Cognition, Metacognition, and Problem–based Learning

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Cognition, Metacognition, and Problem–based Learning

Cognition and Pedagogy

Once upon a time, good pedagogy was about making content knowledge “visible” to students. Teaching involved providing clear explanations to students in disseminating knowledge and solving problems. In the industrial age, this sufficed for the classroom. Toward the last decade of the 20th century, good pedagogy was about making teachers' thinking visible. In other words, effective teaching was characterized by modeling the process of learning so that students could observe and learn process skills, problem-solving skills, and thinking skills while acquiring content knowledge.

In the 21st century, the knowledge-based economy—fueled by information explosion and accessibility, rapid proliferation of technology, globalization, and demands for new competencies—calls for a different paradigm in pedagogy. Educators have to unlearn the old ways and confront new ways of looking at knowledge and at participation in the learning process. Pedagogy in the 21st century has to go beyond making content visible and making teachers' thinking visible. Good pedagogy today is about making students' thinking visible. The challenge of education is to design learning environments and processes where students' ways of thinking and knowing are manifested in active, collaborative, self-regulated, and self-directed learning. The role of the teacher is to enable students to recognize the state, repertoire, and depth of various dimensions of their thinking and to sharpen their abilities to deal with real-world problems. The “visibility” of students' cognition is a prerequisite for effective mediation and facilitation.

The progressive challenges of pedagogy can be summed up as follows:

  • Making content knowledge visible to learners
  • Making teachers' thinking visible to learners
  • Making learners' thinking visible to themselves, their peers, and the teacher

Developments in Psychology

Behavioristic psychology, as the science of learning, provided the basis for effective teaching and learning in the first half of the last century. The behavioristic establishment led by Skinner continued its influence and contributions through the 1960s and 1970s (Skinner, 1953, 1987, 1989a, b). Making content knowledge visible to the learner was probably underpinned by behavioral science where specific behavioral objectives followed by the management and reinforcement of learning led to the attainment of the desired knowledge and skills.

In the 1960s, recognition of Piaget's work gained momentum (although Piaget began his work in the 1920s). Piaget addressed the internal world of the individual in relation to intelligence and questions pertaining to the structure of the mind (Piaget, 1956, 1959; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). His work was based on three interrelated conceptions: (1) the relation between action and thought, (2) the construction of the cognitive structure, and (3) the role of self-regulation. According to Piaget, logical thinking and reasoning about complex situations represents the highest form of cognitive development.

Sternberg (1990) noted that Piaget dealt primarily with the relationship of intelligence to the internal world of the individual and that Piaget believed intelligence essentially matures from the inside and directs itself outward. In the 1970s, cognitive psychology gained new ground as interest in “mentalism” grew (Bourne, Dominowski, & Loftus, 1979). Vygotsky (1978), in contrast to Piaget, believed that intelligence begins in the social environment and directs itself inward and that all psychological processes are in genesis essentially social processes, initially shared among people. Vygotsky (1978, 1962) posited that higher mental processes are functions of mediated activity. He contributed significantly to the understanding of intelligence in the theory of internalization, the theory of the convergence of speech and practical activity, and the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). In the classroom, an expert teacher may model many approaches of a problem-solving process for the students. The students will need to internalize these processes as their own problem-solving activities if they are to develop effective self-regulation and metacognitive abilities. Within the context of the gradual internalization of cognitive activities through interaction, Vygotsky (1978) defined the zone of proximal development as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by individual problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86). In his view, logical memory, voluntary attention, categorical perception, and self-regulation of behavior represent the highest forms of psychological functioning.

The cognitive revolution rooted in major works such as those of Piaget and Vygotsky provided much impetus for the psychology of thinking. Although the general goal of thoughtfulness as a hallmark of liberal education has often been articulated, the 1980s saw emphasis on the “teaching of thinking” as a relatively new concept (Resnick, 1987; Costa & Lowery, 1989). Staff development in teaching thinking was stressed, and making teachers' thinking visible was in many ways the next wave of good pedagogy.

