Metacognition is a term that refers to the ways that people think - the patterns, how we put together the information that we're given. As a student, you know that your job is to learn and remember things, and to add your own levels to the knowledge you accumulate - but do you have any idea how you, particularly, do that in your own personal head? In this lab, you'll analyze your own individual thought processes.

Part One. Learning Types.

The ways that people absorb information fit many patterns - books have been written about the patterns to learning that you can find. The following set of four learning types is just one way of describing those patterns.


Information in this area is constructed - students who fall strongly in this group tend to work from the pieces or details up to the broad concepts, and are often very structured in their learning style. They tend to prefer their learning environments to be well-structured and predictable, both in day- to-day classes and in overall organization. These students often seem more organized than others, and they like to know what's coming as much as possible, and rely more heavily on syllabi and calendars. They prefer subject areas with a clear organization, where things tend to be clearly right and wrong, and they would rather have tests with clear answers rather than more "fuzzy" sorts of tests such as essays, marked discussion, or presentations. They also tend to be just generally organized, with a place for everything and everything in its place.

Question 1. What aspects of organizers do you think apply to you?


Students strongly in this group need their information in a broader context, usually connected to examples; real-world examples or repeated working examples will do. They tend to remember concepts in terms of these "stories," so they do better in subjects with many real-world connections or questions that match specific examples they have studied. They also do better on long-scale tests, where they can discuss the examples to show their knowledge, and they may be more adept at seeing connections between concepts because of similarities in their stories.

Question 2. What aspects of storytellers do you think apply to you?

Contrast Students:

Students who fall strongly into this group learn more through differences - new information makes the most sense when the contrasts between it and other information are emphasized. Their questions, since they are searching for differences, may not seem to make sense to students from the other groups. Since they, like storytellers, recall things in a more extended form, they also may prefer long-form tests, but their answers, focused on contrasts, may not seem correct to others.

Question 3. What aspects of contrast students do you think apply to you?

Overview Students:

Students in this group prefer to learn the broad concepts first, from which the details can be put together and evaluated. They may appear to learn based on an internal value system, but this is just one type of overview approach. In some cases, this can simply mean setting priorities on what's important to remember, but to do this, they need to learn or develop an overall system. Like contrast students, they need to understand connections in their information, but they are not focused as much on differences. In a very basic ways they are the opposite of organizers, and they often put little stress on remembering details, depending on their broad understanding to bring details back to them, and they prefer broad, concept-heavy subjects and tests that look at ideas rather than details.

Question 4. What aspects of overview students do you think apply to you?

Question 5. In what ways might an instructor's learning style preferences affect the ways in which they teach?

Question 6. What sorts of clues could you look for over the first few days of class to help you figure out an instructor's learning style tendencies?







Part Two. Styles.



Part Two involves handouts that can't be adequately reproduced here, for determining yet another set of learning styles.


  Part Three. Processing the Senses.  

You take in information from all of your senses and store it, to be retrieved later; however, not everyone stores and retrieves particular senses with equal clarity. For this test, "dip" into your memory for each image, then rank, from 1 (weakest) to 5 (strongest) how close you feel the image comes to matching the original - how confident are you that the memory is accurate?

1. Sight. Retrieve the following visual images and rank each, 1 - 5.

a. The tail side of a nickel.                                       _________

b. Your bedroom seen from the doorway.                _________

c. The face of a good friend whom you haven't       _________
        seen in a while.

d. The scene through a front window at home.        _________

e. The dashboard layout of a car you've been in.    _________             _________


2. Hearing. Retrieve the following sound images and rank, 1 - 5.            ROUND

a. The lead-in to a song you used to like.                 _________                 OFF!!

b. The sound of someone you know calling you.      _________

c. The specific sound of a particular car's horn.       _________

d. The beginning of the instructions given for this    _________
         part of the lab.

e. The door to your home opening.                           _________            _________

3. Smell. Retrieve the following odor images and rank each, 1 - 5.

a. Your favorite restaurant.                                         _________

b. Gasoline fumes.                                                      _________

c. Your favorite cooked vegetable.                             _________

d. Old or very-used socks or shoes.                           _________

e. Your shampoo.                                                        _________          _________

4. Taste. Retrieve the following taste images and rank each, 1 - 5.

a. Your favorite fruit.                                                     _________

b. "Fast food" you had recently.                                   _________

c. A type of mint candy.                                                _________

d. A soft drink you have not had recently.                   _________

e. Something you've tasted that had spoiled.              _________           _________

5. Touch. Retrieve the following texture images and rank each, 1 - 5.

a. A glass surface.                                                       _________

b. Material in pants you own, near the waistband.      _________

c. Your hair when it's dirty.                                          _________

d. The surface of a rug you've touched.                      _________

e. The top cover of your bed.                                      _________          _________

6. Balance. Retrieve the following tilt and movement images and rank, 1 - 5.

a. Leaning backward to work over your head.            _________

b. The movement of recently going up a staircase.    _________

c. The feeling the last time you felt dizzy.                   _________

d. Your internal sense when the car accelerates.      _________

e. The last time you fell or almost fell.                        _________          _________

7. Temperature. Retrieve the following hot and cold images and rank, 1 - 5.

a. Cold fluid you recently drank.                                  _________

b. Your last hot shower or bath.                                  _________

c. The last really hot or cold object you touched.        _________

d. The last mildly warm or cool object you touched.   _________

e. Hot pavement or sand on your bare feet.               _________           _________

8. Pain. Retrieve the following pain images and rank each, 1 - 5.

a. The last time you stuck yourself with something.    _________

b. The pain from the last very hot thing you touched. ________

c. The last time something pinched you.                     _________

d. Hitting your head hard on something.                     _________

e. The last thing to scratch you and break the skin.   _________           _________

Ranking the Retrieval.

