Metacognitive Strategies for Expert Learning

metacognitive strategiesEveryone can benefit from keeping their mind sharp; being able to think faster, focus longer, and remember more are huge advantages in life, whether you’re studying for a test, learning a new skill, applying for a job or just entertaining friends. Metacognitive strategies include any methods and techniques used to improve your ability to think, learn and problem solve. We all have good days and bad days; the idea is that by developing the right habits it is possible to increase the number of days per week and hours per day that you feel motivated, clever and bright. The goal is everyday mind mastery; understanding the behaviors and beliefs that affect your ability to think and developing techniques to improve them. Metacognitive strategies range from simply recognizing the mental benefits of exercise, sleep and diet, to elaborate techniques such as the method of loci, information acronyms and cognitive reframing.

The foundation of Metacognitive strategy has three parts:

–         Understanding that the ability to learn is not fixed, and is affected by many factors

–         Planning, setting goals and applying specific strategies to those factors

–          Evaluating the effectiveness of your plans

If you know that you learn better when you study in a quiet place, or after you get some exercise, then you already have some experience with simple metacognitive strategies.  Once you accept that your ability to learn is affected by your environment, mood, energy, hunger, etc., then the obvious thing to do is consciously create your ideal learning environment.  Most people do this unconsciously in some form or another, developing rituals and habits that promote the best results, but to truly maximize your learning potential, you need to systematically evaluate the effectiveness of your strategies, and to do this you need to set goals, conscientiously plan the work you will do and the strategies you will use, and then self-monitor the outcomes so that you recognize what works and what doesn’t.  Check out our class on The Goals of Learning for some help defining and refining your metacognitive strategies.  And this isn’t just for students and autodidacts; metacognitive strategies are becoming popular among teachers who want to improve their student’s learning and teach them the habits that promote high-achievement.

So if you accept that the ability to learn is not an immutable trait, that in fact you can improve your comprehension, retention and utilization through conscious effort, then you probably want to know more about metacognitive strategies.  Metacognition is a broad category, and the strategies that can be considered metacognitive are essentially unlimited as long as their goal is improve learning and they are implemented in such a way that their effectiveness can be evaluated.  Strategies can include any methods, thoughts, mantras, beliefs, practices, tricks, behaviors, or moods that are specifically cultivated to improve one’s ability to learn, but critical to all such strategies are the application of these three functions:

–          Planning: finding suitable strategies, knowing how you’ll use them, and what they should do

–          Monitoring: paying attention to performance and progress

–          Evaluating: analyzing the outcome and adjusting the plan based on the monitored performance.

Understanding these functions can help turn our unconscious learning strategies into conscious ones that can be correctly applied, evaluated and improved.  Mastering metacognitive strategies involves not only knowing about them and their procedures, but also practicing them regularly and adjusting them to suit your goals.  Say you want to master your memory, you might decide to start a training program with crosswords and Sudoku and “n-back” games, but unless you monitor the schedule of your brain training and evaluate its effectiveness, there’s no way to figure out the best schedule and combination of games.

While some metacognitive strategies are simple and easy to understand, they tend to be general performance-enhancers that improve holistically.  To truly become an expert learner you must discover and utilize techniques that improve specific skills and compensate for specific difficulties, and while these often require more effort, they get easier with practice and offer extraordinary results.  Techniques such as Mnemonic devices, where anagrams or locations or visual cues such as the hand prompt recollection, or expand memory capacity, require not only that you know about them, but also that you prepare them properly, and know the right conditions in which to apply them.  Test taking is a classic example, you need to know about and prepare the techniques while studying, and you also have to be familiar enough to use them during the test, and understand how often to review them in order to retain the information for use in the future.  For more help with metacognitive strategies for test preparation and test taking check out this course on the Breakthrough to Exam Excellence.

Metacognitive strategy also overlaps with the field of performance psychology.  Both are aimed at improving the abilities of a person by:

–          assessing the contributing factors of performance

–          planning strategies for improving these factors

–          evaluating the effectiveness of different plans for different individuals

One exciting form of metacognitive strategy that is largely psychological is the technique of reframing.  There is evidence that our ability to succeed in many circumstance has a lot to do with our confidence and mood.  People who are enthusiastic and undaunted tend to perform better on a task than others who are nervous or bored.  Reframing is the strategy of conscientiously determining your confidence and mood in order to gain the performance benefits they offer.  Like many metacognitive strategies, this employs a wide range of sub-skills and techniques which help you remain aware of your mood, have a plan for how to improve it, and evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of your techniques in order to better design and apply them in the future.  With practice you can gain expert control of the mood, focus and motivation in order to make the most of any opportunity.