Feuerstein contributed to our further understanding of cognition and mediation. Feuerstein began his work in the 1950s, but his contributions gained recognition only in the 1990s. He had an interesting way of thinking beyond the traditions of his time. Instead of being concerned about what students failed to learn, he turned his focus to what they could learn. When assessment was static and summative, he made it dynamic and truly formative (i.e., developmental). When others were modifying teaching materials for children with learning disabilities, he chose to invest his energies in modifying these learners directly. When behaviorists were looking at stimuli and output behaviors, Feuerstein chose to focus on not only the organism but also the inner structure of cognition. While intervention programs were often concerned with content, he was more concerned with cognitive processes pertaining to learning to learn and thinking about thinking. While psychoanalysts were concerned with emotions and antecedent, he preferred to search for a more proximal and optimistic determinant of cognitive development. Helping learners discover their learning potentials and gain awareness of their thinking and thinking about thinking calls for an important factor: the presence of a competent mediator. Building on the insights of cognitive psychologists Piaget and Rey from the Genevan school, Feuerstein developed a theory of mediated learning experience, which provides the psychological basis for pedagogy that helps make students' thinking visible.

Mediated Learning Experience, Metacognition, and Self-Regulation

According to Feuerstein, Rand, Hoffman, and Miller (1980, 385), “cognitive factors can be considered key elements to the individual's successful adaptation, particularly in a technological and rapidly changing society.” In other words, sufficient attention must be given not only to learners' ability to think but also to what is going on in their mind in terms of their cognitive processes. At the heart of Feuerstein's Theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability (SCM) is the modifiability of cognition. Feuerstein (1990) argued that a person's capacity to learn is not solely determined by one's genetic endowment; on the contrary, cognitive capacity can be enhanced through mediation. He highlighted the importance of understanding specific cognitive functions (e.g., planning behavior, systematic thinking, inferential thinking, and analogical thinking) and creating learning environments for mediating these cognitive functions. Cognitive enhancement in SCM refers not merely to the development of specific behaviors but also to changes of a “structural nature” (i.e., internal changes in cognition rather than external changes in behavior). Such cognitive changes should be durable and substantial and should impact on the individual holistically (i.e., affecting dispositional traits, thinking ability, and the general level of competence).

How do we bring about such a structural modification of cognition? The question relates to the basis for effective intervention or interaction. Embedded in the SCM theory is the Theory of Mediated Learning Experience (MLE). Simply put, this theory states that the quality of interaction between the individual and the environment via an intentional human being (the mediator) plays a pivotal role in the cognitive development of the individual. Feuerstein and Feuerstein (1991) identified several parameters that characterize MLE. Three of these parameters are indispensable to a mediated interaction: (1) intentionality and reciprocity, (2) mediation of meaning, and (3) transcendence. Tan, Parsons, Hinson, and Sardo-Brown (2003) represent the parameters as a repertoire for educators as shown in Figure 1.

SCM is consistent with modern theories of intelligences, which include ideas about intelligence being learnable (Perkins & Grotzer, 1997), about the diversification and multiplicity of intelligence (Gardner, 1983), and about developing components of intelligence to enhance cognition (Sternberg, 1985).

MLE principles are consistent with two major areas of research in cognition: metacognition and self-regulation (Borkowski, 1992; Pintrich, 2000; Zimmerman, 2001). Metacognition involves the interaction between

an individual, a task, and the strategies used to accomplish the task (Flavell, 1979). Strategies are crucial for effective learning and problem solving, and strategy use is an integral part of effective thinking and dealing with novelty. MLE parameters (see Figure 1) such as esteem and change awareness pertain to positive attributional beliefs and self-efficacy, which can be explicitly developed (Bandura, 1997; Borkowski, Chan, & Muthukrishna, 2000). It is recognized that problem solving in a socially relevant learning atmosphere can promote effective strategy use. According to Borkowski (1992), motivation drives and energizes self-regulation, and such processes shape strategy selection, implementation, and monitoring, especially when a learner faces a challenging task such as solving a novel problem. When solving a problem, learners have to put in effort to plan, evaluate, and regulate their use of strategies. They also have to commit to the task as well as feel competent in handling the task and expect some success. The use of challenging learning environments, as in Problem–based learning activities, encourages questioning and overcomes the fear of making mistakes. Borkowski, Chan, and Muthukrishna (2000) argued that students should be given opportunities to take initiative in solving tasks, independently and collaboratively.

Pintrich (2000) described self-regulated learning as a process by which students engage in different strategies to regulate their cognition, motivation, and behavior, as well as the context. Problem–based learning processes call for strategies that are goal-directed and self-directed, although they are influenced by the context of the problem. Facilitating the acquisition of self-regulated learning strategies is an important aspect of metacognition.

