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Metacognition and learning in adulthood

Prepared in response to tasking from ODNI/CHCO/IC Leadership Development Office by Dr. Theo L. Dawson , Developmental Testing Service, LLC

Saturday, August 23, 2008

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Metacognition and learning in adulthood



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Metacognition and learning in adulthood 1

What is metacognition?
Metacognition is thinking about thinking. Metacognitive skills are usually conceptualized as an interrelated set of competencies for learning and thinking, and include many of the skills required for active learning, critical thinking, reflective judgment, problem solving, and decision-making. Adults whose metacognitive skills are well developed are better problem-solvers, decision makers and critical thinkers, are more able and more motivated to learn, and are more likely to be able to regulate their emotions (even in difficult situations), handle complexity, and cope with conflict. Although metacognitive skills, once they are well-learned, can become habits of mind that are applied in a wide variety of contexts, it is important for even the most advanced adult learners to flex their cognitive muscles by consciously applying appropriate metacognitive skills to new knowledge and in new situations. According to Flavell (1979), who coined the term, metacognition is a regulatory system that includes (a) knowledge, (b) experiences, (c) goals, and (d) strategies. Metacognitive knowledge is stored knowledge or beliefs about (1) oneself and others as cognitive agents, (2) tasks, (3) actions or strategies, and (4) how all these interact to affect the outcome of any intellectual undertaking. Metacognitive experiences are conscious cognitive or affective experiences that concern any aspect of an intellectual undertaking. Knowledge is considered to be metacognitive (as opposed to simply cognitive) if it is used in a strategic manner to meet a goal. According to Sternberg {, 1986 #14899) it is "figuring out how to do a particular task or set of tasks, and then making sure that the task or set of tasks are done correctly" (p. 24). Some of the concepts commonly associated with the metacognition literature are shown in Table 1.

Theo L. Dawson, Ph.D. (UC Berkeley, 1998), is a respected cognitive developmental psychologist. Her work focuses

on the description of learning sequencesthe actual pathways through which people learn complex concepts and skillsand the design of developmental assessments of these skills. She has worked closely with members of the IC since 2002, when she, along with her colleague Dr. Kurt Fischer (Harvard Graduate School of Education), conducted a study of the sequences through which critical thinking, leadership reasoning, and decision making skills develop in adulthood. Since then, her work with the IC has involved assisting with the design of leadership curricula, evaluating the extent to which curricula support leader development, and helping to define skill levels for a range of leadership and analyst standards. Metacognition 3

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Table 1: Metacognition concepts

Concept Metacognitive knowledge about persons Metacognitive knowledge about tasks Metacognitive knowledge about strategies Level of conscious awareness of metacognitive knowledge Limits of metacognitive knowledge Duration of metacognitive experiences Occurrence of metacognitive experiences Effects of metacognitive experiences Memory-monitoring, selfregulation, meta-reasoning, consciousness/awareness, and autoconsciousness/selfawareness Transfer Cognition Ill-structured problems Description Includes a persons beliefs about intra-individual differences, inter-individual differences, and universals of cognition The information available to apply to a cognitive activity and an individuals knowledge about the task demands of a given situation Awareness of and beliefs about available strategies Retrieval and construction of metacognitive knowledge can be either conscious or unconscious Can be accurate or inaccurate, may not be activated when needed, may not have much influence when it is activated, and may not have a beneficial effect when it is influential Can be momentary or lengthy, as when we are consciously grappling with a challenging problem Most likely to occur when one is engaged in intentional, reflective intellectual activities such as problem-solving and learning Can lead one to establish new goals and to revise or abandon old ones, can cause one to add to ones existing metacognitive knowledge base, and can activate strategies that would otherwise have remained inactivated Other terms for metacognition

Using a metacognitive skill learned in one context to solve a problem in another context. A general term for thinking, sometimes distinguished from metacognition, which is thinking about thinking. Ill-structured problems are open-ended, with unclear goals, multiple solutions, and no right answerslike many of the problems we face in the workplace

Double loop learning

Learning how the way one defines and solves problems can be a source of problems (Argyris, 1991).

