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Metacognition and Performance: 6 Strategies to Learn More Effectively

Written by: André Hedlund

Metacognition has become a popular word in school settings and businesses around the world. It relates to humans’ ancient quest to unravel the brain's mechanisms and mind and what that can tell us about learning. In a few words, we can say that metacognition has to do with the process of thinking about thinking. It helps people reflect on more effective learning strategies according to brain physiology and function as well as cognitive psychology.


In recent years, Cognitive Sciences have contributed to a better understanding of how both the brain and mind learn. Nevertheless, students and professionals alike still struggle to establish a routine of “brain-friendly” strategies that allows them to potentiate their learning outcomes. Is there a better way to maximize performance when it comes to learning? Well, let’s look at six metacognitive strategies that might give you an edge.


1. Testing Effect


The way tests are used in educational settings and some companies are highly ineffective. Written exams are the most popular choice and they normally test people’s abilities in retrospect and in a very deterministic manner. That means it is much more a type of assessment OF learning than assessment FOR learning. Assessment OF Learning can be compared to a photo of a beautiful landscape. It is a moment captured by the lenses of a professional photographer. But it could also be an illusion as it does not show the surroundings. It could also be a bad photo because of certain weather conditions on that day. But that does not mean the place is not beautiful.


What to do?


Test students and professionals throughout the learning process to help them memorize concepts and learn new skills. Instead of doing it in retrospect, use the concept of Testing Effect to make sure tests are utilized in a brain-friendly way. Low-stakes testing reduces stress and allows people to take them without pressure to check whether they can remember the new things they have been exposed to. Pop quizzes, flashcards, and game nights are some examples of how you can do it.


2. Retrieval Practice


Our brains can be quite lazy at times because they consume nearly ¼ of our calorie intake and they need to preserve energy for potential harsher times. That means that we might want to avoid making an effort. The problem is that, just like a muscle, our memory systems need to struggle a little bit to make sure things are working. We need to feel the muscle burn so that we know the exercise is doing what it is supposed to. Another issue is that our brains forget things quite easily due to all the information we are exposed to, and the very little time we have to rehearse all of it.


What to do?


The best thing we can do to minimize forgetting things forever and make sure the exercise of learning is working is retrieving recent information. After learning a new concept in the classroom, in a meeting or conference, a good idea is to consciously bring that concept back to our working memory to reinforce its neuronal connections. Do it a couple of times during the day by simply asking yourself: “Ok, what have I learned today?”. Go through the concepts in your mind and write them down on your mobile or a notepad to check how much of it you can remember. The effort will help you strengthen your connections.

3. Spacing Effect


One of the most effective practices to help us consolidate declarative memory has been around for more than a century and we still have not been able to use it systematically. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus officially discovered it and it is known as the Forgetting Curve. As I mentioned before, our brains forget things quite quickly if we do not rehearse them in our minds. Ebbinghaus tested himself with syllables written on different cards and realized just how rapidly our memory decays. He also noticed that if instead of revising the cards multiple times on the same day, he would dilute these revisions throughout a longer period, he was able to remember the information with fewer revision sessions. After all, we consolidate declarative memory during our sleep.


What to do?


A Russian friend once told me that when she was a little girl and needed to memorize a poem for school, she would practice the poem at night, go to bed, and then do it again in the morning. She was definitely on to something and we need to follow her example. If you need to memorize concepts, terms, formulas and anything you can verbalize, the best idea is to study them throughout a period of a month or even more. You can revise the content the following day after you see it, then you can do it a few days after, then more days after and so on. Spacing refreshes your memory and reduces decay.


Read more about it on my blog.


4. The Pomodoro Technique


Our working memory system is quite limited, which means it gets full very quickly when we are being exposed to lots of information. Its capacity reduces even more when we are under stress or in heightened negative emotional states. In short, that tells us that we simply do not have the capability to take in lots of information simultaneously. We need to take a few breaks to avoid cognitive overload and refresh our attention.