Metacognition, self-regulated learning, control, and regulation are generally related to metacognitive monitoring activities. In most models of regulation, it is assumed that attempts to control, regulate, and change cognition should be related to cognitive monitoring activities that provide information about the relative discrepancy between a goal and the current progress toward that goal (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). One of the central aspects of the control and regulation of cognition is the actual selection and use of various cognitive strategies for learning. Pintrich (2000) observed that the selection of appropriate cognitive strategies can have a positive influence on learning and performance. He noted three general types of cognitive strategies: (1) rehearsal, (2) elaboration, and (3) organization and general metacognitive self-regulation. Rehearsal strategies include attempts to memorize material by repeating it over and over or using other types of more “shallow” processing. In contrast, elaboration strategies reflect a “deeper” approach to learning, by attempting to summarize and paraphrase the material. Organizational strategies involve deeper processing through the use of various tactics, such as developing schemas or concept maps to organize the material. Metacognitive self-regulation includes various planning, monitoring, and regulating strategies for learning.

Contextual control strategies involve attempts by the learner to control the context of learning. In the traditional classroom, teachers usually have more control over the context than students have, but in today's knowledge-based era we need to train students to exert control over their learning environment. In Problem–based learning, students learn to seek help in getting information and learning new things in order to solve a problem. Karabenick (1998) maintained that help-seeking is a self-regulated learning strategy that involves both behavioral as well as contextual control. Students can actively seek help from teachers, other adults, or peers to increase their learning so as to solve problems. They also need to seek instrumental help, where they focus on learning and understanding and not just on getting the answer (Karabenick, 1998).

Problem–based Learning

Problem–based learning (PBL) focuses on the challenge of making students' thinking visible. Like most pedagogical innovations, PBL was not developed on the basis of learning or psychological theories, although the PBL process embraces the use of metacognition and self-regulation. PBL is recognized as a progressive active-learning and learner-centered approach where unstructured problems (real-world or simulated complex problems) are used as the starting point and anchor for the learning process.

In recent years, PBL has gained new momentum as a result of several developments. The first is the increasing demand for bridging the gap between theory and practice. This demand is particularly evident in medical education (Balla, 1990a, b). Norman and Schmidt (1992) found that PBL enhances the transfer of concepts to new problems, the integration of concepts, the intrinsic interest in learning, and learning skills. Albanese and Mitchell (1993) revealed that, compared with traditional teaching approaches, PBL helps students in knowledge construction and reasoning skills.

The second factor is information accessibility and knowledge explosion. Educators have always appreciated the value of using problems to stimulate learning and thinking, but when to pose a problem as well as the nature and scope of the problem were limited by the learner's lack of knowledge and of accessibility to information. Thus, problems were usually given only after the dissemination of knowledge and were often delimited by what was already taught. However, the advent of Internet technologies has ushered in new possibilities with PBL.

Thirdly, the emphasis on real-world competencies, such as skills in independent learning, collaborative learning, problem solving, and decision making, provides a strong rationale for adopting PBL. Glasgow (1997) argued that the real world is filled with problems, projects, and challenges and thus creating a “curriculum that reflects this reality makes sense” (p. 14).

Fourthly, developments in learning, psychology, and pedagogy appear to support the use of PBL. For example, research on memory and knowledge points to the importance of memory not only as associations but, more importantly, as connections and meaningful coherent structures (National Research Council, 1999). We now know more about “novice” learners and “expert” learners. We can develop better learning in individuals by providing opportunities for acquisition of procedures and skills through dealing with information in a problem space and learning of general strategies of problem solving. From the pedagogical perspective, PBL is based on the constructivist theory of learning (Schmidt, 1993; Savery & Duffy, 1995; Hendry & Murphy, 1995). In PBL approaches, understanding is derived from interaction with the problem scenario and the learning environment. Engagement with the problem and the problem inquiry process create cognitive dissonance that stimulates learning, and knowledge evolves through collaborative processes of social negotiation and evaluation of the viability of one's point of view. Metacognitive strategies and self-regulation are therefore integral aspects of PBL processes.

PBL Processes

PBL approaches in a curriculum usually include the following characteristics (Tan, 2003):

  • The problem is the starting point of learning.
  • The problem is usually a real-world problem that appears unstructured. If it is a simulated problem, it should be as authentic as possible.

