Metacognitive Development Research Paper

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Metacognition is broadly defined as cognition about one’s own cognitions. John Flavell’s (1979) seminal article on developmental aspects of metacognition and metacognitive monitoring stimulated two decades of empirical and conceptual work in developmental as well as educational and mainstream cognitive psychology. The basic proposal outlined by Flavell was that developmental changes in metacognitive knowledge mediate developmental changes in cognitive performance. Metamemory, one subtype of metacognition that refers to knowledge about memory, has attracted particularly strong research interest in developmental psychology. Given that research devoted to aspects of metamemory and its importance for education has created by far the most findings in the field, the emphasis of the present overview will be on memory knowledge and its implications. However, most of what will be said about metamemory can be easily generalized to metacognitive knowledge related to a variety of problem-solving activities.

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1. Conceptualizations and Models of Metamemory

The concept of metamemory was introduced by John Flavell and colleagues to refer to knowledge about memory processes and contents. In their taxonomy of metamemory, Flavell and Wellman (1977) distinguished between two main categories, ‘sensitivity’ and ‘variables.’ The ‘sensitivity’ category referred to mostly implicit, unconscious behavioral knowledge of when memory is necessary, and thus was very close to subsequent conceptualizations of procedural metacognitive knowledge. The ‘variables’ category referred to explicit, conscious, and factual knowledge about the importance of person, task, and strategy variables for memory performance. This is also known as declarative metacognitive knowledge. Metamemory about person variables includes knowledge about how, when, and why one remembers or forgets. Metamemory about task variables comprises knowledge about task influences on memory performance, for instance, knowledge that shorter item lists are easier to remember than long lists. Finally, metamemory about strategies refers to knowledge about advantages and possible problems of memory strategies.

This taxonomy of metamemory was not intended to be exhaustive. Since the late 1970s, a number of other theorists have contributed to the development of metamemory theory (for recent reviews, see Holland Joyner and Kurtz-Costes 1997, Schneider 1999, Schneider and Pressley 1997). For instance, Paris and colleagues (e.g., Paris and Oka 1986) introduced a component called ‘conditional metacognitive knowledge’ that focused on children’s ability to justify or explain their decision concerning memory activities. Whereas the declarative metamemory component introduced by Flavell and Wellman focused on ‘knowing that’, conditional metamemory referred to ‘knowing why.’ The procedural metamemory component, that is, children’s ability to monitor and regulate their memory behavior (‘knowing how’) was thoroughly analyzed by Ann Brown and colleagues (e.g., Brown et al. 1983). Here, the frame of reference was the competent information processor, one possessing an efficient ‘executive’ that regulated cognitive behaviors. Brown and colleagues could demonstrate that memory monitoring and regulation processes play a large role in complex cognitive tasks such as comprehending and memorizing text materials.

Although more recent conceptualizations of metacognition have expanded the scope of the theoretical construct, they also make use of the basic distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge. For instance, Wellman (1990) has linked the declarative metacognitive component to the broader concept of children’s ‘theory of mind’, which focuses on classes of knowledge about the inner mental world and cognitive processes that develop during the preschool years. Pressley, Borkowski, and colleagues have systematically considered declarative and procedural components of metacognition in developing a theoretical model that emphasizes the dynamic interrelations among strategies, monitoring abilities, and motivation (e.g., Pressley et al. 1989). In their ‘good information-processing model’, metamemory is conceptualized in terms of a number of interactive, mutually dependent components such as domain knowledge, metacognitive knowledge, and monitoring efficiency.

It should be noted that conceptualizations of metacognition and metamemory in the fields of general cognitive psychology, social psychology, and the psychology of aging differ from this taxonomy. For instance, popular conceptualizations of metacognition in the field of cognitive psychology exclusively elaborate on the procedural component, focusing on the interplay between monitoring and self-control (see Nelson 1996). On the other hand, when issues of declarative metamemory are analyzed in the fields of social psychology and gerontology, the focus is on a person’s belief about memory phenomena and not on veridical knowledge.

In a recent article, O’Sullivan and Howe (1998) propose a similar view for developmental research, arguing that metamemory should be conceptualized as personalized, constructed knowledge consisting of both accurate and naive beliefs. Although there are certain advantages of such a view, in particular with regard to research devoted to developmental changes in young children, O’Sullivan and Howe’s position that the true–false belief distinction is not of preeminent importance in metamemory development remains controversial in the field. Anyway, the fact that different conceptualizations of metamemory exist in different areas of psychology illustrates the fuzziness of the concept and the need to carefully define the term in order to avoid misunderstandings. The concept of metamemory used in the rest of this research paper refers to both declarative and procedural knowledge components.

