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What is metacognition?

John Flavell (1976) coined the term metacognition. Metacognition refers to higher-order thinking that enables understanding, analysis, and control of one’s cognitive processes, especially when engaged in learning. The more popular definitions of metacogition are:  the process of ‘knowing about knowing’; the process of ‘thinking about thinking’; the process of developing self-awareness and the ability to self-assess.

What are metacognitive skills?

Metacognitive skills include the ability to assess one’s current and previous knowledge, recognize flaws or gaps in one’s thinking, articulate one’s thought processes, plan gap-filling strategies, and determine the relevance of new information. Highly developed metacognitive skills can help compensate for deficits in general intelligence and/or prior knowledge and are important throughout life. Employers need to foster in their employees, the development of metacognitive skills.

Why is this important?

Research has shown that unproductive employees typically have poorly developed metacognitive skills. Interestingly, this may manifest itself in an employee’s overconfidence in his or her abilities. These employees may use inaccurate information to solve problems and stop working on projects before fully understanding what is needed for success. Poor metacognition is a big part of incompetence. Employees with good metacognitive skills are able to monitor and direct their own performance and learning processes. They can think through a problem or approach a project with confidence. They can select appropriate strategies and make decisions about a course of action to successfully perform the task. They often think about their own thinking processes and take time to think about and learn from their mistakes.

How can employers assist employees in developing good metacognitive skills?

Metacognitive skills can be taught (Halpern, 1996). Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Encourage your employees to engage in ‘metacognitive conversations’ with themselves. Have them ‘talk’ with themselves about their learning, the challenges they encounter, and the ways in which they can self-correct and continue learning.
  • To help employees examine and develop their metacognitive processes, encourage them to discuss their thought processes with other employees.
  • Use ‘formative assessments’ during the working day. Formative assessments are brief, low-stakes activities that employees do in order to give themselves knowledge about their performance. For example,  encourage employees to think about the following questions: 
    • At the beginning of a project:
      • What prior knowledge will help me with this task? What should I do first?
      • How much time do I have to complete this project?
      • In what direction do I want my thinking to take me?
    • In the middle of a project:
      • How am I doing? Am I on the right track?
      • How should I proceed? Should I move in a different direction?
    • At the end of a project:
      • How well did I do? What did I learn?
      • Did I get the results I expected?  What could I have done differently?
      • Can I apply this way of thinking to other problems or situations?
      • Are there any gaps in my knowledge? Do I need to go back through the task to fill in these gaps?
  • Offer trainings that teach and support the development of metacognitive skills; an approach to learning with emphases on investigating the internal mental processes. 
  • Provide trainings that are based on microlearning, a form of learning that consists of brief, inter-connected learning activities composed of microcontent. 
  • Present trainings that can be delivered using microcontent audio files. Research has shown that computer-based interactive programs using audio files can influence a learner’s cognition by adding clarity, meaning, and motivation.  

The goal of helping employees develop metacognitive skills is to help them become comfortable with these skills so that these skills can be employed automatically. If asked what they are doing, employees with good metacognitive skills can accurately describe their metacognitive processes.

Focusing attention, deriving meaning, and making adjustments if something goes wrong becomes second nature.

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