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Metacognitive awareness: investigating theory and practice.


Metacognitive awareness, an essential element in academic literacy, involves self-regulated learning through evaluating, monitoring, and planning. This article describes a study of how educational research on metacognition translates into classroom practices by examining reading and study skills instruction for students in grades nine, ten, and eleven focusing on the elements of direct instruction through teacher modeling and guided classroom practice. The author discusses pedagogical strategies and notes that the emphasis on metacognitive development makes teachers more aware of how students learn, resulting in better instruction. This study supports the need for additional scholarship that connects research on student metacognition to classroom practices.


Over the past three decades, educators have explored metacognition, noting that self-reflection involves the process of planning, monitoring, and assessing one's own learning (Paris & Paris, 2001; Arabsolghar & Elkins, 2001; Gardner, 1983; Flavell, 1979). This introspective ability is important because it produces the powerful knowledge that enables students to control their learning by demonstrating a conscious application of cognitive strategies. Much debate has centered on whether metacognitive awareness can be taught (Williams et al., 2002; Paris & Paris, 2001; Gardner, 1983). When instruction is direct and well focused, however, the results suggest that gains in practical intelligence are evident (Lambert, 2000; Weir, 1998; Buehl, 1996; Shelley & Thomas, 1996). Very importantly, research by Williams et al. (2002) describes the success of their curriculum intervention program for early adolescents and concludes that "practical intelligence can be identified, assessed, and taught in order to achieve meaningful increases in real-world success in the classroom" (207). This is significant because it encourages the teaching of self-reflective learning strategies, acknowledging that this instruction encourages students to become more aware of their strengths as learners.

Scholarship on the value of metacognitive instruction recognizes the importance of instruction emphasizing higher-order literacy (Greenleaf, Schoenbach, & Mueller, 2001; Paris & Paris, 2001; Thomas & Barksdale-Ladd, 2000; Lifford, Byron & Ziemian, 2000). Researchers know that successful students at all levels of education are self-regulating, having the ability to assess their knowledge and the motivation to review their cognitive processes (Hacker, 1998) and that this ability becomes more important as students get older because of the greater demands of high school and college (Peverly, Brobst, & Morris, 2002; Hoyt & Sorensen, 2001).

Many high school teachers recognize that their students need to move beyond the minimal expectations for completing class assignments into the higher order thinking required by metacognitive awareness (Fritz, 2002; Weir, 1998; Buehl, 1996). Although teachers are concerned with students' abilities to engage in more challenging activities that lead to the cognitive end of becoming skillful, independent learners, many educators seem to be unaware of how to incorporate metacognitive instruction into their lessons. In fact, researchers question how knowledgeable teachers are about metacognition, noting that more than twenty percent of teachers they surveyed indicated that they had not been taught about metacognition (Arabsolghar & Elkins, 2001). Scholarship suggests that teachers need direct instruction on strategies for teaching students to become self-regulating learners (Lifford, Byron & Ziemian, 2000; Ciariello, 1998) and that the teaching of metacognitive skills is frequently overlooked (Shelley & Thomas, 1996). Further, teacher education programs should involve the study of metacognitive awareness because pre-service teachers seldom apply their knowledge of metacognition when working with students in their field experiences (Thomas & Barksdale-Ladd, 2000). As evident, teachers need an awareness of metacognitive research, recognizing that poor readers use self-reflective practices less often than good readers (Garner, 1994) and that the distinction between good and poor readers relates to the differences in metacognitive awareness (Kelleher, 1997). In the same respect, teachers should know that poor readers make greater gains in comprehension though metacognitive instruction than more skilled readers (Weir, 1998). Research reveals other significant factors that have implications for classroom practices: learning to be a strategic learner is a developmental and instructional process (Paris, Lipson & Wixson, 1994) and students' metacognitive growth is influenced by teachers and their methods and materials (Paris & Paris, 2001).