In the space below, put your sensory groups in order, highest average to lowest.

TIEBREAKER: decide which of the tied groups was really easier or harder to remember.


RANKING  -  SCORE  -  SENSE TYPE (write it out!)

High - 1st - -                  -

            2nd - -                  -

            3rd - -                  -

            4th - -                  -

            5th - -                  -

            6th - -                  -

            7th - -                  -

Low -  8th - -                  -

Classroom teaching usually involves images presented to be seen or heard, and sometimes to be touched. Based upon your results from the rankings just above, which of those approaches should fit you best?

Do your results and the interpretation you just made actually fit the way you learn best?




  Part Four. Learning and your Environment.  
When thinking about your mental processes, do you know what sort of surroundings maximize your abilities? It's easy to ignore what can be a very important factor in learning. Environment in the classroom may not be very controllable, but study and assignments may be much more in your control. For the questions below, consider those conditions in which you feel you work your best.

1. Do you study better alone, or with one or more partners?

2. When working, do you tend to spread out over lots of space, or occupy a very limited area?

3. What sort of temperature - cold, cool, normal, warm, hot - would you prefer for studying?

4. What sort of light conditions do you work best in, from very brightly lit to a "spotlight" just on your work?

5. What sort of body arrangement is best for your studying - sitting upright at a desk or table, or plopped in a chair, or lying down, pacing, some other -?

6. What sort of sound background fits your studying - silence, noise, something in particular -?

7. What sort of planning best suits you - do you sit down with a very specific plan, a general plan, no real plan at all? And do you find that you study for a class day by day, or leave things until the last minute and then cram your socks off?

8. Do you prefer to stay on one source at a time while you study, or do you tend to jump from source to source as you work?

9. During what time of day do you seem to work best? Would you rather know the time while you're working?

10. Do you study better if you have something to eat and/or drink while you work?

11. Do you need to know the format (multiple choice, essay, matching, etc) of an exam you're studying for?

12. Most people don't set themselves up in the environment that best suits them. How is your regular study routine different from your optimum situation, and what aspects could you change?

13. In what ways does a typical classroom suit your work environment preferences? In what ways is it a poor environment for you?


  Part Five. Memories, and How to Lose Them.  

The following are aspects of remembering to consider...

Lack of Initial Attention. Obviously, it's hard to store and retrieve later something that you haven't really paid attention to in the first place - it's probably not stored in any way.

Question 1. Give a personal example where you couldn't remember something because of that initial lack of attention.

Fading and Reinforcement. If memories are not gone over, or reinforced, occasionally, they tend to get harder and harder to find, as if they were fading.

Question 2. Give a personal example where you've kept a memory fresh through reinforcement.

Distortion. Items in storage that are similar to each other may sort of blend together, so that you can't keep them straight when trying to remember them.

Question 3. Give an academic example of how distortion has worked against you.

Interference or Inhibition.  Remembering can involve some close-to-conscious preferences - we remember what we want to, picking and choosing what we believe from memories that don't quite agree. We often run into new information that disagrees with things we think we already know - which is right, which will you remember later? In proactive interference, we prefer to remember our earlier memories; in retroactive interference, we sort of "replace" the old memories with these new, "more correct" ones. This is a choice we make.

Question 4. Give a personal example of proactive interference in your experience.

Question 5. Give a personal example of retroactive interference in your experience.





  Part Six. Cognitive Development in the College Student.  
Human beings go through many stages of cognitive development - they pass through "phases," or levels, and at each new step they understand things that were not clear before. Young children go through many well-established and studied stages, but the stages reach beyond early childhood into adulthood. Not everyone reaches the later stages, and in the college environment, students may be at different levels in different subject areas...

Stage 1 - Dualism.

At this stage, the intellectual world is seen in black-and-white. Theories are seen as being clearly right or wrong, and it's assumed that any valid, clearly-stated question must have a definite answer. Students look to instructors to teach those answers, or clear rules for finding the answers. Two alternative routes to solving a problem seems too ambiguous. There is a heavy reliance upon "Authority," and a textbook or instructor is seen as being dependably right or completely untrustworthy. "Critical thinking" to these students means remembering right answers and set rules to finding answers.

Stage 2 - Multiplicity and Personal Truth.

Moving from dualism, students take a while to build up a response to the uncertainties that they will run into in many subjects. Their first step is to divide the world into two camps, one brought from the early stage, of right and wrong and reliance on authority for correct answers, and a new one where the strength of uncertain information can vary according to people's personal feelings about it - each person's answer is equally valid, "right for them." Choices tend to be arbitrary or intuitive, rarely reasoned though.

Stage 3 - Contextual Relativism.

Students moving into this stage realize that individual personal opinion is not sufficient to judge the validity of ideas. They begin to develop an understanding of how evaluations of uncertain ideas can be made, how two incomplete theories can be judged as better or worse. However, students at this level still tend to approach things in terms of set rules and keep to fairly limited areas when making judgments. They still apply more in terms of others' opinions than based upon an internal value system.

Stage 4 - Responsible Knowing.

Students at this stage recognize all of the various ways that problems and solutions can be addressed and evaluated. They can see the advantages and disadvantages, select tradeoffs when necessary, and defend their own particular choices and approaches. They tend to be skeptical, especially in the face of what seem like overly-simple answers, and empathetic, understanding how very different opinions can be valid for the people that hold them, built upon their own systems. They tend to be aware of their own tendencies and biases, trying to address them when forming opinions, but they take responsibility for their beliefs and actions.

At what cognitive stage would you place yourself today, and why?







First Written 1988;  Last Update 2003;  Web Version 2003,  M. McDarby




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