My main area of research is metacognition. Sometimes this is defined as “thinking about thinking” but really it is a much deeper skill. It is your ability to monitor and control your mental states. That is, to become aware of what you’re doing, what biases you might have, and how confident you are, and use that information to make better decisions.
Recently my colleagues and I showed that metacognition takes up a lot of attention and executive processing, meaning it is one of our most sophisticated abilities that takes a good bit of concentration to pull off. But, the good news is that if you practice enough you can learn to monitor yourself somewhat automatically, so that it doesn’t take much of that (exhausting) attention and effort but you can still make better decisions.
This is similar to the concept of wu wei in Taoism, which sometimes defined as “effortless action”. But, like metacognition, there is a somewhat deeper meaning. The idea is to do sophisticated mental processes in a way that is perfectly natural and without that (exhausting) attention and effort. Basically, to become such a master at something that you move it from a difficult concentrative exercise into an automatic thing that you do perfectly without worrying about.
The metaphor I often use in class is that of a dancer. A child dances, and it is perfectly natural and beautiful but not really “good”. No one would pay money to watch it, but they smile when they see it. So you send the child to dance class, where they learn the “correct” steps and choreography. But, of course, now they are horrible dancers. They move like robots or off beat because they are trying so hard. (In our terms, they are using all their mental resources on monitoring and concentrative effort, leaving little left over to actually dance). This is why many parents agonize at the thought of going to a child’s dance recital: They can see the children are learning, but they are not real dancers. Finally, after many years of practice a dancer might become a master. Now, they dance perfect choreography but it is also natural. It appears effortless, and it is, though of course a lot of effort was required to get to that point. They are childlike, but not childish. They’ve mastered the technique so thoroughly that it now “just comes natural” to them, and they can focus instead on the expression and meaning of the dance.
So, how do we teach this in class? The paradigm I’m developing for my class this summer explores metacognition in exams. I talked about it on this College Info Geek podcast that provides undergraduates with useful tips to succeed. Basically, while taking an exam, I require my students (and research subjects) to rate how confident they are in each of their answers. They do this on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being “not at all confident” and 5 being “very confident”. I’ve done some research on this, where I found that students are generally pretty good at judging how well they will do on each question, but not very good at estimating their overall grade on the exam. This rating processes helps to improve their scores, and students who want to review their exam afterwards can kind of see whether they could improve their metacognitive “calibration” (how well their estimates match reality). However, I haven’t yet explored whether it is possible to build this skill by rating and reviewing for several exams, or perhaps for several practice exams.
Thus, what I’ve been working on the past week or so involves designing a way for individual students to rate and review each exam and quickly calculate their metacognitive calibration. The main difficulty is that the calculation involves Goodman-Kruskal gamma correlations, which most (probably all) students have never done before. I’ll need to develop some instructions and lab exercises to teach them this technique – both the underlying statistics and the actual steps to calculate it using a computer program – so that they can quickly do it after each exam.
The specifics are still up in the air. I may have the class do this themselves on several of their own exams/practice exams, or I may have them recruit subjects and analyze their results for several exams to see if there is improvement. Maybe we could even have a group of seniors in my class “tutor” some struggling students for the semester and teach them this technique while tracking the results. Some of this I’ll leave up to the students.
In the end, hopefully they achieve or at least will start down the path toward wu wei. The ultimate goal would be to have them automatically – as an effortless natural process – metacognitively monitor themselves during exams and during all decisions in life. A huge literature has shown that metacognition is beneficial in education, in the business world, and in basically any endeavor that involves memory and decision making. If they achieved this, they would be true masters of life and would perfectly exemplify a liberal arts education. Even if they just start down the path it will be well worth it.
Of course, I also have to teach the class all of these concepts, including the psychology of metacognition, the underlying assumptions of Taoism and wu wei, the statistical concepts I mentioned above, and several other methodological things. Should be fun!