Lifelong learning and metacognition

Besides being motivated to be lifelong learners, as we have seen, students must also become metacognitively proficient. That is, they must be acutely aware of how they learn. Fortunately, as with motivation, there is a great deal of useful research into metacognition that we can draw upon. Metacognition requires that a person monitor and control their own learning (Ambrose et al. 2010, 192ff). This involves a complicated cycle of basic processes that the student must master.

According to Ambrose et al. (2010), to be metacognitively proficient, students must be able to

  • 1. assess a learning task,
  • 2. evaluate the knowledge and skills they bring (or lack) to succeed in the learning task,
  • 3. plan how to approach the learning task based on their previous assessment of the task and their knowledge and skills,
  • 4. apply appropriate strategies to carry out the plan, monitoring their success along the way, and
  • 5. adjust and restart the cycle as necessary, depending on their degree of success.

The fundamental point I want to make here is that skills like these must be explicitly taught; they cannot be absorbed automatically by the students as they are focusing on course content. Thus, a critical thinking class that focuses on lifelong learning will look different from one that focuses on teaching basic critical thinking skills. But it is important to note that metacognitive skills are not necessary only for lifelong learning. They also are an important way for novice learners in any area to become experts (Doyle 2008, 135). What distinguishes novices from experts is not so much their content knowledge (though that is important) but their inability to see whether they are scratching the surface of a problem or examining it in depth (Doyle 2008, 135). Experts in a field know when they need to keep digging—when they need to check for errors and why these errors are occurring.

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