Inspiring Progress Toward Learning Goals

The topic of metacognition can seem quite abstract — a complex concept for students to embrace. But it is worth the effort to develop a metacognitive mindset in setting goals for learning and in monitoring progress toward achieving those goals. For teachers empowering students to think about their thinking with the aim of improving learning, it can be truly inspiring when they see the resulting changes in students’ motivation, resilience, and learning gains.

A 2014 study by Veenman and colleagues suggests that metacognition, or “cognition about cognition,” may account for some 40 percent of the variation in learning achievement across a range of outcomes. One of the major benefits of guiding students to become more metacognitive is in the context of goal setting and the impact on their motivation when they take charge of learning goals.

Let’s consider a common scenario.

Learning With — and Without — Metacognition

A student of average motivation (he understands the importance of academic performance and wants to do well in school) has set a goal to get a good grade on an upcoming test. In preparation, he spends 30 minutes the night before the test reading the textbook. He is disappointed when he scores poorly on the test. The student might interpret his low test results to mean that he lacks the ability to learn the material, and consequently begin to disengage from the subject. Discouragement and declining motivation could set in.

Instead, let’s say his teacher uses the test results (the student in our example was not the only one who did poorly) as the foundation of a lesson on metacognitive and cognitive strategies to improve study habits. The teacher suggests that, instead of just reading the textbook the night before the exam, the students will spend class time brainstorming strategies for more effective test preparation. From this discussion, the student in question begins to incorporate these new practices into his study habits:

As a result of thinking more consciously about his learning and setting, and more effectively working toward a learning goal, the student will be much more likely to achieve or even exceed his aims. That success in turn fuels motivation to continue employing metacognition and honing the use of metacognitive and cognitive strategies that will serve him well in school and beyond.

Goal Setting and the Brain

When teachers help students connect to classroom goals in a way that has personal meaning for them, there is a much greater chance that they will be motivated to engage in the sometimes hard work required in learning. As we noted in a previous post, the prefrontal cortex has been identified as the seat of metacognition, but this area of the brain relays input to another region in the basal forebrain (at the front and lower part of the brain) called the nucleus accumbens. This region is known as the brain’s “reward circuit,” part of a pathway that stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in response to rewarding experiences — such as celebrating success in achieving a learning goal. Dopamine is involved in many brain functions and is known for its role in important aspects of learning, including motivation, memory, and attention.

In our graduate studies and live events, a central concept is never question ability, always improve strategy. By communicating that learning ability can be improved, teachers can emphasize how monitoring their thinking during learning will help students to:


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