2. Assessment of Metamemory

There are a variety of measures that have been used to capture what children know about memory. Most measures of declarative, factual knowledge have utilized interviews or questionnaires that focus on knowledge about person variables, task demands, and strategies. Whereas earlier instruments suffered from methodological problems, more recent interviews and questionnaires showed better psychometric properties such as sufficient reliability and validity (Schneider and Pressley 1997). Moreover, it was shown that nonverbal techniques helped in assessing young children’s declarative knowledge. For instance, one task required young children to distinguish effective from poor strategies while watching a model executing the strategies on video. In another successful procedure (‘peer-tutoring task’) older children were asked to tutor a younger child about how to do a certain memory task in order to maximize learning. Peer tutoring is likely more motivating to young children than interviews, and they tend to be more explicit when answering a question of an older child as compared with that of an adult (who already seems to know everything).

Procedural metamemory has been assessed through concurrent measurement of memory and metamemory. In this case, children are asked to perform a memory task and to simultaneously (or immediately afterwards) report their knowledge about how they performed the task and about factors that may have influenced their performance. Whereas some tasks focus on monitoring activities, others assess the impact of self-control and regulation. Examples of the former category include performance predictions which are made prior to study and involve estimation of how much will be remembered, as well as feeling-of-knowing (FOK) judgments. FOK tasks require children to estimate whether an item that currently cannot be recalled will be recognized if the experimenter provided it. These FOK ratings are then related to subsequent performance on a recognition test that includes nonrecalled items.

A number of concerns have been raised about measures of procedural metamemory. However, although there is not a perfect index of metamemory, many of the measurement problems that metamemory researchers confront are similar to measurement problems in other areas of psychology.

3. Development of Metamemory

A lot of metamemory data have been produced since the early 1980s, much of which was highly informative about children’s knowledge about memory. We now understand better both (a) children’s long-term, factual (declarative) knowledge about memory, and (b) their abilities to monitor memory.

3.1 Children’s Factual Knowledge About Memory

Using sensitive methods that minimize demands on the child, it is possible to demonstrate some rudimentary knowledge of metamemorial facts in preschoolers. For instance, they understand mental words, distinguish between important vs. less important elements in picture stories, and know about the relevance of retrieval strategies when performing on a hide-and-seek task. Knowledge of facts about memory is more impressive in the elementary-grade years, and much more complete by the end of childhood. Nonetheless, knowledge of memory, in particular, knowledge about the interactions of metamemory variables or understanding of the relative importance of text elements continues to develop.

One of the most important findings produced by metamemory researchers is that there is increasing strategy knowledge with increasing age. However, there is also increasing evidence that many adolescents (including college students) have little knowledge of some powerful and important memory strategies (for details, see Pressley and McCormick 1995).

3.2 Development of Procedural Metamemory

Compared with the age trends demonstrated for declarative metamemory, the situation regarding procedural metamemory is less clear. Research focusing on monitoring (e.g., FOK tasks) has shown that even young children seem to possess the skills relevant for the solution of FOK and performance prediction problems when task difficulty is adequate. Thus the ability to monitor one’s own memory activities can be already high in young children and seems to improve continuously during the early elementary school years. However, the evidence regarding developmental trends is not consistent, with some studies showing better performance in younger than in older children (for a review, see Schneider 1999).

On the other hand, the available evidence on the development of self-regulation skills shows that there are clear increases from middle childhood to adolescence. Spontaneous and effective use of selfregulation skills occurs only in highly constrained situations during the grade-school years and continues to develop well into adolescence. Comparisons of younger and older children in ‘study-time apportionment’ tasks indicate that it is the interplay between monitoring and self-regulatory activities that develops with age. That is, when the task is to learn item pairs of varying difficulty, both younger and older children show adequate monitoring skills in that they are well able to distinguish difficult from easy item pairs. However, only the older children allocate study time differentially, spending more time on the difficult than on the easier items. In comparison, younger children typically spend about the same amount of time on easy pairs as they spend on hard pairs.