Models of metacognition
The term metacognition is both a general term for thinking about thinking, and a term used by a particular group of researchers to describe their field. There are numerous models of metacognition, far too many to describe here. To complicate things further, metacognition is a central component of several skill sets that are central to education and the workplace, including (1) reflective judgment, (2) critical thinking, (3) decision making, and (4) problem solving. (Some researchers argue that these are components of metacognition.) Table 1 provides brief descriptions of some of the more prominent metacognitive models.


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Table 2: Models of metacognition

Finding Self regulated learning (lower levels) Implication Reference (J. G. Borkowski & Thorpe, 1994; Como, 1986; Ghatala, 1986; Schloemer & Brenan, 2006; Barry J. Zimmerman, 1990) Note: Watch out for applications of this model that focus exclusively on teaching students more effective ways to memorize facts.

Self-regulated learners approach educational tasks with confidence, diligence, and resourcefulness; are aware when they know a fact or possess a skill and when they do not; proactively seek out information when needed and take the necessary steps to master it; find a way to succeed even when they encounter obstructions; view learning as a systematic and controllable process; accept responsibility for their achievement outcomes; and monitor the effectiveness of their learning methods or strategies. Self-regulated learning strategies include self-evaluation, organization and transformation, goal setting and planning, information seeking, record keeping, self-monitoring, environmental structuring, giving self-consequences, rehearsing and memorizing, seeking social assistance, and reviewing. (paraphrased from Zimmerman, 1990) In addition to metacognition, motivation and behavior are considered to be components of self-regulated learning.


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Finding Critical thinking (all levels)


Reference The Foundation for Critical Thinking ( This model includes standards of thought (clarity, accuracy, relevance, logicalness, breadth, precision, significance, completeness, fairness, and depth), which are applied to the elements of thought (shown on the left), resulting in the development of intellectual virtues. This is an iterative cycle, which is repeated as reasoning increases in complexity over the course of development. Critical thinking and creative thought are linked in this model (Paul & Elder, 2006).

Reflective judgment Double loop learning (upper levels)

The reflective judgment model is a very well-researched model of the development of thinking about thinking. Argyris brings metacognition to the workplace by highlighting the importance of becoming conscious of the consequences of ones actions. He uses real-life examples from the workplace to demonstrate methods for teaching upper level managers to think effectively about their thinking.

(Kitchener & Fischer, 1990; Kitchener & King, 1990; P. K. Wood, 1997) {Argyris, 1991 #14906; Argyris, 1982 #14625;


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Metacognition research
Table 3: Metacognition and learning
Finding Metacognitive skills develop. Implication They can be learned. Reference (Baer, Hollenstein, Hofstetter, Fuchs, & Reber-Wyss, 1994; Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, & Campione, 1983; John H. Flavell, 1979; Ruth Garner & Alexander, 1989) (J. H. Flavell, 1981; Ruth Garner & Alexander, 1989; Glenberg, Wilkinson, & Epstein, 1982) (J. Borkowski, Carr, & Pressely, 1987; Bransford, Sherwood, Vye, & Rieser, 1986; Carr, Kurtz, Schneider, Turner, & Borkowski, 1989; R. Garner, 1990; Hascher & Oser, 1995; Mace, Belfiore, & Hutchinson, 2001; Pressley & Ghatala, 1990; B. J. Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001) (Bransford et al., 1986; EwellKumar, 1999; Heath, 1983)

Adults often fail to monitor their thinking. Students who have been taught metacognitive (self-regulated learning) skills learn better than students who have not been taught these skills.

Adults can benefit from metacognitive training. It is possible to produce better learners by teaching metacognitive skills.

Students with good metacognitive skills are better critical thinkers, problem-solvers, or decision makers than students who are not. People whose thinking is more complex tend to have better metacognitive skills. In most people, the development of cognitive complexity progresses at different rates in different knowledge domains, depending upon experience and learning in particular domains. Cognitive development involves both knowledge acquisition and (largely unconscious) knowledge structuring. (If there is no knowledge to organize, then there is no development.) Content knowledge is more easily accessed in real-world situations if students learn how new concepts and procedures can function as tools for solving relevant problems. Both content knowledge and metacognitive skills are essential for learning.

