The Science of Knowing About Knowing

LAKSHMI on July 09, 2015

The digital age is ideally suited to support different learning styles and pathways that enhance the quality of learning process. Digitally-supported self-directed learning is now an integral part of both formal and informal education and blended learning is no longer merely a concept on paper. However, efficient use of digital tools in any learning process involves developing skills of goal setting, monitoring and above all, motivation.

Graphic on knowledge and learning

Metacognition, “knowing about knowing”, a recent buzzword in educational psychology, is the ability to control one's cognitive (or learning) processes and is being increasingly recognized as an important trait to be developed among children for academic success. Naturally, learning in the digital environment requires metacognitive skills with which the student becomes aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and accordingly sets learning goals for herself, monitors her progress, and regulates the process for optimization. A student following a metacognitive strategy in digital learning must answer the following tactical questions during the learning process:

  • What are the goals of learning?
  • What are the tools to be used?
  • How will I learn?
  • How will I pace myself?
  • How will I monitor what I have learnt?
  • What is the fit between the new content and my existing knowledge?
  • How well have I learned?
  • Can this new knowledge or skill be applied to other subject areas or situations?

These are questions that must be addressed periodically, in order to make necessary course corrections in the learning process and to utilize time and resources efficiently.

Research studies have shown that students who lack metacognitive skills learn little and the use of the digital environment could even be detrimental in such cases. Although it was formerly thought that such skills are ingrained, it is now believed that metacognition can indeed be learned.  There are three key elements to metacognition and these three keys must be provided to each student to unlock her learning potential in the digital domain.

Attitude

The foundation of metacognition is the understanding that one's ability to learn is not an inherited fixed trait, but a skill that develops with practice over time. Thus, it is important for the teacher/parent to instill in the student, the attitude that cleverness is only a matter of perseverance and time. This attitudinal change is essential for development of metacognitive traits in a student.

Goal Setting

This is perhaps the most difficult part of learning in that students do not have the experience to set explicit learning goals for themselves. This is where mentoring is vital. Research has shown that as little as half an hour of training on the process of self-regulated learning can considerably improve student performance in terms of quality of learning and goal-oriented searching.

The first step towards setting a goal is developing the sense of self-awareness. For this, students must be assisted to perceive their strengths and knowledge by asking questions such as, “What do I know?”, “What don’t I know?” and “What do I need to know?” These questions will help them to make real world connections to the information they are currently learning.  

Being self-aware also means knowing the student’s learning style. There are many types of learners - print learners (who learn from the written word), aural learners (who learn by listening) and interactive learners (who must discuss to understand), visual learners (who need visual input) and haptic learners (who need hands-on approach). The identification of the type of learning is vital in setting goals and executing them towards a learning outcome.

Monitoring

While monitoring requires experience, it can be taught through techniques such as “wrapping”, a procedure in which a set of questions/checkpoints are designed around an existing lesson, assignment or activity that must be filled as the lesson progresses. A typical example of a wrapper is this:

  • Rationale: Why are you doing this lesson?
  • Reflection: How are you going to do it?
  • Comparison: What kinds of mistakes did you make?
  • Adjustment: How will you prepare differently next time?

The advantage of wrappers is that students get an immediate and quantitative feedback on their learning process, thus alleviating the problem of over or under-confidence.

Metacognitive learning, which forms the basis of digital learning, is in turn ably supported by technology itself. There are many technological tools for metacognitive learning, the choice of which depends on the individual and her needs. The efficiency of tools eventually depends upon how their content and support are implemented, presented and matched with the learning style of the student. The learning environment must ideally include learner heuristics such as discussion forums, chat tools, mind-mapping and note-taking tools. Diigo for example, streamlines the information workflow and information garnered from the Internet so that information overload and resultant distractions are circumvented. Mindomo is another site that allows one to visually outline complex concepts, tasks, ideas, and other related information in a structured form. Other mind-mapping tools include sites such as bubbl.uspopplet and freemind. Such sites have user-friendly interface designs that help students manage resources, and provide tools, supports and advice.

Digital or not, learning necessitates development of awareness among students about the process of learning. Such developments require cooperative efforts among teachers, educators, and computer scientists to conceptualize and use technology in an efficient manner. The synergy of technology and metacognitive learning will undoubtedly establish a foundation for deeper understanding of concepts and enhanced thinking, engagement, and motivation for learning.