Metacognition is a cognitive process that usually involves thinking about thinking. It involves how we monitor and regulate our thinking to accomplish our goals.

What Is Metacognition?

Metacognition is thinking about thinking, which enables a person to control and monitor their own cognitive processing. It refers to studying one’s own cognitive processes and understanding how to regulate it in order to gain maximum efficiency. Metacognition is a critical ingredient in successful learning that involves self-regulation and self-reflection of strengths and weaknesses and the strategies one creates to reach their goals. The experts at MindJournal define the concept as “being aware of your own cognition and cognitive processes which may involve a sentient and conscious effort to control such processes.”

It is used as a collective term that incorporates a range of activities, phenomena & experiences associated with knowledge and regulation of cognitive functions. This may include thinking, understanding, memory, learning and perception. Awareness is a crucial aspect of the concept which helps to define it. According to a 2010 study 1, “Metacognition is the awareness and control of one’s own cognition. The construct of metacognition has been useful to researchers and educators seeking an explanation for why some students fare better in school than others.” Here, cognitive functions and states are themselves the objects of reflection.

Generally, metacognition involves the following: 

  • How do you learn how to learn?
  • How do you learn best?
  • How do you approach a specific learning task?
  • How do you approach solving a problem?
  • How do you know which approach worked best?

Thinking about thinking occurs when a person accurately analyzes their own performance and productivity in a cognitive activity, like a memory test. Research 2 shows that apart from humans, many animals have the ability to be aware of their own cognition, such as apes, monkeys, rats and dolphins.

History Of Metacognition

Metacognition can take many forms and is used to learn about how and when to use particular strategies for learning or problem-solving. American developmental psychologist and the father of Metacognition, John H. Flavell first coined the term “Metacognition” in 1976. It means “above cognition”. Flavel defined this phenomenon as “knowledge about cognition and control of cognition”. Different psychologists defined this term in different ways. For Cross and Paris 3, it was “the knowledge and control children have over their own thinking and learning activities”. 

It is a complicated term that involves higher order of thinking skills and is often defined as “cognition about cognition”, “thinking about thinking”, “knowing about knowing” and becoming “aware of one’s awareness”. This involves thinking about one’s thinking process that involves study skills, memory capabilities, and the ability to monitor learning. Hennessey M Gertrude 4, described it as an “awareness of one’s thinking, awareness of the content of one’s conception, as active monitoring of one’s cognitive processes, an attempt to regulate one’s cognitive processes in relationship to further learning and an application of a set of heuristics as an effective device for helping people organize their methods of attacks in general.”  

Why We Think The Way We Do?

Although this term has been around for a long time in the field of educational psychology, it can be difficult to define it. This phenomenon is also considered a study of the following:

  • Memory monitoring
  • Self-regulation
  • Meta reasoning
  • Consciousness or awareness
  • Autonoetic self-awareness

These are used to regulate and maximize one’s potential to think, learn, and evaluate. This also helps in the reduction of response time for a given situation due to a heightened sense of awareness. The knowledge of factual information and basic skills is important for the development of metacognition. It enables leaders to master information and solve problems more easily and efficiently.

Research has shown that teaching metacognitive strategies to students can improve knowledge and learning skills. Studies 5 have shown that metacognitive processes participate in general intelligence along with processing efficiency and reasoning which has been traditionally found to compose fluid intelligence. Experts 6 believe that the ability to consciously think about thinking is unique to sapient species. However, evidence 7 suggests that rhesus monkeys, non-human apes, and dolphins can make accurate judgments on the basis of memories and facts and can monitor their own uncertainty. A 2007 study 8 also found evidence of metacognition in rats. But upon further analysis, it was found that they may have been following simple operant conditioning principles or a behavioural economic model.

Evolution Of Metacognition

Human metacognition adds a top-level hierarchy control overall cognitive processes. An analysis 9 showed that it allows far greater flexibility and ability to plan future possibilities and react to changing circumstances.

