The Concept of Metacognition in Self-Directed Learning

Metacognition, often described as ‘the ability to think about what we are thinking about’, entails the awareness and consciousness of the psychological processes involved in perception, memory, thinking and learning. It has been described as:

Our ability to plan a strategy for producing what information is needed, to be conscious of our own steps and strategies during the act of problem solving Opens in new window, and to reflect on and evaluate the productivity of our own thinking (Costa, 1987, p.106)

Whereas cognitive activity entails the active engagement of the mind relative to the subject under consideration, metacognition can be defined as ‘cognition about cognition’, where the mind has as its subject the processes surrounding the acquisition of knowledge.

The development of self-consciousness therefore, forms an integral part of the operation. There appear to be at least two activities involved in the metacognitive process and Flavell (1976) has differentiated between

  1. metacognitive knowledge, which is knowledge about one’s own consciousness, and
  2. metacognitive experience, which incorporates the development of techniques and strategies to remedy or improve learning.

The development of self-direction in the learning situation depends upon both of these activities in as much as it requires not only an awareness of cognition but also the regulation of the cognitive processes in the planning, control and evaluation of the learning situation.

Metacognitive techniques to improve self-direction in learning will therefore involve devising a cognitive schema, which can either intrinsically or extrinsically formulated, and which is then used as a guide both for strategic action and for mental reflection.

Self-direction is seen as an important and valuable skill which gives insight into individual strengths and weaknesses, personal preferences and methods for learning.

Furthermore, it would appear to be an ability only acquired through the management of cognitive processes. However, although metacognitive aptitude is seen as a peculiarly human activity, research suggests that is development is not automatic (Costa, 1987).

Few people analyse or try to understand their daily tasks. Thinking is an automatic process and more often than not we are unaware of how we think and are only concerned with the outcome or the idea that it produces.

Consequently, few people can be genuinely self-directing and Costa (1987) has suggested that those who do practice self-direction and are the ones who tend to possess well-developed metacognitive skills already.

Part of the rationale behind encouraging metacognitive skills is that they can compensate for any lack of previous knowledge by making the acquisition of that knowledge easier and more probable. Thus, metacognitive ability becomes an important precondition for the independent acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Laursen (1993) illustrates the value of metacognition as a learning tool:

‘apprehension of ourselves as thinking and learning individuals is the most important aspect of the ego as a self-regulating and self-producing subject in relation to the learning processes inherent in the learning-to-learn idea.’

This definition indicates that the practice of metacognition is instrumental in the development of self-direction.

Long (1990) also confirms that self-directed learning only occurs when the student is in control of cognitive processes and goes as far as to state that ‘psychological control is the necessary and sufficient cause for self-directed learning’.

The development of control or responsibility, therefore, is of prime importance in the metacognitive process.

Similarly Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) maintain that one of the cornerstones of self-direction in learning is personal responsibility and in their Personal Responsibility Orientation (PRO) Opens in new window model individuals are seen to assume ownership for their own thoughts and actions so that, even if they have little control over life circumstances or environment, they can still control how to respond to a situation.

The use of metacognition in the learning/teaching situation could have an important part of play in the development of such responsibility.

The particular skills involved in the metacognitive process have been identified by several researchers. For example, Brown (cited in Laursen, 1993) identifies metacognitive ability as:

  • knowing when you know;
  • knowing what you know;
  • knowing what you need to know;
  • knowing the advantage of actively changing your own level of knowledge.

Brown confirms that as long as the strategies used in learning remain unconscious it is merely a cognitive process: only giving thought to the actual processes of learning is metacognition.

Smith (1983) also gives a list of features which, he maintains, the adult who has learned how to learn knows:

  • how to take control of his or her own learning;
  • how to develop a personal learning plan;
  • how to diagnose strengths and weaknesses as a learner;
  • how to chart a learning style;
  • how to overcome personal blocks to learning;
  • the criteria for sound learning objectives;
  • the conditions under which adults learn best;
  • how to learn from life and everyday experience;
  • how to negotiate the educational bureaucracy;
  • how to learn from television, radio and computers;
  • how to lead and participate in discussion and problem-solving groups;
  • how to get the most from a conference or workshop;
  • how to learn from a mentor;
  • how to use intuition and dreams for learning;
  • how to help others learn more effectively.

Metacognition also includes the awareness that emotion influences thought and perception, and that one may be able to experience two seemingly conflictual emotions about the same person or experience.

related literatures:
  1. Brockett, R G and Hiemstra, R (1991) Self-direction in Adult Learning, Routledge, London.
  2. Costa, A (1987) ‘Mediating the metacognitive’, in H F Clarizio et al. (eds), Contemporary Issues in Educational Psychology, McGraw-Hill, Singapore.
  3. Flavell, J H (1976) Cognitive Development, Prentice Hall, Hemel Hempstead.
  4. Garrison, D R (1991) ‘Critical thinking and adult education: A conceptual model for developing critical thinking in adult learners’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 10, 4, October-December, 287-303.
  5. Kidd, JR (1973) How Adults Learn, Association Press, Chicago.
  6. Laursen, E (1993) ‘Problem-controlled learning processes and metacognition in adult learning’, in P Gam et al. (eds), Social Change and Adult Education Research, Copenhagen.
  7. Long, H (1990) ‘Psychological control in self-directed learning,’ International Journal of Lifelong Education, 9, 4.
  8. McGuinness, C (1993), ‘Teaching thinking: New signs for theories of cognition’, Educational Psychology, 13, 3 & 4.
  9. Smith, R M (1982) Learning How to Learn, Open University Press, Buckingham.