Research suggests that students would benefit from instruction in metacognitive awareness, but a complicating factor involves students as disengaged, dependent readers who fail to take responsibility for their progress as learners. Weir (1998) describes that his students view reading as a "passive experience of running [their] eyes over print, then hoping that they'd 'got it' only to find, when faced with comprehension questions after reading, that they had not" (458). Maitland (2000) notes that students in a developmental reading program do not adequately identify their own reading strengths and weaknesses, while Lifford, Bryon & Ziemian (2000) comment that even though their students received instruction on reading processes, they did not always transfer this knowledge into practice. Some students see metacognitive instruction as irrelevant because they have become comfortable with a passive, mindless approach to their education (Steinberg, 1998). The challenge teachers face is evident: How can we help students recognize that they need to change the way they see themselves as learners?

Within the past decade, researchers have attempted to connect their work to the needs of classroom teachers. More specifically, the scholarship concerning metacognition is shifting from the earlier focus on theory into the current interest in educational applications (Hacker,1998), a positive step for strengthening instructional practices. Paris & Paris (2001) claim that the results of research in educational psychology on self-regulated learning yield pragmatic ideas for classroom strategies, explaining that teachers must be able to describe appropriate learning strategies "so that students can explore their understanding about how they learn" (99). As evident, the movement from educational theory to classroom practice is significant, but important questions remain about how to translate research into classroom practice. That is, what types of activities promote self-regulated learning? Findings suggest that the best way to help students develop academic literacy is to design lessons that include three main components: direct instruction through teacher modeling, on-going dialogue about metacognition, and active practice in the classroom setting (Williams et al., 2002; Paris & Paris, 2001; Lambert, 2000; Weir, 1998). In addition, research indicates that writing exercises, such as reading logs and self-assessment checklists, promote metacognitive growth because these activities encourage students to reflect on their reading practices while monitoring their comprehension of a text (SwartzendruberPutnam, 2000; Skeans, 2000). These activities also encourage students to recognize the connection between reading and writing.

A Study of Classroom Practices

As a professor of English Education and an experienced secondary English teacher and Reading Specialist, I am interested in students' metacognitive development. During the winter of 2003, I worked with high school students in grades nine (n=25), ten (n=19) and eleven (n=16) enrolled in Oakland University's Project Upward Bound, a federally funded effort to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to develop their literacy skills so they can be successful throughout high school and into college. I met with the Project Upward Bound students through a program called the Saturday Academy twice a month for four months. All students expressed an interest in attending college, yet many had weak skills in reading, writing, and language. With the assignment of teaching reading and study skills, I focused on helping students develop an awareness of the metacognitive abilities needed for academic success. Through my teaching I explored the following questions: How does educational research on metacognition translate into classroom practices? What instructional strategies are effective in helping students develop self-reflective abilities? My goal was to examine serf-evaluation as a component of reading instruction. I wanted students to develop greater metacognitive awareness, so I designed a program that included specific learning strategies, teacher modeling, and self-assessment questionnaires. This approach was based on what I learned from the research concerning metacognition.

I began the instruction by presenting students with a reading inventory designed to assess their views about reading. More specifically, I was interested in their perceptions of the practices of skillful and less skillful readers. Research by Williams et al. (2002) suggests that an inventory helps students think about the role reading has in their lives. Questioning techniques advocated by Weir (1998) and based on the Teaching for Understanding model promote metacognition as an essential element in literacy. I used these concepts to design "Your Views About Reading," a reading inventory consisting of a series of true/false statements.

Your Views About Reading

1. I try to make connections between what I am reading and experiences in my life.

2. When reading a textbook or an assignment, I do a lot of thinking.

3. I do not do much thinking when reading a textbook or an assignment.

4. I like to evaluate how I did after I finish reading a selection.

5. When reading a textbook, I take notes so I can remember the main points.

6. Good readers do not have to reread selections.

7. Good readers may have questions about what they have read.

8. If you are a good reader, you will not be confused by something you have read.

9. Poor readers have to read a selection a few times before they can understand it, but good readers only have to read it once.

10. Good readers never have a problem concentrating when reading.

When you have finished reading a selection, how do you know if you understood what you read? What do you do to make sure that you understood what you read?

