Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 9802         March, 1998


Metacognitive Strategies To Help Students Learning How To Learn
Joseph D. Novak, Department of Education, Cornell University


Strategies to help people learn go back to our educational origins. For example, Socrates developed the technique of Socratic questioning, where he sequentially asked questions to draw out the knowledge he believed was in the minds of all persons, slave or emperor. While there is still much we do not know about learning, we know that knowledge must be acquired by the individual, and that knowledge previously learned influences the acquisition of new knowledge. We know that learning can be essentially by rote memorization, with little interaction with previous learning (and usually very short retention) to highly meaningful learning where the learner integrates new concepts, propositions and images into previously acquired structures. We know that the learner chooses to learn by rote or meaningfully and part of the task of teachers is to help the learner choose powerful meaningful learning approaches. Metacognitive strategies are strategies that empower the learner to take charge of her/his own learning in a highly meaningful fashion.

Metacognitive strategies include metalearning, or learning about meaningful learning, and metaknowledge, or learning about the nature of knowledge. Our research has shown that few of the students we have studied at the secondary or college level have had any formal metacognitive instruction. Some students have had instruction on "how to study", but this deals primarily with techniques for time management, concentration, test taking, and memorization. Metalearning strategies help the learner understand that meaning derives from the concepts and concept relationships we have and new relationships we assimilate into our existing knowledge frameworks. The learner becomes aware of the limited capacity of Short-Term Memory (STM); only about seven "chunks" of knowledge can be manipulated at a time; and the important role that the organization of knowledge in Long-Term Memory (LTM) plays in what we perceive in a message and nature of the "chunks" we can use in STM. Thus a learner who has knowledge organized into large, integrated conceptual frameworks can assimilate more related knowledge in less time and with greater potential for transfer and application.

Metaknowledge strategies help students to understand that concepts are constructed from perceived regularities in objects or events and that we use language or symbolic labels to designate these regularities. Creativity is involved in constructing new concepts, and meaningful learning is the principal process by which humans acquire most of their usable knowledge. The interplay between various concepts, principles, theories, and philosophies as they are involved in selecting or interpreting observed objects or events is a necessary part of metaknowledge instruction. When successful, metaknowledge strategies lead to understanding how humans construct knowledge and also offer practice in the process of constructing knowledged claims and value claims about some observed regularities in objects and/or events. Thus a science student comes to understand how a laboratory experiment illustrates the ways in which scientists have constructed knowledge claims about the observed events or objects. They also learn that all knowledge claims are accompanied by at least an implied value claim (i.e., this knowledge claim is worthwhile), and they learn to discriminate between knowledge claims and value claims.

In our work at Cornell University, we have developed two tools that aid in metacognitive learning. The concept map (see Figure 1) when constructed by students helps to illustrate that we use language labels to construct concept and propositional relationships about a domain of knowledge. The concept map thus serves as a tool to illustrate the hierarchical, conceptual/propositional nature of knowledge. It also serves as a tool to help learners organize their cognitive frameworks into more powerful, integrated patterns. Thus, concept maps serve both as metaknowledge and metalearning tools.

Figure 1


Vee diagrams (see Figure 2) are tools to help students construct the interacting set of elements that are involved in knowledge production. Vees serve as a scaffolding or normative device assuring that all of the elements receive due consideration in the process of seeking knowledge and value claims directed by the focus question. Our experience has been that Vee diagramming is more challenging than concept mapping for both students and teachers. This derives in part from the positivist philosophy embedded in most school and college learning, whereas Vee diagramming is rooted in an event-centered, constructivist philosophy now generally accepted by philosophers (Novak, 1993a).

Figure 2

Concept maps and Vee diagrams are valuable tools that help students "unpack" the knowledge in text, laboratory or lectures, and they are powerful tools for curriculum design. These metacognitive tools show promise not only for the improvement of learners, but also for the empowerment of teachers and curriculum planners (Novak & Gowin, 1984; Mintzes, Wandersee, & Novak, 1998; Novak, 1993b; 1998).



Novak, J. D., & Gowin, D. B. (1984). Learning How to Learn. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Novak, J. D. (1993a) Human Constructivism: A unification of psychological and epistemological phenomena in meaning making. International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology, 6,167-193.

Novak, J. D. (1993b). How do we learn our lesson? The Science Teacher, 60(3), 51-55.

Mintzes, J., Wandersee, J., & Novak, J. (Eds.). (1998). Teaching Science for Understanding. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Novak, J. D. (1998). Learning. Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations. Mawah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


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