The skill of metacognition in college
by Natalia Baron UA’26 and Jim Stellar
College is a time for students to learn, grow, and pursue their dreams. During this period, students often find themselves navigating through their complex academic journey and juggling other diverse subjects that require demanding work. As they pursue their education, the concept of metacognition emerges. This cognitive skill empowers college students to become not only learners, but it gives them the skill to self direct their knowledge beyond the classroom.
Many students end up going to college not having the needed metacognitive abilities to do well in college. This may, in part, be due to educators in the early years not properly showing their students how to build and grow their studying and learning skills, leading students to enter college education with substandard study skills. Poor metacognition among college students is one of those skills. It not only interferes with their academic performance, but also contributes to emotional distress as it brings about self doubt, anxiety, and frustration, causing students to doubt their overall wellbeing and success in college.
What is metacognition?
Metacognition is defined as “thinking about your own thinking”, or in other words reflection. An article at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia refers to metacognition as “the knowledge about one’s own thoughts and cognitive processes as well as the cognitive regulation involved in directing one’s learning.” In simple terms, it is the brain’s way to use prior knowledge to plan for learning tasks, problem solve, and process incoming information. It supports higher achievement levels for students, increased ability to learn independently, improved resilience, transferable knowledge, emotional and social growth. It is effective for students of all ages and we think it is particularly important for students from underserved backgrounds.
Some examples of metacognitive skills that you may present on an everyday basis is your self-awareness of your difficulty in remembering people’s names in social situations, your rereading of a passage because you realized you did not understand it, or realizing that you know an answer to a question but you simply cannot recall it in the moment.
Given that this blog series focuses on cognitive-emotional integration in developing insight and even the beginning of a professional wisdom, it is important that integration and metacognition have a strong link to one another. Cognitive emotional integration is defined by us as brain regions having a crossover interaction between emotional and cognitive factors. Metacognition and emotional integration work together by setting and changing goals to accomplish in academics, sports, life challenges, and more. Along with that, metacognition also helps people understand and control their cognitive performances, particularly when emotions are involved.
Being a student requires one to be able to use prior learned information in subjects that are being taught at the moment. In early school years, pre-kindergarten to the 12th grade, teachers and instructors should teach students how to effectively learn, study, and use information learned in their everyday lives. According to this article by the Educational Endowment Foundation, students who have strong metacognitive skills are able to recognize their own cognitive abilities, direct their own learning, understand what caused their successes and failures and to learn more strategies. Such students are able to enhance the way they learn, compared to what they learn. Therefore, it is important for college educators to implement such habits in student learning in order for long term success to build on what already knows.
Offline/Online Metacognitive Knowledge:
We found it interesting that an undergraduate thesis at Trinity College, argues that metacognition is broken into two types, reflection and self-regulation. Reflection is thinking about what one already knows from past experiences and is already seen as being part of the experiential education learning cycle. Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage one’s behavior and reactions in the moment they are occuring. Offline metacognition occurs either before or after task performance. Whereas, online metacognition occurs during task performance in on-the-fly decision making. A way that online metacognition is seen is through think aloud protocols, meaning that the learner is verbalizing their ongoing thoughts, feelings, and self-regulated strategies. While a way that offline metacognition is seen is through tests and self-report questionnaires that are intended to capture an individuals’ use of their cognitive skills in different situations.
What are some of the brain areas involved in offline vs online metacognition? The figure below, taken from a 2021 paper, suggests some brain areas of interest.
Those brain areas mentioned in the paper and presented in the figure above include the medial frontal cortex (MFC), and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), are involved in online meta-knowledge, while the, anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC), and lateral prefrontal cortex (lPFC) are suggested to be activated when subjects engage in more offline meta-knowledge and meta-control, respectively.” Specifically metacognition probably has a great deal to do with the prefrontal cortex as that area seems critical for planning and therefore regulates our thoughts, emotions, actions through many connections to other brain areas. Metacognition would certainly have to be adaptable to changes in plans as those changes would drive a different reflective thought process in service of the changing circumstances.
A specific example is the Stroop Test where there is involvement of prefrontal cortex. In this classic test, subjects are asked to say the name of the ink color written on cards when what is written on the cards is the name of another color. Patients with prefrontal cortex damage seem unable to do this task compared to normal people and more likely read the color name. We would say they lack metacognition where one has to use a strategy that is not the first or the dominant strategy.
Meta-Monitoring and Meta-Control
In closely related thinking, there also are believed to be brain areas for meta-monitoring and meta-control. Meta-control is a system that allows incoming information to be organized before one has a chance to think about it. Meta-monitoring is one’s ability to use knowledge in a conscious manner. In the figure below taken from a 2018 study, researchers have found that there is also a potential neural architecture to the function of metacognition.
This thinking, shown above, focuses on particular areas of the brain, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, while also showing the neural system of decision-making and the meta-monitoring/meta-control. In the model, the metacognition monitoring system consists of dACC (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) and AIC (anterior insular cortex), and it reads out the uncertainty information from the decision-making process and encodes the decision uncertainty states as discussed in that 2018 study.
In this metacognition knowledge and control system, there are two parts: The metacognitive monitoring system, and the metacognitive control system. The monitoring system, found in specific brain regions above, is like a general observer. The control system, in other brain regions, manages high-level thinking (like strategies) and is important for rule-based tasks (such as puzzle games). This control system might also compete with basic thinking (like attention) in tasks that involve perception.Therefore, the area of our brain that manages advanced thinking (lFPC region, diagram above) can be influenced by signals related to our inner motivation (from the VS region, see above). These two brain parts, each handling different aspects, appear to work together to oversee and guide our decision-making process. Another brain region (IFJ, see above) also plays a role. So, that is where our brain becomes potentially controlling of decision-making and overseeing our thinking. The areas work together to guide our behavior toward our goals, such as students’ changing academic goals. As an aside, the above discussions relate to previous blog posts on the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula cortex.
So how do we leverage this brain organization and how do we use and develop metacognitive skills in college and even in the classroom? We think this is a critical concept and it will be the subject of our next blog.