Metacognition through Group Practice in the New Media Classroom

How to Cite

Leslie, C. (2006). Metacognition through Group Practice in the New Media Classroom. M/C Journal, 9(2).
Vol. 9 No. 2 (2006): 'collaborate'
Published 2006-05-01

Metacognitive awareness is a goal of the critical thinking classroom. By making students aware of the thought process needed to accomplish classroom activities, metacognition turns to awareness about how and why that process is desirable. This helps learners to understand how new knowledge builds on what they already know, to recognise how new knowledge might conflict with what they assume they already know, and to transfer what they have learned in classroom activities to independent performance and even other classes. New media have the potential to offer a ground for metacognition to arise collaboratively as students share projects and then reflect on that body of collective experience.

The prefix meta, meaning both “about” and “after,” points to a difficulty in defining metacognition. While both prepositions suggest that metacognitive awareness only arises when students analyse their experience, the prefix “about” suggests something that students do alone, quietly, in moments of thoughtful contemplation. However, there is nothing intrinsic to the practice that requires isolation. Thinking after thinking helps us to understand that students would benefit from having evidence of thinking to reflect upon; it also helps us to understand that thinking about a classroom exercise after it has been completed can help students as a group to reach a higher level of success.

John Flavell coined the term “metacognition” in the 1970s. In attempting to understand how individuals learn, he suggested that an individual’s understanding of his or her thinking is just as important to learning as the information that is learned. According to Flavell, a learner develops metacognitive awareness when he or she is aware of one’s knowledge but also of what one does not know: noting that one type of problem is harder to learn than another, realising that a piece of information must be checked before it can be accepted as fact, and being open to confusion and uncertainty while solving problems.

When new media are asked to promote metacognition, educators point to how computers can help make learners aware of process. For instance, Aleven et al. reported success in using Cognitive Tutor, a program that prompts students to explain themselves by providing a menu of preprogrammed justifications for the steps they have followed. The authors cite Flavell, but instead of the messy confusion he suggested, the authors reported a streamlined implementation: “this format is interesting because it is easy to understand for students and easy to implement in a computer program” (151; emphases added). While the authors reported that learning transfer was higher, the only problems the students solved were problems similar to the ones of the same type they were trained for by the software; surprisingly, the authors have limited the goal of transfer to new problems of the same type, not activating knowledge in new settings or contexts.

Other authors suggest computers that can respond to student responses indicates that new media will be able to better promote metacognition. In a special issue of Educational Psychology devoted to metacognition, Graesser et al. suggest that a responsive computer can offer an environment to develop metacognition as computers learn to ask leading questions like a human tutor. They report that software like Point&Query, AutoTutor, and iSTART helps students to develop their answers more fully. While it may be true that computerised tutoring will be more effective than a human tutor, this does not mean that students in either situation are developing metacognitive skill since in any case it is the computer asking the questions. It is the ability to ask questions like a tutor that is truly representative of metacognitive awareness; the student who learns how to evaluate answers and judge good answers from poor is the one who is thinking metacognitively.

Instead of using new media to produce a directed, solitary experience for learners, metacognition would be better developed by open-ended group activities that help learners develop expertise from confusion and misunderstanding. Because new media can be used to collect the experience of the classroom and present it to the entire class, learners can be afforded an opportunity once reserved for the instructor: the ability to learn from the range of students’ responses to an assignment over time. With the direction of the instructor, students can learn to see a variety of attempts to solve the problems of a course, understand the misconceptions that interfere with learning, and watch metacognitive awareness develop.

1. Discussion Board

A computer-aided metacognitive exchange is possible through the use of the discussion board. Metacognitive awareness can develop if a student reads everyone’s posts and thinks about the range of responses, but this is hard to get students to do without an appropriate framework. Students can enter metacognitive discussion in two ways. In both cases, students write a substantive original post before a deadline. Then, students write two shorter “response” posts before a second deadline.

Cognitive Questions Metacognitive Questions
What type of narration do you see in the novel so far?

— and —

Is the narrator of the novel a first-person narrator?
Divide students into three groups:
1. Preview (before class): What are the important aspects of narration so far?
2. Review (after class): What important aspects came up during class?
3. Evaluate (after all posts): What are the most important aspects of narration?
Discussion board example 1

Cognitive Question Metacognitive Questions
Write a preliminary thesis based on the works we have studied so far. Evaluate one of the following thesis statements:
1. In this paper, I will explain how Cavendish fails to use characterisation in The Blazing World.
2. Both The Blazing World and Persian Letters use an interesting narrator.
Discussion board example 2

These types of questions help students to use their own pre-existing knowledge and assumptions to form the basis of discussion. Instead of being guided through the steps to reach an answer, a discussion based on prior commentary from the instructor helps students develop the capacity to evaluate attempts, to recognize error, and to adapt erroneous attempts to reach an acceptable answer.

2. Student Gallery

In using a discussion board, the goal is often cognitive: present writing that demonstrates knowledge of the information. However, since a discussion board also provides a record of what all students are thinking, students can reflect on what was said and use the group experience to produce metacognition. Secondly, as an open environment, a discussion board can be a space where students can write their own questions.

Cognitive Question Metacognitive Questions
Is the following sentence punctuated properly?

Whenever we go to class, there are not enough chairs.
1. Post two sentences on discussion board: one correctly punctuated and one that contains a punctuation error.

2. Look at the questions posted by one of your classmates. Indicate which is correct and correct the sentence with an error.
Gallery example 1

Cognitive Question Metacognitive Question
Share your essay with your neighbour. Post your essay on the discussion board.
In two posts of at least 50 words, critique the essays of your classmates. In your post, comment only on _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ [Fill in the blank with the most recent classroom topic: “address the audience,” “create an imaginative introduction,” etc.]
Gallery example 2

A textbook provides a collection of topics that are important for a course; the gallery use of a discussion board can add to a course a metacognitive textbook to promote student learning based on the range of thoughts, misconceptions, and successes a student is likely to have. This textbook cannot be preprogrammed; it must be based on actual student thinking—something that the projects outlined below provide. Furthermore, new media can provide records of each iteration so that the path of learner development can be documented for the classroom, allowing a ground for an instructor to base teaching on the range of thinking that takes place in the particular classroom.

As the previous discussion has shown, encouraging metacognition through new media is not simply the addition of computers to the classroom. However, by keeping the distinctions between the typical and metacognitive classroom in mind, new media can promote metacognitive thinking through a slight shift in assignments:

Component Cognitive Classroom Metacognitive Classroom
Teaching objective Distribution of information about topic Awareness of thinking methods
Assessment Completeness of understanding Modes of understanding
Learning environment Data transfer Cognitive space
New material Memorised Monitored
Reinforcement Practice (drills and exercises) Reflection (review and evaluation)
Assignment components Decode, organise, store, retrieve Separate into parts, compare cases, apply concepts, prioritise strategies
Solutions to problems How are problems solved? What problems are there to be solved? Why solve problems?
Knowledge of the subject Knowledge about the subject
Role of new media Perfection of performance Collection of experience

The use of computers to promote metacognition seems natural, since they are ideal at providing multiple versions, conversations between students and the instructor and among students, and they make it easy for students to review the record of past transactions to strengthen their understanding.

Author Biography

Chris Leslie