The evolution of metacognition has allowed humans to represent stimuli that are not present and that have not even occurred. Mentalizing counterfactual possibilities plays a major role in such cases. When we engage in mentalizing situations, we tend to assume that other people’s behaviour is determined by a possible state of the world and not by the actual state. For instance, we don’t just learn the values of actions we perform but also from circumstances that would have occurred if we chose to act differently. Regretting a certain life incident may enable a person to think that if they had acted differently the outcome would be different.

Sometimes humans even adopt group oriented metacognitions so they can rapidly and flexibly develop new tools. They can do this by sharing experiences when working together in order to solve a new problem. When humans make joint decisions, an additional layer of cognitive complexity is added to the situation. As a result, shared experiences allow humans to develop a new perception of the world and alter the understanding and experience of how they make decisions.

Components Of Metacognition

There are generally three components of metacognition. They are as follows:

1. Metacognitive knowledge

It refers to an individual being aware of themselves and other people as cognitive processors. This involves learning processes and beliefs about how a person learns and how a person thinks others learn. Metacognitive knowledge also involves the task of learning, how they process information, and the strategies they develop to learn something.

Metacognitive knowledge 10 can be further classified into three types. They are:

  • Declarative knowledge: It refers to the facts that we already know and that can be both spoken and written. It also involves knowledge about ourselves and the facts that govern our performance.
  • Procedural knowledge: This knowledge refers to the information regarding how to do something or how to perform a task step by step. An extensive degree of procedural knowledge allows us to perform tasks automatically using different strategies.
  • Conditional knowledge: This knowledge involves learning when to use a procedure, skill, or strategy and when not to. Such knowledge ensures the optimal use of resources.

2. Metacognitive regulation

This refers to an individual’s ability to control cognition and learning experiences through a set of methods. These methods help them to regulate their learning. It involves how a person monitors their progress related to learning and managing the task at hand. Metacognitive Regulation is a mechanism that controls a person’s thinking to ensure they are meeting their goals as planned. It is further divided into three important skills. They are:

  • Planning: This involves the selection of suitable strategies and smart delegation of resources.
  • Monitoring: It involves monitoring task performance
  • Evaluating: It refers to the evaluation of the final result and assessing the efficiency at which the task was carried out. 

3. Metacognitive experiences

This refers to the experiences that involve cognitive efforts that are currently occurring. There are feelings and emotions that are associated with the goals and tasks of learning. Metacognitive experience is the internal response to learning. The feelings and emotions work as a feedback system that helps an individual to understand the progress, expectations, comprehension, and connection to the learned information. For instance, when learning a new language, the person may recall feelings and memories that were associated with the learning process. In doing so, the internal responses may include frustration, disappointment, happiness, or satisfaction.

Hence, each of these responses may be responsible for their learning process and will also play an important role to determine their willingness to continue. So metacognition is the ability to harness positive attitude and feelings towards learning.

Understanding Social Metacognition

Although metacognition is an evaluation of one’s own beliefs, it has been argued that it should also include beliefs about other’s mental processes, the influence of culture on those beliefs, and beliefs about themselves. The expansionist review 11 suggested that it is impossible to understand metacognition without taking into account situational factors and cultural expectations that can influence those conceptions. Hence, the combination of social psychology with metacognition gave birth to social metacognition.

Social metacognition includes judging the perceptions and emotional states of other people. However some people have limited knowledge about the people they are judging, hence it tends to be more inaccurate. Similar cognitions can act as a buffer against this inaccuracy that can be useful for teams or organizations 12 and interpersonal relationships.

Social Metacognition And Self Concept

The interplay between social metacognition and self-concept can be found in examining implicit theories about oneself. The implicit theory usually entails how one operates. However, two other relevant theories exist along with it. They are the entity theory and incrementalist theory.  Entity theory suggests that an individual’s self attributes and abilities are fixed and stable. On the other hand, incrementalist theory suggests that these same conceptions can be changed through effort and experience. Entity theorists are usually susceptible to learned helplessness while incremental theorists tend to react differently in difficult situations. Thus, they move on to mastering the challenge at hand and in doing so they try to approach different strategies to get the task done. In such cases, cultural beliefs can also influence their cognition.

