Metacognition: The Power Behind Problem Solving


Meta is a Greek word indicating something that is beyond or after. Cognition is the act of thinking and comprehending. Together, the word connotes aMetacognition.jpg complex experience whereby we can think about our thinking. It is a more conscious act than passively daydreaming, and more active than simply reflecting.  

As Executive Function coaches, we help our students develop their metacognition in order to be more effective learners. Studies indicate "...that explicit instruction in meta-cognition—the ability to monitor our own thinking and learning—can lead to learning success across subjects and grade levels from primary school through college” (Baker, 2013; Dunlosky & Metcalfe, 2009; Hattie, 2009; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1993, as referenced in "The Boss of My Brain" by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, 2014). 

Why would the ability to think about our own thinking help a student with problem-solving? Well, when you learn how to metacognate, you are also learning how to be the “driver” of your own brain. You are consciously taking control of your thinking process, but even more importantly, you are allowing for and seeking ways to make changes and ultimately learn.  

Problem-solving requires a lot of mental processing. Without an awareness of one’s own thinking and processes, this is extremely difficult. For instance, I remember meeting with a student who was highly resistant to organizing his folders and binders. My explanations and reasoning behind why this might be important were seen as unnecessary and burdensome. Respecting the student’s mindset, I did not push the task, but continued to ask related questions that would help him to uncover his resistance. He was willing to engage in an activity we call the Decisional Balance Sheet. In a 2x2 table we outlined the cost and benefit of keeping things as they are, i.e., no organizational strategies, and then the cost and benefit of making a change, i.e., maintaining better management of his materials. Time was the biggest factor as the student believed that organizing his materials would take too much time away from the pressing matter of completing homework each night. Mid-terms rolled around. He needed to review his notes and handouts, review graded materials, and complete a study guide. After an hour and a half, we were still searching for missing handouts and notes that seemed to have disappeared. It was at this point that the student was able to truly see the benefit of keeping the materials organized — but the biggest step forward was that the student was able to see that his resistance to organizing had been misaligned with his own thinking process. It actually took more time to start organizing later in the semester than to have developed this habit from the beginning of the semester.

To be a strong learner and problem-solver you have to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. This requires metacognition. You have to be able to understand the nature of the problem and the demands it will take to complete the task, which also requires metacognition. You have to be knowledgeable about the strategies you are going to use and that are available to you. I suspect you can guess that this is also powered by metacognition. In fact, it is so central to learning and becoming an efficient student that I like to think about it as if it were a sandwich. Wait...a sandwich?

OK, stick with me on this point.

Learning requires mental power and control, the way food fuels our body’s energy supply. As you build a sandwich, you begin with a piece of bread. Let’s consider this piece of bread as a slice of metacognition. You need to know and leverage your strengths and to be conscious of your own thought processes as a foundation to learning and problem-solving. Facts and learning challenges come along in the shape of sliced tomatoes, some deli meat, lettuce, and onion. But in order to really complete that sandwich, we’re going to need another slice of "metacognitive bread." We’re going to need to review and reflect again on the problem to ensure we fully comprehend the issue and have considered all the options. (Also, topless sandwiches are just awkward and messy to eat.)

Metacognition is considered by many experts to be the pinnacle of Executive Function skills. It is also an underlying process that serves as the foundation for other Executive Function skills such as organizing, planning, prioritizing and more. Just like a sandwich, beginning and ending with a slice of "metacognitive bread" is an efficient and masterful (not to mention tasty) way to increase students' learning potential and problem-solving strategies.


photo credit: Student girl. via photopin (license)

About the Author

Annabel Furber

Annabel Furber is a Senior Level Executive Function coach and Supervisor with Beyond BookSmart. She also works as a college instructor and has a background in special education, psychology and neuroscience. She has experience in both educational practices and educational research. Annabel earned a Master’s degree in the field of Mind, Brain, and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Annabel believes in Neurodiversity—that each mind is as unique as a thumb print and no single approach to teaching is useful for all—and that learning challenges often accompany unique skills and talents that require an understanding of the impact of context, motivation, and personal goals. In addition to Executive Function coaching and supervising other coaches, Annabel conducts research and development for Beyond BookSmart. Annabel also serves as an instructor for CAST (Center for Applied Special Technologies) through the Mass Focus program, a graduate course aimed to instruct teachers on how to Universally Design for Learning (UDL).

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