Students' responses to this survey reveal two main points. First, the majority of the students have an accurate view of the strategies used by successful readers. That is, students recognize that good readers may experience confusion and have questions about what they have read even though they use effective reading strategies.. Second, some students take a passive approach to their own reading. That is, twenty-six percent of the students report a lack of cognitive activity when reading a textbook, and twenty-three percent acknowledge that they do not try to make connections between what they read and experiences in their lives. In addition, thirty-eight percent note that they do not try to evaluate their understanding after reading a selection. This information helped me design instructional strategies for students who have a passive, disengaged approach to reading even though they report an awareness of skillful reading practices.

After I explained the results of the reading inventory to the students, we discussed the approaches used by skillful and less skillful readers. I encouraged students to recognize that good readers employ a variety of effective strategies and use self-monitoring as a means of assessing their comprehension, emphasizing that self- awareness is vital to academic success. We reviewed a variety of approaches to improve comprehension including prereading the selection, self-monitoring for understanding, formulating questions, visualizing, making connections between content and life, and adjusting reading rate to purpose. The inventory included two open-ended questions that asked students to think about their reading: When you have finished reading a selection, how do you know if you understood what you read? What should students do to make sure that they understand what they have read? These questions provided the forum for a discussion on metacognitive awareness, recognizing that engaging students in an on-going discourse about thinking and learning promotes cognitive development (Paris & Paris, 2001).

This discussion was the first of many conversations, both formal and informal, about the importance of self-assessment when reading.

In addition to using a reading inventory, I employed several strategies for effective instruction on self-regulated learning as noted in the research of Paris & Paris (2001). This direct instruction centered on telling students when and how to apply the tactics of metacognitive awareness as they completed a variety of readings ranging from textbook chapters to nonfiction selections and short stories. When working with students on the reading selections, I used mental modeling, the technique of walking students through a selection while describing the thinking processes I used as a reader to understand the content (Lifford, Byron, & Ziemian, 2000; Ciardiello, 1998). This "think aloud" activity encouraged students to develop an awareness of how skillful readers process information. As Lambert (2000) notes, teacher modeling involves showing students specific examples of how to use a learning strategy. Through the teacher's explanations and demonstrations, students learn to use new methods for approaching the content.

My instruction provided time for students to collaborate on their work, recognizing that effective practices can be learned from peers through small group discussions. The group work was well monitored and carefully focused, designed to give students time to practice active reading techniques. The discussions required students to analyze the thinking strategies they used to complete learning tasks, emphasizing metacognitive awareness and self-assessment. Sample assignments included the following: discuss the background knowledge you bring to the reading selection, describe the author's purpose, or identify difficulties that readers might have with the selection. To encourage students to think independently, I designed problem solving situations that implicitly suggested the use of learning strategies we had reviewed such as visualizing the situation or using background information to better understand the author's point. For this activity, I tried not to direct students' thinking by describing a prescribed course of action, but I encouraged them to process the information using strategies of metacognitive awareness. During the class discussion, students were asked to present a solution and to analyze the reasoning they used to arrive at the solution. The problem solving activities involved situations such as studying for a test, completing an application for college admission, or identifying with the main character in a short story. When students responded accurately to the problems, I encouraged them to see their success as the result of effectively applying a learning strategy instead of randomly making a lucky guess (Paris and Paris 2001). I wanted students to understand that they could strengthen their reading skills by becoming self-reflective learners.

Other activities required students to read short nonfiction selections and write their own comprehension questions, a strategy focused on helping students differentiate between main ideas and supporting details while encouraging them to analyze their reading strategies. I designed writing activities, such as a reading journal, to promote self-assessment and to keep students actively engaged in reading and thinking. Through direct instruction, I encouraged students to formulate and answer questions, visualize the main points of a selection, notice organizational patterns, and relate the selection to something in their lives. For one of the selections students completed a form titled

Analysis of Reading Strategic (answer Yes or No):

Did you reread any part of the article?

Did you take notes while you were reading?

Did you form questions in your mind?

Did you stop when reading to think about what the author was saying?

As you were reading, did you form a picture in your mind?

Did you write down any questions while reading?

Were you confused by anything mentioned in the article?

Did you mark any passages in the article while reading?

Did you understand what you read?

