Steve MacNeil has been thinking a lot about how his students are thinking about their thinking in chemistry. Yes, that’s right. The act of thinking or reflecting about one’s own ways of thinking is called metacognition, an area of inquiry within cognitive psychology. While cognition is used to achieve a specific goal, metacognition is used to evaluate if the goal was met and how it was met. As an associate professor of organic chemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University, MacNeil has been examining teaching techniques that support a reflective approach to his students’ learning.

“It all started with chapter-by-chapter learning task lists [learning objectives] I had created for my introductory organic chemistry students and posted as PDFs to the course management system. I thought these would serve as a useful resource for students who could use them as checklists when preparing for tests and exams. Surprisingly, user statistics in the course management system indicated that students were accessing these learning tasks far less than I had anticipated. I met with a colleague, Eileen Wood, who is a 3M National Teaching Fellow in Laurier’s Department of Psychology. I learned about the importance of metacognition to student learning. We developed a plan to use these learning task lists to develop students’ metacognitive skills.”

Metacognition involves two main components: (1) metacognitive knowledge of your current strengths and weaknesses; and (2) metacognitive regulation, which is assessing your performance, establishing plans based on your performance and metacognitive knowledge, and selecting strategies that you are confident will help you succeed in your plans.

“A common misconception about metacognition is that you either have it or you don’t,” MacNeil explains. To the contrary, metacognition can be discipline-specific and even task-specific. Thus, it should not be taught separate from a subject of study but instead embedded within it.”

A tool to self-evaluate your level of metacognition is the metacognitive awareness inventory (MAI). Consisting of 52 true-false questions, the MAI explores both of these components of metacognition. For metacognitive knowledge, the queries include “I am a good judge of how well I understand something”, “I have a specific purpose for each strategy I use”, and “I know when each strategy I use will be most effective”. Metacognitive regulation is evaluated through questions like “I ask myself questions about the material before I begin”, “I draw pictures or diagrams to help me understand while learning”, and “I find myself pausing regularly to check my comprehension”.

Researchers have detected metacognition emerging in children around the age of five. However, it is currently unclear if there are developmental stages of metacognition, or if metacognitive skills are individually acquired independent of one another. In either case, many students who struggle in university — or employees who similarly struggle in the workplace — have not nurtured their metacognition. Educators and employers can support metacognitive skill formation. This can involve some brief training to introduce individuals to the concept of metacognition and its value in learning/performance, self predictions, and postdictions — explanations after the fact — on performance. These activities even include written reflections on discrepancies between what participants thought they could do and what external evaluation actually revealed.

“We have developed a number of resources to prompt students to think about their level of knowledge and test readiness,” says MacNeil, who describes a specific type of metacognitive training tool called learning task inventories. “Students indicate the learning tasks they think they are able to complete then take a quiz on a subset of these learning tasks to see if they actually can.”

In the book Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning, Marsha Lovett posits that “metacognitive skills are critical, and they are more likely to be learned when they are integral to our instructional strategy.” She advocates the use of exam wrappers — structured reflection activities that prompt students to practice key metacognitive skills after they get back their graded exams.

As for MacNeil, he continues to think about how his students think about their thinking. “Our research has shown that completing metacognitive activities, like the learning task inventories, can lead to higher final exam grades. Learning about metacognition has allowed me to better understand why my students tend to struggle with my course. It’s not so much the level of difficulty of the course concepts but the lack of strategies students have to help them deal with the course content.”

MacNeil is one of the CSC Chemistry Education division representatives and co-organizer of the Chemistry Education Research symposium for the 102nd Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition, which will take place in Quebec City this June. I encourage you to stop by the symposium and find out more about what he’s thinking.

Brett McCollum is a professor of chemistry at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, a 2019 3M National Teaching Fellow, and chair of SoTL Canada (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Canada). His research focuses on effective uses of technology for chemistry education, student development of chemical language and representational competencies, and approaches to enhancing student engagement in research partnerships.

Auguste Rodin's The Thinker (Le Penseur) on Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (Le Penseur) on Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus. Photo caption: Beyond My Ken