For instance, an individual who has an accepted cultural belief 13 that memory loss is an unavoidable circumstance as they age, may avoid cognitively demanding tasks as they age. On the other hand, cultures with no stereotypical beliefs that memory declines with age display, no differences in memory performance with age. Similarly, a woman who believes in a stereotypical fact 14 that women are not good at mathematics may perform average or worse in the subject or avoid it altogether. Thus, it proves that the beliefs that one holds based on cultural or social beliefs can have an influence on the persistence, performance, and motivation of an individual.

Social Metacognition And Attitudes 

Attitude can have a substantial impact on how a person behaves. Metacognition about attitudes influences how a person acts and how they interact with others. The metacognitive characteristics of attitude include importance, certainty, and perceived knowledge. In the case of social behavior like voting, the person may hold a high importance attitude towards voting but is unsure of its certainty. This means that they may vote but are unsure of who to vote for. On the other hand, a person who is certain about who to vote for may actually not vote because it is of little or no importance to them.

Attitude change may be the biggest factor in understanding how this phenomenon works. Research 15 suggests that the frequency of positive and negative thoughts is the biggest influential factor in attitude change. For instance, a person with a negative attitude towards climate change may think “accepting responsibility for climate change will mean that I have to change my lifestyle”. Such individuals are unlikely to change their behaviour. However, a person with a positive attitude about the same issue may think “I will be helping the planet if I use less electricity”.

Behavior change can also occur by understanding the source of attitude. The personal thoughts and ideas of an individual can have a greater impact on one’s attitude as compared to the influence of others. Hence, in cases of lifestyle changes, it is more effective when the attitude changes come from themselves rather than a friend or family member. For instance, in the case of quitting smoking, a person’s attitude can be reframed by giving emphasis on personal importance like “I want to quit smoking because it is important to me” rather than “I want to quit smoking because it is important to my family”.

Metacognition, Psychosis And Therapy

More than 300 million people 16 suffer from depression. Hence, finding a long-lasting treatment method is crucial to avoid relapse. Metacognitive therapy has shown significant results in treating patients with depression and other mental health disorders. A new study 17 found evidence of the significant benefits of using this therapy with patients. It was observed that symptoms tend to return even after treatments with cognitive behavioural therapy and medication in patients with depression. The analysis shows that only 30% of patients do not relapse after the end of their treatment.

Since this phenomenon is the foundation of human adaptation and communication, research has developed rapidly to explore the deficits and alterations in metacognitive function. Metacognitive therapy helps the patient to become aware of the process and opt for a different and less damaging path. It allows the patient to understand why they think the way they do in order to regulate the information. Developing the ability to recognize and respond to a serious mental illness can help the patient to take charge of their own recovery.

Using Metacognition With Children

Children can benefit a great deal from metacognition. Training kids to use this phenomenon in their daily tasks can be a powerful tool. Studies 18 suggest that children who are trained with metacognitive strategies are more successful during their academic life. Kids that are taught that they are “good” or “bad” at a particular subject or class may develop a fixed mindset towards it and perform accordingly. Hence, it is crucial to shape their mindset in a way that they learn to understand and assess themselves. Teaching kids metacognition can help them to set aside their limiting beliefs about themselves and work towards change to attain their goals. This will enable them to be more self-aware and resilient. 

It is of utmost importance to encourage your child to not give up but to learn to work through difficult situations or assignments. Developing learning strategies can be helpful for your child to overcome challenges. For instance, a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may sulk at the idea of writing an essay because they think they are not good at it. In such cases, it is important for the child to understand why the assigned essay upsets them. He might think “everyone else has an easy time writing this, I am just bad at it”. Thus developing learning strategies and questioning the thinking process may help your child to develop better learning skills. 

This phenomenon is not only a great tool for learning, it also helps children to self regulate when they are facing certain challenges, especially the unexpected ones.

The Power Of Thinking About Thinking

Metacognition is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to help students make the most of their learning capabilities. Understanding the power of thinking about thinking can go a long way, not only in academics but also in real life. The ability to critically analyze the way we think is an excellent example of evolution and it plays an important role in becoming an independent learner. 

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