AlisaGross The following post by Acclaim’s Alisa Gross originally appeared on the Knewton Blog on August 5, 2014.

Leonardo DaVinci once wrote: “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery over oneself.” In his journals, Leonardo recorded not only his insights in art, engineering, and medicine, but also his thoughts on the cognitive strategies that allowed him to achieve them. He wanted to not only preserve his discoveries, but also his understanding of the optimal circumstances for knowledge production and creation. Leonardo knew that reflecting — actively interrogating and questioning his own memory — was essential to expanding his mind’s capacity. Reflecting improved his ability to commit images and faces to memory. His creativity and ability to produce new thoughts depended on his memory.

Leonardo’s thoughts about his own thinking would be understood by today’s educational psychologists as metacognition. Coined by the psychologist J.H. Flavell, metacognition refers to a learner’s understanding of his own process of knowledge acquisition. Metacognitive strategies encourage learners to reflect on their learning activities, monitor them, and refine them to enhance memory, retention, and understanding. Metacognition presupposes that goal-oriented thinking, planning, and reflection can have a positive effect on learning outcomes.

The Problem with Poor Metacognition

Where learning about metacognitive strategies makes the biggest difference is with students who have trouble assessing their own comprehension. Weaker students are often too self-assured. They may skim a text, and when asked if they understood it, or if they can summarize it in brief, they will confirm and produce a satisfactory answer. But in turn, they may cut short their study time, and not reinforce their ideas through review. They may be unable to separate the details from the main points, to articulate the structure or the organization of an argument, or to interpret the meaning of a statement that is meant to be ironic. They often confuse accurate information with misconceptions. They think their answers are correct, and are surprised when they learn that they aren’t.

Cementing Ideas with Formative Assessment

In higher education, formative assessment and self-regulated learning are the primary means of developing student metacognition. Formative assessment includes any activity that gives both the students and instructors a representation of student understanding.

In a “wrapper,” such as the one designed by Marsha Lovett and colleagues for a first year science class at Carnegie Mellon University, an instructor prefaces a lecture with a quick lesson on active listening strategies. Following the lecture, the students write the three most important concepts from the lecture down on an index card.

The “wrapper” effectively encourages students to reflect on their own learning, while adding only a few minutes to an existing lecture. Lovett found that over the course of the semester, the percentage of students whose three main points matched that of the lecturer increased from 45% to 75%.

Students Learn Better from Classmates than Lecturers

Formative assessment can also include more interactive metacognitive activities. Peer instruction is an interaction between two students in which one student explains an idea or concept to another student. Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist and learning expert, discovered that his students were more likely to understand difficult concepts when recounted by another student in the class than when he explained the concepts himself. He also found that a student with the right answer was more likely to succeed in convincing a student with the wrong answer than the other way around. “You’re a student and you’ve only recently learned this, so you still know where you got hung up, because it’s not that long ago that you were hung up on that very same thing,” Mazur explains.

In classes where short periods of peer discussion are interspersed with traditional lecturing, students exhibit up to three times as many knowledge gains as they would without the discussion. Mazur posits that from a metacognitive standpoint, peer instruction is effective because re-verbalizing and collaborating with other students helps to cement the information presented during the lecture.

Metacognition: The Brain is a Muscle

Within formal and discussion-based formative assessment, students have the chance to exercise their metacognitive capacities by identifying areas of weakness or misunderstanding. They also have the chance to recall what they’ve learned within a short period of learning it. But even more vital is the chance to notice when and where they might have lost focus, and to classify the strategies that best help them remember something.

Leonardo da Vinci certainly never sat in a 500-person lecture hall, but he did contemplate how to best activate his own memory. Young students, he said, may learn to remember images from nature through sketching in a notebook immediately. However, older students must preserve an image in their mind, and not sketch until they have returned from their walk. He also counselled students to think of the images and ideas that they wanted to represent right before they went to sleep, in the dark, as well as in the morning before they woke up. He advised that short breaks can be restorative, and help with self-perception.

It is also good to get up and take a little recreation elsewhere, because when you return to your work your judgement will have improved. If you stay doggedly at your work, you will deceive yourself.”

Leonardo understood that the brain is a muscle which must be exercised, nourished, and rested in order to achieve facility and strength.

Believing in the Learning Process

Beliefs about the learning process have a huge impact on student motivation. Weaker students, or students who are experiencing unexpected or new challenges (e.g., freshmen in college), are more likely to make generalizations about their intelligence, or to lose drive when they do not initially succeed. Students who believe that learning should be easy are less likely to make sustained efforts towards approaching more challenging materials.

However, by teaching metacognitive strategies, instructors can work to change student attitudes. In both K-12 and higher education, teachers who emphasize metacognition in the classroom have demonstrated success at increasing student achievement. Knowledge of metacognition motivates students, whether they are introduced to the concept through reading an article, or more carefully directed through a prompted regimen of self-monitored study.

Alisa is the Director of Content and Learning at Acclaim. Alisa has worked as an a math and writing instructor and tutor to high school students in New York, London, and Philadelphia over the course of ten years. She has completed graduate studies in Art History at the University of London (Courtauld Institute) and at Johns Hopkins.