How to work and study better by thinking about thinking

A beginner’s guide to metacognition

Have you ever spent hours on a project with little to show for it? Or tried to learn a skill, or study for an exam, to no avail?

Pause and try thinking. Not just thinking, but thinking about your thinking.

Confused? That’s understandable, says Linden Couteret, a learning adviser at NAIT who specializes in metacognition, or thinking about thinking. Couteret prefers to call it “people’s monitoring, knowledge and control of their thinking and learning.” It’s a technique that can be used by anyone to improve their work or studies, she says.

metacognitionCouteret developed a workshop for instructors at NAIT and other post-secondaries about how to help students use metacognition by explaining to them the process used to arrive at the outcome, leading to a deeper and more thorough understanding.

“It’s that idea of making your thinking clear,” says Couteret. “It’s telling students, ‘I’m going to use this approach to solve this problem and here’s why.’” Showing someone how to do something is the cognitive piece, she says. “The metacognitive piece is then showing them why you did it that way. That’s the piece we often forget.”

In addition to the workshop for teachers, Couteret has developed an online module for students.

Here’s a brief primer – a beginner’s guide to metacognition – with five easy steps to start you thinking about thinking, and become more productive and effective in the process.

Monitor your thinking

  1. Ask, “Is this working? If not, why not?”

Take notice when your study or work efforts are going nowhere, says Couteret. “The first step is monitoring. Think, ‘Is this working? Do I need a break?’”

metacognitionFor example, if you’re writing a report and you have no idea what to write next, ask yourself why? “Do I need to do more research? Is it that I’ve been working for three hours and I actually need to pee and didn’t notice? Is it that I need somebody else’s help?”

Instead of giving in to feelings of defeat, ask yourself, “What’s getting in my way?”

Couteret has done this herself. Recently, she tried to learn to knit and was ready to give up in frustration. Instead, she thought about what the real barrier was. She realized she could knit just fine, but she couldn’t purl (knit in the opposite direction to complete a pattern).

Seek new knowledge

  1. Consider how you might fix the problem 

Identify strategies you could use. Is there a video tutorial you can watch? A friend or colleague who can help? In Couteret’s knitting example, she could turn to YouTube, or ask her grandmother or a friend for advice.

  1. Think about why, not just what or how

When you’re looking at those strategies, “You want to ask more than ‘What did you do here?’ You want to ask that specific question, ‘How did you know to do that?’ We often stop at what did you do, and don’t ask the why. When we know the why, our brain actually holds onto the information [about how to do something] a lot better.”

Control how you think and learnmetacognition

  1. Change your approach

Based on what you’ve discovered, take a new approach to the problem. Don’t fall into the trap of being unwilling to change because you’ve invested too much time already. “Sometimes you have to give up those five hours and just do something differently,” says Couteret.

  1. Repeat

“It’s a cycle. Monitoring is realizing, ‘Hey, this isn’t working; I need to try something different.’ Knowledge is what are the different things I could try, and then control is making that change. Then go back to monitoring again – ‘Is this new thing working?’”

“Metacognition has helped me embed that question into everything I do,” she says. “Why am I doing this this way? Is there a better way? That goes for everything from knitting, to interacting with people, to trying to solve problems, to school work.”

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