Cognitive Psychology Component: Benefits of Metacognitive Strategies
Lisa K. Son
Today, the field of cognitive psychology is in the midst of a major outpouring of
scientific work on the processes of thinking and learning and on the development of
improving long-term learning. And today, many cognitive researchers realize that
working in collaboration with educators will most benefit the strategies used in the
classroom. A crucial development in the science of learning has been to promote the
“metacognitive learner”. Metacognitive strategies include procedures where teachers
encourage students to take active control of their own learning by being aware of their
own strategies, and by using strategies that may seem—to both the learner and the
teacher—unfavorable during training or for the short term, but are, in actuality,
immensely beneficial for long-term learning and in novel situations.
The best way to categorize many of these effective strategies may be to, ironically, set up
difficult, somewhat stressful, unstable, and many times unsuccessful, testing
environments for the learner, ideas which were first emphasized by Bjork (1984). These
strategies can be achieved using a variety of testing methods. For example, cognitive
researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that distributing practice sessions far apart in
time, as opposed to cramming, produces markedly superior long-term memory
performance (see Dempster, 1996, for a review; Melton, 1970). This so-called “spacing
effect” will occur even though students feel less confident and learn more slowly and with
more difficulty during those distributed practice sessions (Bahrick, Bahrick, Bahrick, &
Bahrick, 1993; Zechmeister and Shaughnessy, 1980). Another research finding has been
to provide contextual variety (Birnbaum & Eichner, 1971). Making the task environment
more different on each learning occasion, or more unpredictable, can surely create
interference for the learner in the short term, adding to cognitive demands. However, if
the learner studies the to-be-learned materials in a large variety of situations, then, in the
long term, regardless of the context, performance will stay high. Theoretically, one could
think that “contextual variety” itself, has become a retrieval cue for the memory of that
Another proposal in cognitive psychology has been to reduce feedback during study,
even when students make errors (Bjork, 1984). This strategy is used when students are
given frequent tests, pop quizzes, and when they are encouraged to generate and present
their own ideas. Cognitive data have shown abundant evidence that the act of retrieval
induced by a recall test can be considered more potent than a passive study opportunity in
facilitating long-term recall (Bjork, 1988; Landauer & Bjork, 1978). It has also been
found that when people are told to generate previously learned material, they retain that
information better than those people who were told to passively read the material—
known as the “generation effect” (Slamecka & Graf, 1978). Again, these testing and
generation strategies are thought to be difficult, somewhat stressful, unstable, and many
times, lead to unsuccessful performance during training, for the short term. For example,
such strategies would allow learners to produce large numbers of errors, and to retrieve
incorrect information, as they would quite often on pop-quizzes, tests, and generated
ideas (error rates would drop significantly on predicted tests, expected questions, and
passive lecture-type learning contexts). However the added variability as a result of
exerting a high degree of cognitive effort during learning is thought to better ensure long-
term recall of that information (Hirshman & Bjork, 1988). And, researchers have found
that still the long-term benefits of testing, generation, and spacing, overwhelms any
possible harmful effect of making errors during training.
In short, educators have only recently begun to work with cognitive researchers,
attempting to implement optimal strategies in the classroom, and to teach these strategies
to their students. And importantly, both teachers and learners need to avoid
misperceptions of “fast and easy learning” which only benefits short-term performance,
and instead shift to “difficult and somewhat stressful learning” which is optimal for long-
term performance. Thus, an important goal of both researchers and educators should be to
show that good performance now does not always translate into good performance
later—on the contrary, struggle, stress, and spontaneity now, may be the key to long-term
maintenance of knowledge.
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