It is possible to produce better critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and decision makers by teaching metacognitive skills. Metacognition and cognitive complexity are related. Since cognitive complexity and metacognition are related, we might expect metacognition to be more advanced in more developed knowledge domains. Because metacognitive skills involve the conscious structuring of knowledge, they are likely to be more developed in areas of greater knowledge. Learning environments should include opportunities for students to reflectively apply new concepts and tools in real-world contexts. Learning may be enhanced when instruction (1) provides explicit content knowledge while (2) asking students to use metacognitive skills to operate on that knowledge. Increased self-confidence and a sense of increased personal responsibility may provide motivation for learning.

(Swanson & Hill, 1993; Vukman, 2005) (Fischer & Pruyne; Fischer, Yan, & Stewart)

(Bransford et al., 1986)

(Glaser, 1984)

(Bransford et al., 1986; Perkins, 1987)

Metacognitive training can increase students self-confidence and sense of personal responsibility for their own development.

(McCombs & Marzano, 1990; Schunk, 1990)


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Finding Metacognitive training can increase students motivation to learn.

Implication Training in metacognitive skills may enhance students sense of self efficacy, thus increasing their motivation to learn. Metacognitive strategies should be embedded in assignments and classroom activities across the curriculum at every level of instruction

Reference (Bandura, 1986; Hofer & Yu, 2003; Sperling, Howard, Staley, & DuBois, 2004) (Ruth Garner & Alexander, 1989)

Moving adult learners to a point of acknowledging that old routines no longer work as well as new, instructed ones takes time and many demonstrations of the superiority of the new routines. Intelligent novices can use general metacognitive skills to figure out how to obtain knowledge in an unfamiliar domain.

Once adults have gained expertise and learned how to use a range of metacognitive skills in one domain, they can use some of their metacognitive skills to more rapidly learn in another domain. Teachers or intelligent tutors can support the use of existing metacognitive strategies in new knowledge areas by providing feedback that reminds students to employ metacognitive strategies they have used in familiar knowledge areas. Classrooms in which covering the content is emphasized over understanding can deprive students of the opportunity to learn and master learning skills. Concept mapping, used well, is a useful metacognitive skill.

(Bruer, 1993; Mathan & Koedinger, 2005); Garner, 1989 #14918}

Students receiving intelligent novice feedback acquire a deeper conceptual understanding of domain principles and demonstrate better transfer and retention of skills over time than students who do not receive such feedback. When students perceive an emphasis on mastery goals in their classroom, they report using more metacognitive learning strategies. Use of concept maps helped adult students develop thinking skills, promoted growth in understanding their learning processes, and fostered understanding of knowledge construction. Repeated experiences of dyadic discussions within the classroom improved reasoning skills (over controls). Informal learning is enhanced in managers who employ a wide range of metacognitive strategies. Students in problem based learning classrooms have been found to have higher levels of intrinsic goal orientation, task value, use of elaboration learning strategies, critical thinking, metacognitive selfregulation, effort regulation, and/or peer learning compared with control-group students.

(Mathan & Koedinger, 2005)

(Ames & AfIher, 1988)

(Daley, 2002)

Active engagement in thinking about a topic enhances the quality of reasoning about that topic. Training in the use of metacognitive strategies may increase informal learning in less metacognitively sophisticated managers. Problem based learning environments may enhance metacognitive skills relative to conventional instructional environments.

(Kuhn, Shaw, & Felton, 1997)

(Enos, Kehrhahn, & Bell, 2003)

(Sungur & Tekkaya, 2006)


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Finding Gifted learners have been found to employ fewer metacognitive strategies than less gifted students.

Implication Gifted learners, because they learn easily, may not need to employ metacognitive strategies to excel. This could result in reasoning deficits in later life.