3.3 Metamemory–Memory Relations

From a developmental and educational perspective, the metamemory concept seems well-suited to explain children’s production deficiencies on a broad variety of memory tasks. Empirical research was stimulated by the belief that young children do not spontaneously use memory strategies because they are not familiar with those tasks and thus do not know anything about the advantages of strategy use. This should change soon after children enter school and are confronted with a large number of memory tasks. Experience with such tasks should improve strategy knowledge (metamemory), which in turn should have an impact on memory behavior (i.e., strategy use). Thus, the major motivation behind studying metamemory and its development has been the assumption that although links between metamemory and memory may be weak in early childhood, they should become much stronger with increasing age.

Overall, the empirical findings do not indicate such a strong relationship. Narrative and statistical metaanalyses have shown that there are moderate, nontrivial quantitative associations between metamemory and memory. For instance, Schneider and Pressley (1997) reported an overall correlation of about 0.40 based on about 60 publications and more than 7000 children and adolescents. Qualitative reviews of the various metamemory–memory relations make obvious, however, that no single statistic could capture the diversity and richness of the findings. In general, the evidence points to a bidirectional, reciprocal relationship between metamemory and memory behavior. Metamemory can influence memory behavior, which in turn leads to enhanced metamemory.

Although there are several reasons for the fact that the link between metacognition and cognitive performance is not always as strong as it could be, undoubtedly one of the major mediators is motivation. Empirical research has shown that metamemory– memory performance relationships are particularly impressive when participants are highly motivated to achieve a certain goal. Under these circumstances, all available ressources will be activated to cope with task demands, including declarative and procedural metacognitive knowledge (cf. Borkowski and Mutukrishna 1995).

4. Metacognition and Education

Most of memory development is not so much a product of age but of education. One way in which parents and teachers facilitate cognititive development is by nurturing the development of children’s metacognition. For instance, a cross-cultural study by Carr and colleagues (Carr et al. 1989) examined differences in the amount of instruction that US and German parents provided to their children at home. Carr and colleagues found that German parents, in contrast to US parents, reported more instruction of strategies, checked homework more often, and also used games that promoted thinking. These differences in home instruction were accompanied by superior strategy use by German children on the memory tasks provided in school. Carr et al. (1989) concluded from this that parental instruction is an important facilitator of children’s further metacognitive development.

One rather new area of metamemory research involves applications of metacognitive theory to educational settings. It was assumed that children’s experiences at school must play an important role in shaping their use of and knowledge about how to learn and remember. However, observations of normal classroom situations did not always prove that teachers foster children’s metacognitive development. For instance, Moely and colleagues observed in classrooms to find out how elementary teachers instructed strategy use and memory knowledge as they presented lessons to children in Grades K to 6 (see the overview by Moely et al. 1995). Teachers varied widely in the extent to which they focused on how children might adjust or regulate their cognitive activities in order to master a task. Efforts also varied widely depending on the subject matter under consideration. When Moely and colleagues first looked at a broad range of instructional effort, they found low levels of strategy instruction. However, teachers were found to be more likely to offer suggestions for strategy use when teaching math problem solving.

Although rich strategy instruction is not common in schools, it can be successfully implemented. Several comprehensive research projects focused on reading instruction and comprehension monitoring (cf. Borkowski and Mutukrishna 1995, Paris and Oka 1986). A particularly important instructional procedure in this context is reciprocal teaching (Palincsar and Brown 1984). Reciprocal teaching takes place in a collaborative learning context and involves guided practice in the flexible use of the following four comprehension monitoring strategies: questioning, summarizing, clarifying, and predicting. The novice’s role is facilitated by the provision of scaffolding by the expert (teacher). Skills and strategies are practiced in the context of reciprocal teaching dialogs. The teacher and the students take turns leading discussions regarding the contents of a text they are jointly attempting to understand. Overall, this instructional approach has proven to be extraordinarily successful both with normal and learning-disabled students.

Further, very ambitious programs have been undertaken by Pressley and colleagues in order to evaluate effective instructional programs in US public school systems (see Pressley and McCormick 1995, Schneider and Pressley 1997). Strategy instruction was not conducted in isolation, but was viewed as an integral part of the curriculum, and thus was taught as part of language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. The goal was to simultaneously enhance children’s repertoires of strategies, knowledge, metacognition, and motivation. Pressley and colleagues found that effective teachers regularly incorporated strategy instruction and metacognitive information about flexible strategy use and modification as a part of daily instruction. This research and the applied studies outlined above have enhanced greatly our understanding of how to establish long-term strategy instruction in educational contexts that not only is rich in metamemory and motivational enhancement, but also helps most students to accomplish their academic goals.


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