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Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking

Analytic thinking is generally accessible to consciousness. One way to improve analytic thinking is to become more aware of the thought process itself so it can be modified or improved.

That is an assumption that underlies modern work on metacognition. The root meta- means higher level, so meta­cognition is higher level cognition: thinking about the thought process itself. To the extent you can monitor your own thoughts, you can change and improve the operations of the cognitive system.

What is metacognition?

A simple example of metacognition is double-checking. You may believe you have set the alarm clock properly, but you are not sure, so you double-check.

What exactly is double-checking? It is a routine you can activate in almost any situation: "check twice."

Since checking is a mental operation, the instruction to check twice (usually given silently to oneself) is an example of thinking about a mental operation. So it is metacognition.

What general benefit of double-checking is illustrated by the saying, "Measure twice, cut once"?

The reason for double-checking is to avoid costly errors. Woodworkers have a saying: "Measure twice, cut once." If you measure twice before cutting a piece of wood, you might not have to cut it again to make it fit properly.

Chapter 6 (Memory) included an example of metacognition in the discussion of judgments of learning (JOLs). Experimental evidence shows that people make incorrect judgments of learning immediately after studying.

To make a correct assessment, a person must take time off, think about something else, then come back to the material. Only then can one ask oneself, "Have I really learned this?" and realize the truth.

If you modify your study practices, based on this knowledge, you are using metacognition. Your thought process is modifying itself, based on what it is learning about itself.

Metacognition does not come naturally. Like most other forms of analytic thinking, it must be learned.

For example, rehearsal is a simple means of prolonging information in primary memory. Young children are capable of doing it when instructed.

However, if asked to retain information in memory, pre-schoolers will not use rehearsal. If taught how to use the tech­nique, they commonly forget to use it, when it might be helpful.

Effective and Ineffective Problem Solvers

Arthur Whimbey spent decades advising students about how to improve their analytic abilities. Two of Whimbey's books are Intelligence Can be Taught (1975) and (with J. Lochhead) Problem Solving and Comprehension (1982).

Whimbey found that students who were good problem solvers had an approach different from students who were ineffective problem solvers. To start with, good problem solvers were generally optimistic. They believed in the possi­bility of solving a problem through a careful, persistent analysis.

The best problem solvers started by breaking a problem into parts so they could locate a point where they could make progress. They were active in trying different problem solving methods. They made diagrams, asked themselves questions, and tried to pin down puzzling abstractions by seeking concrete examples.

In contrast, poor problem solvers acted like they believed "you either know it or you don't, and if you don't there's no use trying." They were likely to react to a problem as a whole instead of breaking it down into simpler sub-problems. They were unlikely to try different techniques for figuring out a problem.

Accuracy and Double-Checking

Good problem solvers are concerned with accuracy. They check and re-check each step of the problem, if necessary. They reread instructions. They avoid guessing.

In contrast, poor problem solvers tend to be sloppy and inaccurate at critical phases in a problem-solving process. They may misunderstand the way a problem is stated, or the instructions for solving it.

They had a tendency to take a stab at an answer or follow a sudden intuition without checking to see if it is accurate. They lacked the slow, step-by-step approach. (Whimbey, 1982)

How is Whimbey's advice consistent with the other problem solving techniques?

Whimbey's developed a technique that boosted student test scores. First, he got students to slow down, think carefully, and have faith in the value of a systematic approach. He urged them to break problems into sub-problems and double-check their accuracy at every step.

Whimbey also studied the reading habits of at-risk students. He concluded that poor readers often do not "read" at all, in the sense of systematically reconstructing an author's meanings. They skim.

While skimming, they guess at the meaning of what they are reading, using their pre-existing knowledge. Yet they think they are reading.

At-risk students may remain satisfied with their inaccurate understanding, because typically they do not carry out any systematic self-testing procedures. The inadequacy of their comprehension becomes obvious when they are asked even the simplest questions about what they have read. As Whimbey put it:

What were two characteristics of so-called "low aptitude" students?

Students of low aptitude had a characteristic way of approaching the material. First, they carried out one-shot thinking. Their initial attempt at understanding a problem or a passage was likely to be their last...

Second, the low-aptitude students were more willing to tolerate gaps in their knowledge than high-aptitude students. If they didn't understand something, it did not bother them; they just plunged ahead... (p.47)

The phrase one-shot thinking was originally used by the researchers Bereiter and Engelmann to describe the response styles of disadvantaged preschool children. Such children seemed to think a teacher wanted answers quickly, so they would provide an answer right away, even if it was wrong.

What do some African-American scholars believe?

Some African-American scholars believe the quick-reacting cognitive style is more common in their communities because of value placed on quick verbal give-and-take in witty exchanges among family members and friends. The child picks up the idea that a quick answer is valued and takes this assumption to school, where it may lead to problems.

As a rule, intelligence tests (like multiple choice tests in college classrooms) present problems in which the obvious or first guess is not the right answer. A child raised in the quick answer tradition may do poorly on such tests.

This does not mean the child is stupid. It means that an adjustment in cognitive style is necessary to do well in school.

What did Whimbey discover, when he taught students to slow down and test themselves?

Whimbey developed techniques for training students to slow down and test their own answers before making a decision. Almost all students who followed his instructions improved their performance on standardized tests.

Classic Biases and Fallacies

Metacognition is required, almost by definition, to avoid falling into common traps and fallacies of thinking. They would not be common if they were not easy, default ways of thinking...that happen to produce errors.

A well-known body of work in cognitive psychology revolves around identification of biases and fallacies in human reasoning. Some of the most famous fallacies (with a simple example of each) are listed below. Many were identified by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Israeli-American psychologists who studied human reasoning for many decades.

Tversky, who died in 1996, was a MacArthur "Genius Award" winner; Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, although he never took a course in economics and spent his entire career as a psychologist. The two worked together many times.

What are some widely-known decision-making biases of humans?

People give negative conse­quences more weight than equal positive consequences. [For example, Tversky found that students refused to stake $10 on a coin flip if the odds of winning were 50/50. On the average, they required a $30 payoff before they would take the chance.]

People do not deal rationally with very improbable events. [They will enter sweepstakes and lotteries in which their chances are minuscule, or they will be afraid of an elevator crashing to the ground or a shark attack at a beach, all extremely unlikely events unless there are clear warning signs.]

People ignore summary statistics, such as base rate information, in favor of concrete, anecdotal information. [Richard Nisbett gave this example: Consumer Reports may show that Volvos are very reliable, but a person might avoid them because "My brother had trouble with his Volvo and says he will never buy another."]

People show a "confirmation bias" [They fail to change their minds when faced with evidence that their beliefs are incorrect They select evidence which supports their pre-existing beliefs.] This is discussed more in Chapter 15 (Social Psychology).

People overestimate the frequency of events that come readily to mind (the "availability heuristic"). [For example, people think airplane crashes are common because airplane crashes are always reported in the news when they happen.]

How can such fallacies be avoided? First one must develop the ability to spot them. Then one can use meta-cognition to stop and modify the thought process.


Whimbey, A. (1975) Intelligence Can be Taught, New York: Dutton.

Whimbey, A. & Lochhead, J. (1982). Problem Solving and Comprehension, 3rd. ed. Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.

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