Did you try to make connections between ideas in the article and something in your life?

This instrument poses questions that encourage metacognitive thinking by asking students to identify the strategies they used to read a given selection. Students" responses suggest that their awareness of self-reflective practices is developing. Eighty-three percent note that they stopped while reading to think about what the author was saying, and eighty-seven percent report that they formed a mental picture while reading. These results suggest that direct instruction encourages students to use metacognitive strategies when reading, a practice that promotes improved comprehension and a greater awareness of the type of thinking good readers practice.

Analyzing the Results

For this study, instruction was limited to seven Saturday morning sessions, not always ideal timing for many high school students. The instruction was related to the findings of research concerning metacognitive awareness, and the activities were planned to provide as much continuity as possible from one session to the next. The sessions focused on active student involvement and continual dialogue on self-assessment in learning. I observed that most students followed my directions, but some were not fully engaged in the instruction, indicating that although they were behaving in a dutiful manner, they were not convinced that metacognitive awareness has a significant impact on their power as learners. My concern is that these students will not have the skills to effectively monitor and assess their own learning as they continue through high school and make their way into college courses.

Since I worked with the students for a limited number of instructional sessions, I did not have the opportunity to apply the techniques of embedding learning strategies into daily activities on a long-term basis (Paris & Paris 2001), a practice that would have provided students with many opportunities to apply their knowledge of self-regulated learning. In another setting, instruction could be ongoing over a longer period of time, thus giving students greater opportunity to practice self-reflective skills and increasing the chance that they would make these practices a part of their repertoire as learners. Classroom instruction over an extended period of time - a full semester or an entire school year--and in a controlled environment could provide an appropriate setting for the researchers to investigate the effectiveness of instructional strategies and to generate specific methodology that teachers could use to increase students' metacognitive awareness.

Very significantly, I learned that encouraging my students to be self-evaluative thinkers had a positive impact on my teaching. The reading inventory provided valuable information, making me better able to focus the instruction because I was more aware of how students were functioning as learners. Through this study a major point became clear: student introspection helps teachers understand student learning and this results in better teaching. As students provided feedback and asked questions, I could see that they were becoming engaged not only with the content, but also with the learning process. Class discussions focused on what we were doing and why we were following a given approach. Their responses required me to become more reflective in my instructional planning and methods and better able to verbalize my goals for student learning.

According to Dunlosky (1998), the "current state of metacognition shows much promise" because research has produced theory that has the potential to improve student achievement (380). As noted earlier, the research has moved from the emphasis on theory into the realities of classroom practices, a positive step for recognizing self-regulated learning as a vital part of academic literacy. Even though the present study provided limited instruction because of the time constraints, this work presents implications for classroom instruction and supports the need for continued emphasis on scholarship connecting educational research to instructional practices. Additional research should focus on designing instructional strategies and materials as well as on teacher training, an essential element in advancing the role of metacognitive awareness in the secondary classroom.


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Peverly, Stephen T., Karen E. Brobst, and Kerri S. Morris. 2002. "The Contribution of Reading Comprehension Ability and Metacognitive Control to the Development of Studying in Adolescence." Journal of Research in Reading 25: 203-16.

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Steinberg, Robert J. 1998. "Metacognition, Abilities, and Developing Expertise: What Makes an Expert Student?" Instructional Science 26: 127-140.

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Thomas, Karen F. and Mary Alice Barksdale-Ladd. 2000. "Metacognitive Processes: Teaching Strategies in Literacy Education Courses." Reading Psychology 21: 67-84.

Weir, Carol. 1998. "Using Embedded Questions to Jump-start Metacognition in Middle School Remedial Readers." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 4: 458-467.

Williams, Wendy M. et al. 2002. "Practical Intelligence for School: Developing Metacognitive Sources of Achievement in Adolescence." Developmental Review 22: 162-210.

Nancy L. Joseph, Oakland University, MI

As assistant professor of English, Dr. Joseph coordinates the English Secondary Education program and teaches methods courses for English majors. Her teaching/research agenda explores the role of metacognition in the academic literacy of secondary and university students.
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Author:Joseph, Nancy L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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