Reference (Dresel & Haugwitz, 2005)

Table 4: Metacognition and critical thinking

Concept Critical thinking is the ability to (1) identify and formulate important questions and problems; (2) gather and assess information; (3) test proposed conclusions against relevant criteria and standards; (4) think within alternative systems of thought, assessing their assumptions, implications and practical consequences; and (5) communicate effectively, without appealing to logical fallacies or manipulating others. Resources The Foundation for Critical Thinking (

Table 5: Metacognition and reflective judgment

Description Reflective judgment is metacognition. Beliefs about learning significantly impact the quality of learning strategies and learning outcomes in general. Students whose reflective judgment skills are more developed are likely to be better learners. Implications Source (Hofer, 2004) (B. K. Hofer, 1999; Barbara K. Hofer, 2000; Paulsen & Feldman, 2005; Schommer, 1990, 1993; Schommer, Crouse, & Rhodes, 1992)(Brten & Stromso, 2005; Muis, 2007; P. Wood & Kardash, 2002)


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Figure 1: Model of metacognitive skills and conditions for their development and use



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Table 6: Metacognition and problem solving

Finding Effective problem solving depends on the nature and organization of the knowledge available to individuals. Psychological biases interfere with problem-solving Implications Students whose reasoning skills are more developed are likely to be better learners. Source Bransford, 1986 #6747; Chi, 1988 #982}

Psychological biases may be ameliorated through metacognition

(Duchon, Ashmos, & Dunegan, 1991)

Table 7: Metacognition and psychological biases

Unconscious knowledge structuring takes place every time we learn something. These natural structuring processes have limitations that (1) are ineffective in some situations or (2) produce cognitive biases. Metacognition can be employed to counter these biases. Note: Although it is clearly part of the subtext of much research in metacognition (especially critical thinking), the subject of psychological bias is rarely raised explicitly.
Bias Overestimate explanatory knowledge Implications People tend to overestimate the depth of their explanatory knowledge (how well they understand concepts), which can produce decision errors. Source (Mills & Keil, 2004)

Table 8: Metacognition and mindfulness

Finding or comment Mindfulness begins by bringing awareness to current experienceobserving and attending to the changing field of thoughts, feelings, and sensations from moment to momentby regulating the focus of attention. This leads to a feeling of being very alert to what is occurring in the here-and-now. It is often described as a feeling of being fully present and alive in the moment. (p. 232) Mindfulness is further defined by an orientation to experience that [involves] making a commitment to maintain an attitude of curiosity about where the mind wanders. (p. 233) Mindfulness can be thought of as creating an optimally receptive state for new learning and experience, increasing the likelihood that appropriate metacognitive skils will be selected and employed. Mindfulness practice requires the activation of metacognitive knowledge, monitoring, and control. Source (Bishop et al., 2004)

(Garland, 2007; Thomas, 2006) (Wells, 2005)



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Figure 2: Metacognitive skills are an important component of interpersonal intelligence



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Teaching and learning metacognition

Figure 3: Learning model for the workplace, emphasizing motivation, assessment, and metacognition (adapted from

Table 9: Teaching and learning metacognitive skills: The research

Finding Metacognitive skills can be taught. Reference (J. Borkowski et al., 1987; Bransford et al., 1986; R. Garner, 1990; Hascher & Oser, 1995) (Ericsson, Chase, & Faloon, 1980)

Metacognitive skills learned in one context are not automatically transferred to another context.

Metacognitive skills are learned and applied more effectively in supported active learning contexts than in direct instruction contexts. An application of metacognition to diversity issues. Could be useful as a starting place for discussion. The role of formative assessment in self-regulated learning. (Byars-Winston & Fouad, 2006) (Nicol & MacFarlaneDick, 2006)



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Table 10: Teaching and learning metacognitive skills: Activities

