Developing Self-Directed Learners through Metacognition

The National Research Council describes metacognition as the “process of reflecting on and directing one’s own thinking.” Metcalfe and Shimamura (1994) describe it as thinking about one’s own thinking or “knowing about knowing”. The importance of developing a learner’s metacognition skills dates back to the earliest philosophers who identified this ability as a critical element in obtaining a sense of self and basis for human consciousness. Leslie Williamson, Director of the Center for School Success, writes:

“Metacognition is a key tool for learning. It involves thinking about one’s own thinking. Students use their metacognition when they set goals, monitor their work, assess how they are doing and regulate their progress. An essential component of metacognition is the ability to choose specific study strategies to help reach a goal and monitor how well one is doing in the process. When students understand their own learning strengths and weaknesses they are better able to work through a task independently and use appropriate strategies.”

Ambrose et al in “How Learning Works” suggests the following metacognition skills necessary to become a self-directed learner:

  • Learn to assess the demands of the task,
  • Evaluate their own knowledge and skills,
  • Plan their approach,
  • Monitor their progress, and
  • Adjust their strategies as needed.

Facilitating the development of these skills often yields remarkable results not the least of which is developing the capacity for students to learn on their own. Parker Palmer wrote in his classic work “The Courage to Teach”, “I have no question that students who learn, not professors who perform, is what teaching is all about: students who learn are the finest fruit of teachers who teach. Nor do I doubt that students learn in diverse and wonder ways, including ways that bypass the teacher in the classroom and ways that require neither a classroom or a teacher!” Employing metacognition skills may certainly play an important role in facilitating a community of “students who learn.”

Bransford, J, Brown, A and Cocking, R., editors. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
Metcalfe, J., & Shimamura, A. P. (1994). Metacognition: Knowing About Knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Williamson, Leslie (ND). Knowing How Your Minds Works is a Key to School Success. Retrieved from November, 2010.

Ambrose, S, Bridges, M, DiPietro, M, Lovett, M, Norman, M, & E., R. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.

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