What to do?


Have you ever heard of The Pomodoro Technique? Invented in the 80s by an Italian engineering student, it is a practical strategy to help maintain our attention levels high and to keep our memory from overloading. You can download a Tomato Timer app, buy the real thing or simply access a website to keep track of your time studying or working. The idea is to do focused study/work for 25min nonstop and to break for 5min to relax and facilitate memory consolidation. Then you can repeat 25min + 5min and finally take a longer break (15min should work). Think of it as doing a workout series in the gym. The same principle applies.


Read more about it on my blog.


5. Mindset


Although the strategies before were directly linked to cognition, particularly attention and memory, there are other ways we can make sure we learn more effectively that relate to our beliefs and attitudes towards learning. One example is how we think of ourselves as learners and whether we believe that we can learn something or not. This is connected to research about mindsets. In Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she explains that some people have a more fixed mindset for certain things, which means they believe their ability to learn them is fixed and that they might not have what it takes to accomplish the goal. Other people have developed a more growth mindset and look at learning as an interesting challenge that requires effort and dedication much more than talent.


What to do?


Developing a more growth mindset means focusing on the process of learning and asking questions about how we can learn best. It also requires the belief that we are able to do it and that it depends much more on effort and grit rather than intelligence. That means we need to look at the task we want to accomplish as something that can be solved through inquiry, brainstorming and analysis, time dedicated and determination. We can reward ourselves or our students or employees for sticking to the task and working hard. We can praise their effort more often rather than the result itself.


Read more about it on my blog.


6. Self-Efficacy


In line with the Growth Mindset concept, we can say that some people have managed to make themselves more proactive and goal-oriented than others and that is probably why their performance is better. These people can be referred to as self-efficacious people and their process of doing things when they are difficult for them can teach everyone one or two useful things. Self-efficacy is the ability to set yourself on the path that will make you fulfill whatever it is that you need to fulfill. It is about organizing, prioritizing, delegating and reflecting on what works so that you can attain your goal.


What to do?


Albert Bandura, one of the main authors of Self-Efficacy Theory, says that there are four important sources that can help us be more self-efficacious. The first one is mastery experiences or having our own successful performance of something. We sometimes do not do things because we believe we will fail. But when we decide to act and see that we can, we realize that accomplishing it is possible. Secondly, Bandura suggests vicarious experiences or observing others do something and noticing they are able to. That encourages us to think: “If they can do it, so can I”. In third place, there is verbal persuasion. We can tell ourselves that we are able to accomplish something and others can do the same to us and give us the encouragement we need. Finally, there is our emotional state, which relates to how we are feeling and what influence that has on our performance. We need to try to put ourselves in the right emotional state to learn.


Read more about it on my blog.


As someone who has studied psychology and neuroscience, I must say I do believe these strategies can have a very positive impact on our performance when we learn. However, I must also say that I do not believe in magical solutions and that learning is not a mechanical thing, it is organic. And as in anything organic, other variables are at play and we cannot claim that there is a fixed recipe for success. What we can say is that if you start reflecting on how you learn and apply strategies based on robust evidence from cognitive sciences, you will most likely maximize your learning outcomes.


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André Hedlund, Guest Writer Brainz Magazine

André Hedlund is a Chevening Alumnus, MSc in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol, and an Edify Bilingual Program Mentor for SPOT Educação. He is also a representative of BRAZ-TESOL's Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (MBE SIG) and a guest teacher in postgraduate courses on Multilingualism, Global Education, Cognition, and Neuroscience. He is the former president of Partners of the Americas Goiás and he has worked as a Michigan Certificates Examiner. His blog (edcrocks.com) has been accessed more than 30 thousand times by people from more than 140 countries. André has delivered workshops and lectures in Argentina, the USA, the UK, Portugal, Spain, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania as well as webinars to different countries. He uses Instagram (@edcrocks) to host monthly lives about how neuroscience and psychology can be applied in the classroom and interviews teachers from all over the world

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