- Invaluable insights into students’ thinking,
- Rare windows into how students’ interpret tasks,
- Clearer understandings of how learners define roles and responsibilities in learning environments,
- Common themes for how students interact with content across a broad array of academic domains.
About the Data
The data behind this series consists of 522 documentation reports collected during the 2012-2014 academic years. During this period, more than 40 tutors working with 80+ students provided help in a wide range of disciplines. The tutoring sessions typically were one-hour events, and tutors saw students an average of six sessions (with some follow-up/check-up sessions). This article launches what I hope will foster dialog about metacognitive tutoring. For the past decade or so, I’ve been training tutors at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC, to incorporate metacognitive strategies in their tutoring sessions. Metacognition has been a useful construct and has helped us significantly improve the teaching and learning experience for students, student-athletes, tutors and faculty. In 2012, the National College Learning Center Association (NCLCA) awarded me the Brenda Pfaehler Professional Development Grant and encouraged me to develop a national metacognitive tutoring model. This honor provided me a rich opportunity to share the model with colleagues, and to build rewarding professional relationships with colleagues throughout the world.
But what is metacognition? And why should I care about it?
In school, students are measured on how well they learn. Throughout the learning process, students exert their thinking skills on various academic tasks. If students think well, they learn well and perform well. However, if they think poorly, they learn insufficiently and their performance suffers. In either case, metacognition is key to improving performance. In the simplest terms, metacognition is thinking about one’s thinking. However, Taylor (1999) provides a particularly descriptive research definition: Metacognition is an appreciation of what one already knows, together with a correct apprehension of the learning task and what knowledge and skills it requires, combined with the agility to make correct inferences about how to apply one’s strategic knowledge to a particular situation and to do so efficiently and reliably. (1) I like to think of metacognition as the mechanics of thinking and learning. Students’ metacognitive functioning creates the conditions for how students will interact with content. Metacognition involves the levels and phases of interaction of one’s thinking as it intersects with the various tasks.
Metacognition operates on a continuum from awareness to control. It includes a planning, monitoring and evaluation phase. All students have some degree of metacognition; however, students differ on their degree of awareness and control. Metacognition makes the invisible process of interaction that occurs throughout learning more visible and concrete. As a result, students and helpers are less likely to misinterpret and misdiagnose learning problems and are more likely to significantly improve students’ thinking, learning and performance (in that exact order). Metacognition is relevant because researchers have linked metacognitive skills to an impressive array of performance measures and learning constructs. It’s safe to say that if there is one skill that can take students farther and faster toward becoming effective learners, metacognition is it.
Researchers have also noted the following:
- Short term, targeted interventions can produce long-term improvements in learning and performance.
- Metacognition has been correlated to academic performance in a wide variety of academic domains (e.g., sciences, history, math, nursing) and academic tasks (i.e., writing, research, reading comprehension, note taking).
- If students are able to think about a topic, then they are equipped to develop their metacognitive skills regarding the topic.
- Metacognition improves learning and performance of low, middle and high-performing students.
And what exactly is metacognitive tutoring?
The learning experience consists of navigating information and cognitive functions from various settings. In each setting, students’ roles and responsibilities differ. Whereas traditional tutoring focuses on a particularly challenging subject area, and supplemental instruction addresses specific challenging courses, metacognitive tutoring focuses on students’ interaction with content, in general, across domains and academic tasks. We like to call it listening with a “third ear.” Metacognitive tutors address the immediate cognitive problems their students are experiencing while also remaining open to underlying metacognitive conditions that may be contributing to students’ academic problems. The primary goal of metacognitive tutoring is to move students from a current less desirable state of metacognitive functioning to a more desirable future state. The image below depicts various states of metacognitive functioning. In addition to traditional tutoring functions, the work of a metacognitive tutor involves the following operations:
- Locating the Problem – Identifying the task, role, responsibility, setting or cognitive function that is the source of students’ problems.
- Clarifying the Problem – Distinguishing between students’ and faculty’s perceptions of the problems and the actual problems.
- Linking Metacognitive Roots – Connecting problems in students’ learning to their underlying metacognitive roots.
- Developing a Clear Metacognitive Problem-Solving Framework – Moving students from their “Now-State” to a more desirable “Goal-State.”
- Using Tools and Tactics – Using metacognitive tools and tactics to move students toward metacognitive control.
The image below shows the process in graphical form.
After analyzing years of tutor document logs, we developed a categorization system for locating students’ problems. Below is an image of the actual new documentation form we installed two years ago.
The bar graph below shows the categorical breakdown of responses from 2012-2014.
There is much more to the graph than meets the eye, so don’t make any solid conclusions. The picture evolves over time as problems are clarified. Locating and Clarifying the problem will be the focus of the next article. Talyor, S. (1999). Better learning through better thinking: Developing students’ metacognitive abilities. Journal of College Reading and Learning , 34-45.