Activity Identifying cognitive errors Description When students monitor their learning, they can become aware of potential problems, including errors in encoding, operations, and goals. Errors in encoding include missing important data or not separating relevant from irrelevant data. Errors in operations include failing to select the right sub-skills to apply or failing to divide a task into subparts. For example, some math students will jump right to what they think is the final calculation to get the desired answer. Errors in goal seeking include misrepresenting the task and not understanding the criteria to apply. Problems with cognitive load include being unable to handle the number of sub-skills necessary to do a task, or not having enough automatic, internalized subskills. A good way to discover what kind of errors managers are making in their thinking processes is to have them unpack their thinking by explaining, step by step, how they are approaching a given task. This not only allows the instructor to diagnose possible errors, it provides managers with an opportunity to describe their thinking processes, which, by itself, develops their metacognitive abilities. Strategic learning Working in groups, have students generate questions about the content being learned and attempt to answer them. Have students produce written or verbal summaries of course texts. Require students to create examples, make analogies, and explain relationships between concepts. Then, engage students in the use of organizing strategies like concept maps, network representations, and other graphic organizers. Self-regulatory metacognitive questions These questions are designed to follow instruction on a particular topic and precede instruction on the next topic: (a) "What did I learn about this topic?" (monitoring) (b) "With what did I have difficulty?" (monitoring) (c) "What types of things can I do to deal with this difficulty?" (problem solving-planning) (d) "What specific action(s) am I going to take this week to solve any difficulties?" (planning) Before assigning this task for the first time, instructors should work through an example with the group. (McInerney, McInerney, & Marsh, 1997) (Simpson & Nist, 2000) Resource (Nickerson, Perkins, & Smith, 1985)



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Activity Cromley summarizes the research findings, then translates them into practical activities for the classroom. This is an excellent resource for adult educators.

Description Skills need to be taught in the context in which they will be used. For example, if students are learning to lead in a high security situation, they need to practice confronting the kinds of issues that come up in high security situations, not just "general" skills. Reading skills are subject-specificunderstanding what you read in a technical report does not guarantee that you will read well in another subject area. Problem-solving skills in one subject area are different from those in other areas. Problem-solving skills need to be taught separately for each subject. Since problem-solving skills do not automatically transfer from one subject area to another, instructors need to show students how to transfer these skills and give them lots of practice. Students need more and better mental models of the world in order to learn and master new information and skills. Thinking skills, such as inferring unstated facts, need to be taught explicitly in the classroom; they do not develop on their own (except in a very few students). These strategies need to be practiced over and over again. Most adult learners have a very limited number of strategies for understanding new material or solving problems. Teaching them more strategies can help them learn much better. Learning lasts when the student understands the material, not just memorizes it. Information needs to be presented in small chunks so that working memory can process it. Students need immediate practice to move information from working memory to long-term memory. It is impossible to remember without associating new information with what you already know.

Resource (Cromley, 2000)

Authors provide an overview of scaffolding and its effects on learning.

(From the abstract) This paper proposes an expanded conception of scaffolding with four key elements: (i) scaffolding agency expert, reciprocal, and self-scaffolding; (ii) scaffolding domain conceptual and heuristic scaffolding; (iii) the identification of self-scaffolding with metacognition; and (iv) the identification of six zones of scaffolding activity; each zone distinguished by the matter under construction and the relative positioning of the participant(s) in the act of scaffolding.

(Holton & Clarke, 2006)



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Figure 4: Model of formative assessment and self-regulated learning



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Table 12: Metacognition fads Fad Learning styles Claim Different people have different learning styles (that can be measured with survey-type instruments) and these have an impact on learning. Comments Adjusting teaching style to accommodate different learning styles has not been shown to impact learning. Moreover, catering to learning preferences may limit versatility, having a negative effect on learning over time. Much of the data necessary for demonstrating the unique association between EI and work-related behavior appears to reside in proprietary databases, preventing rigorous tests of the measurement devices or of their unique predictive value. For those reasons, any claims for the value of EI in the work setting cannot be made under the scientific mantle (p. 411) Source (Cromley, 2000; Curry, 1990; Stahl, 2002)

Emotional Bringing intelligence to intelligence bear upon emotion.

