How To Improve Your Metacognition and Why It Matters
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
A crucial aspect of learning is to know when you can stop studying a specific topic and move to the next or when to wrap-up studying altogether. A straightforward strategy would be to stop when you think you have mastered the topic. For this strategy to be successful, you need to have a good idea about what you know and what you don’t know (yet). Our metacognition is in charge of exactly that: It is the knowledge of our knowledge (1). Making accurate and reliable metacognitive judgments enables the learner to allocate study time to the topics that needs further studying instead of wasting time on topics that have been mastered or stopping studying prematurely.
Metacognitive judgments are assessed by looking at the relationship (i.e., correlation) between the learner’s prediction of how well she thinks she will do on a future test and the actual performance on that test. Metacognitive judgments are thought to be accurate if high and positive correlations are found, i.e., the higher the learner’s prediction of their understanding and future test performance, the higher their actual test performance. A perfect correlation would have a value of 1. In such a scenario, a students’ prediction and their test performance would match perfectly. However, research has shown that students are generally quite poor in judging what they know and don’t know. Maki (2) summarized findings from different studies and found metacognitive accuracy to be at only .27. Be aware: A correlation of 0 would mean that there is no relationship between one’s prediction and the actual test score and a value of only .27 indicates a quite weak association, on which you certainly should not base your study decisions on. This shows that students are usually overconfident in what they have grasped about a topic and this translates into – for them often surprisingly – low test scores.
But there is no need to panic: Keep calm and enjoy the recommendations that research has shown to improve your metacognition. Let’s look at some studies that have investigated different strategies to increase your metacognitive accuracy for studying textbook passages.
- Make sure to comprehend the text
It is important to find ways to process the text deeper and in more elaborative ways. Anderson and Thiede (3) had participants read text passages and write a summary of the text either immediately after reading it or after a delay (a control group wrote no summary at all). They found that participants’ metacognitive judgments were more accurate (above .60) if they had written the summary after a delay compared to immediately (.30). Interestingly, the control group that had not written a summary at all did not differ significantly from the immediate summary group. Another study (4) found similar results by having participants generate keywords (instead of full-blown summaries) either immediately after reading each of six texts or after reading all texts (delayed keyword condition). Thus, delaying processing of a text through self-generated summaries or keywords considerably increases one’s metacognitive accuracy. The authors assume that re-engaging with the text after a delay urges students to focus more on the gist of the text which fosters conceptual understanding. In contrast, engaging with the text right after having read it leads them to focus on isolated ideas without interconnecting them.
- Make sure to retrieve text details from memory
As you know, one of the six successful learning strategies is retrieval practice. Thus, retrieving information from memory has been shown to be an excellent learning technique. Furthermore, Dunlosky, Rawson, and Middleton (5) showed that it can significantly boost your metacognitive accuracy, too. In their study, one group was required to attempt to retrieve the answer to specific questions before making a prediction on how well they would be able to answer that specific question on a later test; the other group were not explicitly asked to practice retrieval before giving the judgment. Simply asking participants to retrieve details from memory improved their metacognitive accuracy from .57 (no retrieval group) to .73 (retrieval group).
- Make sure to get feedback
Feedback is key to learning, but also to achieving highly accurate metacognition, it seems. Rawson and Dunlosky (6) showed that the metacognitive benefits of retrieval practice can be further enhanced if corrective feedback is provided to students after they attempted retrieval. Giving students the correct answer after their retrieval attempt increased their metacognitive accuracy to --- drum roll --- an incredible .92. Hence, very close to a perfect prediction of their test performance in the future.
To sum up, students will base the decision on what, when, and for how long to study on their metacognition. Inaccurate metacognitive judgments will lead to detrimental study decisions. For example, students may stop studying when in fact the material has not yet been fully comprehended or may waste time going over material that has already been mastered. I have highlighted three aspects that can help improve one’s metacognitive accuracy: First, have a delay between reading a text and re-engaging with it. Second, practice retrieval of specific details from the text. And, third, make sure to get the correct answer after your retrieval attempt. All these points, enable you to obtain a better insight into the status of your own knowledge and, in turn, allows you to make more efficient study choices.
(1) Metcalfe, J. (2009). Metacognitive judgments and control of study. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 159-163.
(2) Maki, R. H. (1998). Test predictions over text material. In D. J. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, & A. C. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in educational theory and practice (p. 117-144). New York: Routledge.
(3) Anderson, M. C., & Thiede, K. W. (2008). Why do delayed summaries improve metacomprehension accuracy? Acta psychologica, 128, 110-118.
(4) Thiede, K. W., Anderson, M., & Therriault, D. (2003). Accuracy of metacognitive monitoring affects learning of texts. Journal of educational psychology, 95, 66-73.
(5) Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., & Middleton, E. L. (2005). What constrains the accuracy of metacomprehension judgments? Testing the transfer-appropriate-monitoring and accessibility hypotheses. Journal of Memory and Language, 52, 551-565.
(6) Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2007). Improving students’ self-evaluation of learning for key concepts in textbook materials. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 559-579.