Metacognition as Habit: Techniques that Make Learning More Effective

Previously we introduced the steps needed to extract knowledge from academic material and explained why metacognition plays such a vital role in that process. We turn now to the question of how to do metacognition and make learning more effective.

In a perfect world, we would aspire to read anything just one time. Regardless of how complex and dense it is, we’d like to comprehend it and remember it forever. But this is not the reality for the vast majority of us. Academic texts can be complex, poorly constructed, and at times, frankly incomprehensible. We have to know when to leave portions of what we’re reading to pursue alternative sources that better explain the material. It is our metacognition that performs this quality assurance and tells us when we need to look elsewhere.

When you use metacognition as a tool for quality assurance, you exercise your higher-level thinking to ensure that you are learning. You are protecting yourself from self-deception and actively controlling what and how you learn.

When your read complex material and apply metacognition, you should deconstruct and reconstruct concepts. As you do this, you will create a mental representation of whatever it is you are learning, be it a real-world, concrete example, or an abstract concept. 

We call these mental representations mental models. You can manipulate these models, playing around with a concept. Even with your eyes shut, you can look at them from different viewpoints and perspectives and compare and contrast them to other mental models. You take this digested knowledge, and by relating it to what you already know, you attach it to the knowledge you already possess, and in effect, you give it a URL in your personal web of knowledge.

This process is what we mean when we say we’re “wrapping our heads around it.” By following this paradigm, we actively learn as we read.

Illustration of mental models.
Mental models enable us to organize our understanding of real-world entities and abstract concepts so that we can intellectually examine, analyze, and manipulate them.

As you read, you should parse and process the words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections, and illustrations in your learning content. You should identify each important piece of information you’ll want to remember. 

I’ll discuss how to record these things shortly. For now, I want you to learn to recognize every first encounter that you have with any new concept in the text that you are reading and carry out the following internal test. Ask yourself if you fully understand that piece of information. You should be doing that right now as you read this! This quality assurance of your comprehension is an integral part of the metacognitive process. This thinking about your thinking is how you actively gauge your understanding of the information.

After you developed the skill of metacognition, you need to memorialize the learnings to ensure that you remember them. There are many excellent tools for recording your learnings. Many folks still prefer to take handwritten notes. Many nowadays take digital notes, whether in Word or apps such as Evernote, OneNote, and Notability. Newer applications like Roam Research and Obsidian leverage the associative nature of how our memory works and enable you to create bidirectional backlinks between atomic sections of your notes. 

We support using tools like Roam that help you connect the thoughts and concepts that you’ve captured and build mental associations. But even better, you need to install the learnings in your long-term memory so that you can Google your mind, to access your knowledge on the fly. If you want to build robust recallability of what you’ve learned, you will have to leverage the power of memory retrieval practice. 

That’s why we built iDoRecall. Our thesis is: consume your learning materials once; abstract and curate everything that you want to remember and transform it into spaced repetition flashcards; practice memory retrieval and if you struggle with an answer, click the source link on the back of the flashcard to open the source material at the exact location where you first learned it, so that you can refresh your memory in the original context. 

Thinking about your thinking– Metacognition gets easier with time

Actively thinking about the content and materials you engage with requires some contextual considerations. Read and think about what you’re learning. Then think about how you are processing the information. This process will expose you to a demanding cognitive load, especially at first. Metacognition is a habit, and like any other habit, the initial phase is the most difficult. Don’t be discouraged — it will get easier. Like anything else, this is a skill that can be taught and learned.

When engaging with your learning materials, you will likely encounter facts and ideas that are vague, complex, and otherwise difficult to grasp. When faced with such parcels of information, the best approach is to find another source for learning that concept. 

Some authors present information in unnecessarily abstract ways– there is a quick remedy for this problem

At times, a particular author’s presentation of the information is simply more complicated than it needs to be. It can be far easier and more efficient to seek out alternative presentations. This is easy to accomplish thanks to the web and Google. 

Google didn’t exist back in my day, but in general, it is this same strategy that allowed me to excel in medical school. I would routinely seek out the same information from various alternative sources, allowing me to find the most digestible presentation of the concepts. My time spent doing this was significantly less than I would have spent rereading the same materials over and over, and I got the added benefits of clearer understanding and another author’s perspective.

Key takeaways

By now, you should have a solid understanding of how metacognition works in practice. When consuming learning materials, you want to actively take note of the most important information and check in with yourself to make sure the key concepts are cemented into your understanding. When the content is unclear, it is highly beneficial to seek out alternative presentations. 

Now you are ready for me to walk you through the nuts and bolts of my process. I will explain how I use metacognition while I consume learning materials to learn effectively and efficiently.

Thanks for reading!

David Handel, MD | Co-founder and CEO of iDoRecall

iDR leverages the proven cognitive science principles that helped me succeed when I was in medical school, but that weren’t possible when I was a student. I invite you to try the free version of iDoRecall and experience how you can remember everything that your learn.

Get Started for Free

Thanks for reading!

David Handel, MD | Co-founder and CEO of iDoRecall

iDR leverages the proven cognitive science principles that helped me succeed when I was in medical school, but that weren’t possible when I was a student. I invite you to try the free version of iDoRecall and experience how you can remember everything that your learn.

Get Started for Free