  • The problem calls for multiple perspectives. The use of cross-disciplinary knowledge is a key feature in many PBL curricula. In any case, PBL encourages the solution of the problem by making use of knowledge from various subjects and topics.
  • The problem challenges students' current knowledge, attitudes, and competencies, thus calling for identification of learning needs and new areas of learning.
  • Self-directed learning is primary. Thus, students assume major responsibility for the acquisition of information and knowledge.
  • Harnessing of a variety of knowledge sources and the use and evaluation of information resources are essential PBL processes.
  • Learning is collaborative, communicative, and cooperative. Students work in small groups with a high level of interaction for peer learning, peer teaching, and group presentations.
  • Development of inquiry and problem-solving skills is as important as content knowledge acquisition for the solution of the problem. The PBL tutor thus facilitates and coaches through questioning and cognitive coaching.
  • Closure in the PBL process includes synthesis and integration of learning.
  • PBL also concludes with an evaluation and review of the learner's experience and the learning process.

Figure 2 illustrates the key components in the PBL process.

The goals of PBL include content learning, acquisition of process skills and problem-solving skills, and lifewide learning. I introduce the term lifewide learning to emphasize skills such as self-directed learning, independent information mining, collaborative learning, and reflective thinking. Lifewide learning is acquisition of competencies that can be transferred across various life and work situations. The skills learned are applicable to learning in a new discipline or learning to do something new.

In many PBL approaches, the student confronts a situation where he or she needs to accomplish an objective, and the means (i.e., the information, process, and actions to be taken) is something new or unknown to the student. In many ways, the pedagogy of PBL helps make visible or explicit the thinking and the richness of the cognitive structuring and processes involved.

A problem triggers the context for engagement, curiosity, inquiry, and a quest to address real-world issues. Figure 3 illustrates what goes on in the mind of the learner (cognition) and the probable changes in behavior (learning) that are triggered by the problem.

The challenge in diversifying educational methods is to design learning through the effective use of problems. Depending on the nature of the discipline, the goals of the curriculum, the flexibility of cross-disciplinary integration, and the availability of resources (e.g., time, infrastructure, information systems), problems can be used appropriately, strategically, and powerfully.

PBL and Cognitive Processes

The development of problem-solving acumen and of competencies for creative problem solving is an important goal of PBL. This requires the PBL tutor or coach to intervene in many cognitive, self-regulatory, and metacognitive processes as described in the MLE model and in research on metacognition. For example, the processes that follow engagement of the problem include: (1) problem clarification, (2) problem definition and reframing, (3) problem analysis, and (4) problem summary and synthesis. In order to clarify, define, and reframe the problem in their own words, students should realize the need to take time to think and plan.

Cognitive coaching involves helping students to refrain from unplanned (impulsive) reactions and to overcome sweeping and unwarranted narrow perceptions. By repeatedly querying about the facts to obtain a clear mental picture, problem solvers also learn to develop systematic and more thorough information-gathering skills. PBL processes and coaching involve getting the mind to make connections through reflection, articulation, and learning to see different perspectives. In the PBL process, the problem scenario and scaffolding help learners develop cognitive connections. Having obtained more data and new information, learners need to apply analytical thinking skills, such as comparing, classifying, logical thinking, and inferential thinking. Good analytical thinking involves not only logic but also knowing when we have to interpolate and extrapolate.

Manktelow (1999) noted that a substantial amount of psychological research supports the observation that bias and error in human reasoning are widespread. Evans, Venn, and Feeney (2002) found in a study of undergraduates that there is a tendency for people to focus on a single hypothesis when solving a problem. People also tend to have what they termed “pseudo-diagnostic” response, rather than diagnostic response, based on their background and beliefs. The authors gave the following example: Suppose a patient has symptom S and it is known that symptom S is present in 95 percent of people suffering from disease X. Jumping to the conclusion that the patient is likely to suffer from X without further probing constitutes weak reasoning. To deduce if the patient is likely to be suffering from X, at least two further pieces of information are needed: (1) the prevalence of X relative to other diseases and (2) the likelihood of S being present in other diseases.

