Stanford Researchers Discover a Smarter Way to Prepare for Exams: Introducing MetaCognition, the Art of Thinking About Your Thinking

Ear­ly in the sec­ond sea­son of Noah Hawley’s excel­lent Far­go series, one of the gruff, lacon­ic Ger­hardt broth­ers shakes his head dur­ing a tense crime fam­i­ly moment and mut­ters sage­ly, “know thy­self.” Chal­lenged to pro­duce the quotation’s source, he says, with irri­tat­ed self-assur­ance, “It’s in the Bible.” The quote does have an ancient origin—maybe the tem­ple of Apol­lo at Del­phi, maybe the tem­ple court at Luxor—and it’s an idea that reap­pears in every philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem from age to age. Even if the self doesn’t real­ly exist, some thinkers have rea­soned, we should still study it.

These days, psy­chol­o­gists call a cer­tain kind of self-knowl­edge “metacog­ni­tion,” a new word for what they rec­og­nize, Jen­nifer Liv­ingston notes, as a con­cept that has been around “for as long as humans have been able to reflect on their cog­ni­tive expe­ri­ences.” Devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist John Flavell used the term in 1979 to refer specif­i­cal­ly to “how human beings learn and process infor­ma­tion, as well as indi­vid­ual knowl­edge of one’s own learn­ing process­es.” Often defined as “think­ing about think­ing,” megacog­ni­tion involves know­ing what con­di­tions best enable con­cen­tra­tion and mem­o­ry reten­tion, for exam­ple, and prac­tic­ing it can immense­ly improve study skills and aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment.

A new study pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence by Stan­ford psy­chol­o­gy researchers has val­i­dat­ed the idea with exper­i­men­tal data. In two dif­fer­ent exper­i­ments, stu­dents in a con­trol group stud­ied for exams in their ordi­nary way. Those in anoth­er group received an exer­cise called “Strate­gic Resource Use.” “They were asked,” Stan­ford News reports, to think about what might be on the exam, “and then strate­gize what kinds of resources they would use to study most effec­tive­ly.” Then they reflect­ed on “why each resource they chose would be use­ful” and how they planned on using them. It may seem like seri­ous­ly front-load­ing a study ses­sion, but the inter­ven­tion paid off. Stu­dents who got it scored on aver­age a third of a let­ter grade high­er than those who didn’t.

Post­doc­tor­al fel­low Patri­cia Chen, the study’s main author, under­took the exper­i­ment when she noticed that many of her own stu­dents gen­uine­ly worked hard but felt frus­trat­ed by the results. “Describe to me how you stud­ied for the exam,” she began ask­ing them. After con­duct­ing the metacog­ni­tion stud­ies, Chen con­clud­ed that “active­ly self-reflect­ing on the approach­es that you are tak­ing fos­ters a strate­gic stance that is real­ly impor­tant in life. Strate­gic think­ing dis­tin­guish­es between peo­ple of com­pa­ra­ble abil­i­ty and effort. This can make the dif­fer­ence between peo­ple who achieve and peo­ple who have the poten­tial to achieve, but don’t.”

Think­ing about your think­ing can’t make all the dif­fer­ence, of course, but the effect is dra­mat­ic among groups in rel­a­tive­ly sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. An Aus­tralian study of 2000 Ph.D. stu­dents dis­cov­ered a close cor­re­la­tion between “how they thought about the learn­ing process,” notes Big Think, and “their suc­cess­es and fail­ures in achiev­ing their degrees.” A broad­er study in Britain that account­ed for class dif­fer­ences eval­u­at­ed Year 6 and 7 stu­dents in 23 pri­ma­ry schools. In eleven of these schools, stu­dents were instruct­ed in some­thing called “Self-Reg­u­lat­ed Strat­e­gy Development”—a means of con­scious­ly mon­i­tor­ing the writ­ing tech­niques they used in assign­ments: “Over­all,” the authors write, “the project appeared to have a large pos­i­tive impact on writ­ing out­comes,” espe­cial­ly among “pupils eli­gi­ble for free school meals.”

Each of these stud­ies neces­si­tat­ed meth­ods of teach­ing self-reg­u­la­tion and metacog­ni­tion, and each one for­mu­lat­ed its own ped­a­gogy. The British study spe­cial­ly trained a group of Year 6 teach­ers. “Part of the appeal of Chen’s approach,” writes Jen­ny Ander­son at Quartz, “is its sim­plic­i­ty: any stu­dent, teacher or even par­ent could use it.” And one might rea­son­ably assume that any­one could teach it to them­selves. For par­ents and teach­ers of strug­gling stu­dents, Chen offers some straight­for­ward advice. Rather than sug­gest­ing more study time and resources, first “Look at the way they are doing things. Do you think they could have gone about it in a bet­ter way?” As near­ly every ancient philoso­pher would affirm, we bet­ter our­selves not by acquir­ing more, but by under­stand­ing and using wise­ly what we already have to work with.

via Stan­ford News

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Game The­o­ry & Strate­gic Think­ing: A Free Online Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

32 Ani­mat­ed Videos by Wire­less Phi­los­o­phy Teach You the Essen­tials of Crit­i­cal Think­ing

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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