. In an educational environment that seems to be bombarded with accountability, few teachers feel that they have the time needed to learn these new technologies. That being said, teacher in-services, professional consultant workshops, peerteaching, Professional Learning Communities and online tutorials are examples of resources that teachers may access in order to reach their individual comfort level with this ever-growing tool. The ineffectual feelings that one might experience when teaching with technology may resort one to asking of themselves: • •

What is the relationship between metacognition and available learning technologies? What are the implications of metacognition on instructional design?

8 As more web 2.0 tools become available, students need to learn how to monitor their own learning progress in a multimedia learning context. Many educational games, activities and lessons have been made available which support and enhance problem-solving and analytical thinking. These particular activities strongly encourage metacognitive learning and greatly increase the opportunities to do so. As students become familiar with blogs, online journals, and other forms of interactive multimedia, they have begun to realize that there exists a much larger audience available to them. Students no longer have their teacher as the sole audience of their work. Public sharing and receiving comments from a personal learning network results in a greater sense of pride and ownership in a job well done. This carries an additional responsibility for teachers; it is our job to ensure that the information being created by our students is accurate, ethical and meaningful. Gordon (1996) further argues, What a powerful computer software environment provides is the tool for “empowering” students to engage in a cognitive struggle with new learning situations, allowing them to take control of their own learning, reflecting on their thinking and on the consequences of choices they makes all of which are factors in developing metacognition. Web-based learning environments provide new and exciting potential for teachers to enhance the learning of their students through visual and interactive multimedia. Newer technologies have the potential to reach out to students, stimulating and engaging their multiple intelligences. As beneficial and useful as this can be for some students, the lack of time and place that the internet lends itself to can be detrimental for students who do not possess strong self-monitoring and regulating skills. The Web can be a place where students lose track of time and location quite easily. This disorientation is the cause of the nonlinear nature of many available web-based learning environments. (Conklin, 1987) As is common in web-based learning, learners must make navigational choices and constantly decide which node or link to click next. The navigational decisions that learners need to make while reading from hypertext may present difficulties and impose a higher cognitive load, especially on learners with low prior knowledge (Jacobson et al., 1996). More specifically, this type of disorientation may cause unnecessary distractions for a learner as well as take a longer period of time to complete the given task. Conversely, orientation of web-based learning can be helpful to learners who struggle realizing where they presently are and where they need to go next. Oliver and Herrington (1995) suggest that the orientation can be supported by providing such cues as path trails (or “breadcrumbs”) and simple graphics presenting position. These path trails may come in the simplest form of “Click Here For…” or “To Get To…” buttons that purposely illustrate and guide a learner down a specific path. When creating learning materials, instructional designers need to be mindful of the fact that traditional education institutions engage learners in reproduction, reception, repetition, competition and prescription. Far too often, learners will simply reproduce what they have learned to feel comfortable with, or what they have seen someone else create. There may exist a

9 certain degree of reception, where learners may step out of their comfort zone and listen to novel suggestions. Repetition, similar to reproduction, occurs when learners simply recreate something that they have previously created. When learners are engaged in competition, they are looking at what others around them have created and gauging their learning on the success of others. They are not self-reflecting in an effort to improve their own learning. Lastly, prescription takes place when the evaluator of the given work gives directions for improvement for future assignments. The use of technology however, supports learners in knowledge construction; not reproduction, conversation; not reception, articulation; not repetition, collaboration; not competition and reflection; not prescription. (Jonassen, 1992) Instructional designers also need to be mindful of the idea that encouraging social interaction supports metacognitive learning. Early instructional designers centered their designs upon the presentation of the content, reviewing the content covered and summarizing and assessing obtained knowledge. Today’s designers should make an effort to encourage collaboration and interaction between learners themselves as well as between learners and instructors. These resources may come in asynchronous forms such as mailing lists, forums and discussion postings or in synchronous formats such as online chatting, interactive whiteboards or audio/videoconferencing. Conclusion The valuable study of metacognition has provided educators with a powerful insight that can be applied to increase student learner outcomes as well as empower students to take ownership for their own learning. Although the challenges continue and grow, educators must teach students how to think about their learning, how to self-reflect and monitor their individual progress. The benefits of teaching this learning strategy are abundant and can be carried with a learner to every new learning task encountered. If implemented effectively, the use of technology in instructional design has the potential to aide the metacognitive practices of today’s educators. Although many teachers feel that they do not have the skills and resources in educational technology, it is imperative that efforts are made to increase the opportunities for technological integration. The purpose of this literature review is to support learner’s metacognitive activities in the web-based learning environments that are becoming readily available and easily accessible for all users. References Alberta Education, Alberta, Canada. (2006). Knowledge and employability teacher workstation (KETW) – elements of effective teaching practice: metacognition. Biggs, J.B.& Moore, P.J. (1993). The process of learning. New York: Prentice Hall. Carr, M., Kurtz, B. E., Schneider, W., Turner, L A., & Burkowski, J.G. (1989) Strategy acquisition and transfer among German and American children: Environmental influences on metacognitive development. Developmental Psychology, p.25, 765-771.

10 Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T.J. (1996). The expert learner: Strategic, self-regulated and reflective. Instructional Science, 24, 1-24. Flavell, J.H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L.B.Resnick (ed), The nature of intelligence. Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Gardner, H, & Hatch, T. (1989). Multiple intelligences go to school: Educational implications of the theory of multiple intelligences. Educational Researcher, 18(8), 4-9. Gordon, J. (1996). Tracks for learning: Metacognition and learning technologies. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 12(1), 46-55. Jacobson, M. J., Maouri, C., Mishra, P., & Kolar, C. (1996). Learning with hypertext learning environments: Theory, design and research. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 5 (3/4), 239-281. Jonassen, D.H. (1992). Cognitive tools for learning. Ed. By P.A.M. Kommers et al, NATO Kirsh, D. (1999). Metacognition, distributed cognition and visual design (p. 2) Oliver, R., & Herrington, J. (1995). Developing effective hypermedia instructional materials. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 11 (2), 8-22. Rea, A. I., Hoger, B., & Rooney, P. (1999). Communication and technology: Building bridges across the chasm. Business Communications Quarterly, 62(2), 92-96. Ropp, M. M. (1998). A new approach to supporting reflective, self-regulated computer learning. [Online] Available: Russell, G., & Bradley, G. (1997). Teacher’s computer anxiety: Implications for professional development. Education and Information Technology, 2, 17-29.

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