The PBL process and coaching help develop flexibility and helicopter views by enhancing connectivity. According to Chin and Brewer (2001), data evaluation should be the central goal of student learning. When solving problems, the ability to construct an accurate model and to elaborate on the model is often limited. Poor problem solving also occurs because of the tendency to accept or reject particular key linkages. In other words, a set of cognitive strategies (such as those pertaining to searching for alternative causes and so on) for dealing effectively with a given set of data is often lacking. Research indicates that multiple mechanisms are operating when people work on tasks and that fluency in performance can be developed through the exercise of general strategies and appropriate attention shifts (Lee & Anderson, 2001). PBL trains learners to develop and internalize problem-solving competencies by increasing their awareness of different ways of thinking needed in working on a problem.

Lapses in reasoning and in thinking can occur in any of the phases of information processing. In PBL, the practice of scanning the information field, paraphrasing, dialogue, peer critique, and articulation helps sharpen thinking by collecting, connecting, and communicating information.

Facilitating inquiry for deeper learning is a major challenge. The interactive style of dialogue can be a very effective form of learning, provided that the teacher exercises a good amount of scaffolding through good questions (Chi et al., 2001). Effective PBL tutoring employs a good range of scaffolding and questioning techniques. In real life, scientists, entrepreneurs, and decision makers who are effective know how to ask good questions to help arrive at solutions. The goal of inquiry in PBL is to help students internalize such dialogues.

Referring to the MLE model in Figure 1 earlier, PBL interactions should include the three indispensable parameters. In terms of the first parameter, intentionality and reciprocity (IR), the PBL tutor should have a clear intention of what inquiries to elicit and be alert to how the learner responds to the intention of the PBL process. The presence of this parameter implies that an explicit and purposeful outcome should result from the interaction. PBL tutors need to be clear about their intentions and the desired outcomes, such as content learning and the development of problem-solving skills and lifewide learning skills, as described earlier. The next major parameter is the mediation of meaning (ME). In any learning situation, the awareness of meaning constitutes a major component of the motivation system. The power of problem scenarios is in their real-world context and the meaningfulness they present. In the coaching and probing process, many “why” questions are raised. An effective mediator helps the learner discover the significance of working on such a problem as well as the value of the PBL process. The third parameter, transcendence (T), refers to the transfer of learning across contexts and situations. One main reason PBL is advocated in many curricula is its effectiveness in bringing about transfer of learning. Students learn to take a lifewide approach to learning so that they actually learn how to learn.

These three parameters (IR, ME, and T), represented in the inner ring of Figure 1, are necessary and sufficient conditions for MLE. The other parameters are often present whenever applicable in learning situations. Mediation of feelings of competence (FC) relates to the need to provide “successful experiences” in the tasks given to learners and to remove the unwarranted fear of failure. FC is important as the fear of making mistakes often deters learners from trying again. The purpose of scaffolding is to help develop the sense of competence in problem solving.

In PBL, dialogue and questions between tutor and learner and between learners are a cornerstone of learning. Questions such as these are posed: What comes to your mind as you approach the problem scenario? What are your hypotheses? What strategies might we use? What might you do differently if the criteria are now changed? This is the mediation of reflective practice (RP), which relates to self-regulatory and metacognitive behaviors. Metacognition is an essential competence in PBL, as pointed out by Gijselaers (1996).

Mediation of interdependence and sharing (IS) refers to instilling a “sense of belonging” and sharing behavior. One of the roles of the PBL tutor is to broaden students' perspectives on learning. When it comes to understanding a real-world situation and getting a full perspective, “none of us is as smart as all of us.” Furthermore, the ability to harness information from others and build a pool of people resources is a life skill. The tutor in PBL encourages students to get out of their comfort zones and learn to seek information from various sources and from people. Teamwork, interdependence, and knowledge sharing are attributes emphasized in today's world.

The challenge of solving a real-world problem, the formulation of learning issues in PBL, and the requirement of peer teaching provide strong goal-directed behaviors (GO). The tutor's role is to guide and ensure that individuals and groups are constantly engaged in such goal-seeking and goal-attaining behaviors. PBL programs must also be designed to offer sufficient challenge and novelty, hence the NC parameter. After all, PBL aims to enhance intelligence to confront ill-structured and novel problems.

To summarize, PBL is about making students' thinking visible and stimulating multiple ways of thinking to confront problems that are illstructured and novel. PBL coaching involves active mediation of purpose, meaning, transfer of learning, optimistic seeking of alternatives, goaldirectedness, challenge, collaboration, and self-reflection. These metacognitive and self-regulatory processes are key to enhancing thinking in the 21st century.


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Cognition, Metacognition, and Problem–based Learning

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