Articles, Blog

4 – Planning For Our Thinking

December 1, 2019


Hi! This is Dr. Patrick Cunningham, Associate Professor
of Mechanical Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Welcome back to the Skillful Learning series on metacognition! Recall that metacognition is the knowledge
and regulation of our own thinking processes. In this video, Planning for Our Thinking,
we will focus on how we can make intentional plans for the effortful mental processing required for learning,
which is part of metacognitive regulation. Metacognitive planning is drawing on our metacognitive knowledge
in preparation for a learning experience, e.g., an assignment, an exam, a study session, or a course.
We do this by setting goals and selecting strategies. Our strategies should align with our learning goals,
match the task, and be consistent with how we learn, i.e., how we build and enrich our knowledge frameworks. Making time to plan for our learning sets us up for success.
We learn on purpose, not by accident. Let’s check in with Joe and Sue to see how they are executing
metacognitive planning in their improved study plans for the next exam. In completing his exam wrapper for the last exam, Joe recognized
that cramming and losing sleep were costing him in the long run, and he vowed improve his studying. A week before the next exam
Joe set up a distributed study schedule – 35 minutes per night for four nights, then 1.5 hours
each of the last two nights before the exam. He collected and organized several old exams, planning to work blank
problems and to explore variations on solved problems. Sue, on the other hand, arranged a study plan similar to the last exam, setting aside about 1 hour each morning between classes
for the five weekdays prior to the next exam. During four of the study sessions Sue planned to solve 1-2 problems
completely and set up 3-4 more problems, that is, to identify principles, draw diagrams, and state assumptions. Sue knew she struggled with setting up problems correctly
and efficiently and she wanted to get better at it. She was confident she could do the math after getting the correct set up. She also planned to make up two problems applying course principles
to real applications in which she had interest. In one morning session and an extra 1 hour session on the weekend, she planned to meet with a friend to share and solve the problems they
made up and to discuss their solutions to these and other problems. Joe and Sue have made some good plans. Have you ever been
so intentional about your study plans? Perhaps you have set up plans with good intentions, but then a
homework set for another class takes longer than you expected and you get thrown off your plan. Joe and Sue have good intentions with their plans too, but Joe could
improve his plans with more focused study goals and Sue needs to address the factors that affected her poor
performance on the last exam. Let’s examine Joe and Sue’s plans more closely and explore
how we can do better sticking with our plans. There are several good features in Joe’s plan. He is distributing his practice over multiple days and he is recalling
concepts as he works blank problems. This strengthens his memory. Exploring “what if” scenarios with solved problems is a form of
elaboration, which helps him build connections to the new concepts. However, there are three main shortcomings with Joe’s plan. First, he is only studying at night when he is tired and he isn’t thinking
clearly. During the day when he has time between classes, Joe likes to relax. For example, he plays video games, watches TV
or videos, and surfs the web. He isn’t taking advantage of the time when his mind is sharpest,
for him mid-afternoon. This makes his studying less efficient and effective, and results in him
staying up late and losing valuable sleep. Second, Joe’s goals for his study session are unclear – he isn’t being
very strategic. What does he really want to get out of his study time? Joe is practicing complete problems, whether or not he needs
to practice all the parts. He recognizes that identifying principles and drawing
diagrams come easily to him, but he struggles with making appropriate assumptions
and manipulating equations. He could use his limited study time more effectively by focusing
on the elements he struggles with. Learning goals that address his difficulties and that he can test himself
against would help him do this. S.M.A.R.T goals are a good model for setting such goals. S-M-A-R-T stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant,
and Time-bound. Search for “SMART goals” to learn more. Finally, Joe’s study plan isn’t very diverse. He is working problems
and examining solved problems. This is only practicing one way of accessing and using the information. Just as athletes and musicians use a variety of exercises in preparation
for their performances, it is beneficial to vary the ways we engage
concepts we are trying to learn. Think of it this way, singular practice only provides
one route to the information, while using various strategies creates
multiple routes to the information – making concepts and ideas easier to recall
and apply in different situations. Sue’s study plan has more specific goals focused on what she needs,
practicing setting up problems. She is also leveraging her clearest thinking time, morning for her, and is employing a variety of strategies that get her thinking about
the course material in different ways. Additionally, she is making her learning memorable by making up
problems for real applications in which she has interest. However, Sue is not addressing the primary factors that interrupted her
thinking and contributed to her poor performance on the last exam, that is, the emotional distress from her mom’s phone call
and not eating breakfast. Depending on the nature of the relationship and the emotional issues,
Sue could talk with her mom about how to avoid this in the future. She could also consider setting better boundaries with her mom
or counseling to help her to deal with the situation. To address missing breakfast, Sue could buy protein bars and fruit or other healthy, quick, and easy snacks to take with her when she is
running short on time for meals. Joe and Sue have taken the important step of planning for their learning,
and we have examined specific improvements to their plans, namely, SMART goals, using multiple strategies, capitalizing on their
clearest thinking time, and targeting their problem areas. But how do we get better at following through on our plans? Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, brain researcher
at University of Texas at Dallas, has found that strategic focus is critical for accomplishing our goals
amid the flurry of activities in life. She cites a quote she once heard:
“When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits!” The elephants are our most important goals, like learning material
to do well in a class or prepare for a career. They need regular and focused distraction-free work time. The rabbits are the myriad little tasks that don’t attach to our big goals. Some rabbit tasks need to get done as well, like laundry, but we need
to keep them contained. Dr. Chapman suggests, and my experience confirms, that we can deal
with 2-3 elephants in a day. Plan your elephants and your rabbits for each day so that you can
accomplish your learning goals. There is time to address necessary rabbit tasks and to take breaks,
but don’t let them get in the way of achieving your elephant tasks. In summary, we need to engage in intentional metacognitive planning
to be more successful. We need to learn on purpose and not just react to what is going on
around us or what is happening to us. Metacognitive planning should involve: making SMART goals; coherently
blending our metacognitive knowledge of persons, tasks, and strategies; and identifying our elephants and rabbits. 1. Make time to plan for your learning,
so that you learn on purpose. Set SMART goals for yourself. 2. Align your learning goals and strategies.
Use what you know about yourself and how learning works. Make sure your strategies address your learning goals
and the goals of the task. Expand your strategies to enrich your learning. 3. Give your elephants regular, distraction-free time
to achieve your big goals! It will feel hard to make these focus choices at first,
but the elephant tasks are the paths to achieving our big goals. Thank you again for your attention as we have examined
metacognitive planning. I hope you find these tools helpful as you prepare
for your next learning experience.

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