Published on 2012/03/12

A Metacognitive Reflection On Using Metacognition In Professional Development

A Metacognitive Reflection On Using Metacognition In Professional Development
The metacognitive approach teaches students to engage in true self-reflection in order to grow. Photo by Steven DePolo.

In my 15 years in higher ed, I’ve read and heard lots of ideas and suggestions on how to help students, and taught and given lots of advice to students. I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the advice that we give to students is well-meaning, but is often presumptuous and arrogant. We often assume that we understand students’ backgrounds, what they need to succeed, and how they define success.

Let me explain myself. Since I’ve worked with diverse groups of students, I’ve tried to learn what others are doing. Much of the advice that I have read and heard (e.g. survival guides, secrets of success in college, etc) is geared only for specific student populations, or is too generic and obvious (e.g. simplistic suggestions for students to work hard). But I confess that I also have led similar workshops (e.g. The Seven Habits of the Highly Effective Grad Student). I now cringe at that content with embarrassment, because I see how my advice was generic and ineffective. Moreover, these types of generic and boilerplate advice require students to filter the advice and determine if it’s truly relevant and valuable for their own use.

I recently learned how social psychologists sometimes refer to this “attributional ambiguity”, whereby students can have trouble determining whether feedback is accurate or appropriate, because the person giving feedback comes from a different perspective from the student. And so much of the advice that I gave to students were based upon my assumptions or arrogance that I thought I already knew what students really needed to do to succeed.

Thus last year, after consultation with colleagues, I started a new strategy of helping students develop their metacognitive skills so that they become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, gain more self-control, and are alert to their social context. Instead of assuming that I understood them, I focused more on helping students to discover and develop their own strengths and skills, so that they take more ownership of their work, and become more proactive in constructing their own path to success.

A possible objection to this approach of using metacognitive skills might assume that people should already be aware of themselves and how they compare with their classmates. But there is plenty of evidence and research that show that students do not usually accurately assess themselves. For example, an interesting study at Cornell showed that some students inaccurately assessed their level of achievement by as much as 50 percentage points.*

For this new approach, I created a 3-part series on metacognitive series for our students, and the feedback from online surveys and discussions from students have been very positive. I was feeling proud of this new approach, but then was humbled again by some new research. The research showed how many first generation college students face a mismatch from their norms of valuing interdependence, versus the cultural norms of valuing independence that are often prevalent at colleges and universities.** This made me realize how my content on metacognitive skills did contain a bias toward individualistic self-reflection and self-awareness. Thus I will have to adjust the content to help students consider not only questions about “who am I”, but also “who are we”. I’ll also need to discourage any narcissistic navel-gazing, and encourage reflection and discussion among their close friends and family who can also reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

Thus, as I teach and help students, I often find myself learning and growing also. I am humbled as I uncover deeper layers of my own assumptions and arrogance. Perhaps that’s the best lesson of all, and the most difficult to truly learn.

Moreover, I am intentionally posting this contribution to The EvoLLLution website to receive feedback from other faculty, trainers and mentors on the use of metacognitive skills.

Metacognition has obviously been used broadly in many educational settings, but I’m specifically seeking research and evidence-based methods and approaches that have actually been shown to be effective in helping students in higher ed to succeed, so that I can synthesize and apply the best ideas into our own professional development program for graduate students. So I would greatly appreciate feedback from others, and am looking forward to the dialogue.



* Kruger and Dunning, J. Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, p 1121.

** Stephens, Nicole, et al, J. Personality and Social Psychology, 2012, p xxx.

(FYI, for the 2nd reference, the paper is in the press, and the page number hasn’t been announced yet. But here’s a link to another article on it).

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/03/12 at 9:51 am

Catching that bias must have been a challenge! Did you have folks in your office reviewing the work as well? How did you find it?

Steve Lee 2012/03/13 at 11:12 am

WA Anderson – Thanks for your question. Actually, I noticed that bias towards individualistic self-reflection quickly, probably because Nicole Stephens’ research was very compelling and convicting. Her research was very thorough, showing how many top tier universities really value independence over interdependence by doing surveys of top administrators from these institutions, and how many first generation students attend college to seek interdependence. They also did a great experiment, showing how students are affected by these mismatched cultural norms, in their academic work. Their whole paper is worth reading.

sarah 2015/11/11 at 3:09 am

What exactly is metacognition reflection?

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