{Landy, 2005 #14980}

Table 11: Metacognition curricula
Resource IDEAL problem solving: Identify, Define, Explore, Act, and Look, and Learn. Description The IDEAL problem solving system is based on evidence that successful problem-solvers actively attempt to (a) identify problems that others may have overlooked; (b) develop at least two sets of contrasting goals for any problem and define them explicitly; (c) explore strategies and continually evaluate their relevance to their goals; (d) anticipate the effects of strategies before acting on them; and (e) look at the effects of their efforts and learn from them. (p. 3) Focuses, in part on helping adults manage their own learning using metacognitive skills. Level Premanagement Resources (Bransford, Haynes, Stein, Lin, & NashvilleRead, 1998)

TV411a national television series aimed at adult learners Curricula to enhance students higher order cognitive skills Cognitive Strategy Instruction (CSI)


(D'Amico & Capehart, 2001)

A handbook offering a number of activities designed for adult learners. Many of these are appropriate for premanagers, especially if they are contextualized (free from Eric). An instructional approach that has been shown to enhance learning by emphasizing the development of thinking skills and processes. The objective is to enable all students to become more strategic, self-reliant, flexible, and productive learners. A useful resource for students of critical thinking in the workplace.


(Carman & Askov, 1994)


(Scheid, 1993)

Using critical thinking to gain knowledge and understanding


http://www.unisa /Resources/nursi ng/Critical%20thi nking/Critical%2 0thinking.htm



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Resource Designing metacognitive activities

Description Several research-based suggestions for creating learning activities with a strong metacognitive component


Resources (Lin, 2001)

Table 12: Metacognition measures

Resource Lectical Reflective Judgment Assessment (LRJA01) Description An online assessment of reflective judgment skill (for managers). Provides reliable developmental scores in level increments, as well as personalized feedback, including developmentally informed learning suggestions. Intended for personal use, coaching, and course evaluations. The RCI is an online assessment of the capacity to recognize and endorse statements that reflect the attributes of reflective thinking. It is not an assessment of reflective judgment skill, and it is not intended as an assessment of individuals, but can be used to assess group trends. An assessment of students knowledge about critical thinking conceptsthe extent to which they have learned these concepts as they are presented in Elder and Pauls model. It is not an assessment of critical thinking ability. Reliability information is not provided. A pen and paper assessment of critical thinking skill that can be adapted to any subject area. Scoring is done by instructors, and is based on rubrics. Based on the idea of self-regulated learning (SRL), this selfreport instrument is designed to assess motivation and use of learning strategies by college students. The motivation scales tap into three broad areas: (1) value (intrinsic and extrinsic goal orientation, task value), (2) expectancy (control beliefs about learning, self-efficacy); and (3) affect (test anxiety). The learning strategies section is comprised of nine scales which can be distinguished as cognitive, metacognitive, and resource management strategies. The cognitive strategies scales include (a) rehearsal, (b) elaboration, (c) organization, and (d) critical thinking. Metacognitive strategies are assessed by one large scale that includes planning, monitoring, and regulating strategies. Resource management strategies include (a) managing time and study environment; (b) effort management, (c) peer learning, and (d) help-seeking. (abstract) Resources

Reasoning About Current Issues Test (RCI) fjudg/reasoningaboutcurre ntissuestest.html http://www.criticalthinking. org/courses/critical_think g_test1.cfm

International Critical Thinking Basic Concepts and Understanding Online Test International Critical Thinking Test Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ)

http://www.criticalthinking. org/assessment//ICATinfo.cfm (Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & Mckeachie, 1993)



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Resource Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO)

Description Method for evaluating learning/reasoning outcomes that involves 5 levels of learning. Is often used to scaffold the development of scoring rubrics. Rubrics are high inference and inter-rater agreement is difficult to maintain. Nonetheless, when inter-rater agreement is properly controlled, the rubrics are reliable enough for course evaluations (not usually for individual evaluation). 1. Pre-structural Learners acquire bits of unconnected information, which have no organization and make no sense. 2. Uni-structural Learners make simple and obvious connections, but show little evidence that their significance has been grasped. 3. Multi-structural Learners make a number of connections, but metaconnections between them are missed, as is their significance for the whole. 4. Relational Learners appreciate the significance of the parts in relation to the whole. 5. Extended abstract Learners make connections both within and beyond the subject area, showing they are able to generalize and transfer the principles and ideas.

Resources (Biggs & Collis, 1982)



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