No. 1:  The Rule of Understanding

    Most of you would agree that while you might be able to pass a class that you don't understand, you probably won't do very well.  Similarly, while you can graduate without understanding something about learning, you probably won't do as well without some understanding of the process of learning.  The better you understand your own learning, the better you'll do in my classes and in College.

    Metacognition is the term for assessing your own learning as you go.  It's not so much about figuring out the material, but rather about figuring out what you do and do not understand.  Once you recognize that you don't understand a topic, you figure out what's missing, and you figure out what you need to learn in order to understand.

    This process of assessing what you do and do not know has been identified as a key to 'Expert Learning'--the way an expert in any field learns something new. When novices learn metacognition, they progress faster toward Expert status.

OPTIONAL EXAMPLE--I (the professor) give you a lecture on genes and DNA.  You could memorize it all, and perfectly repeat definitions and explanations of genetic material, DNA, and genes.  Do you understand it? How could you know what you do and do not understand?  You start by asking yourself questions.  Here's the MOST important question, always: can you explain why this lecture is part of the course?  Can you explain why this material is important?  If not, then you are missing something.

    The next step is to learn out what you need to know.  It's like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing.  The picture doesn't yet make sense. Your task is to learn which missing parts would let you recognize the picture. What do you do?  You search for pieces that are part of the outline and the edges of whatever seems important in the picture.  In a class, usually the lectures and the book have the missing essential pieces, mixed in with a bunch of relevant but not essential pieces.  Your task is first to learn the essential missing pieces, and then decide if you really need to learn every piece to fill in the entire puzzle.  

    Would it be enough to just memorize all the pieces?  Only if the goal of the course (and each exam) is to have you recognize each individual piece.  If your task is to describe the entire picture, interpret the picture, or use it to discuss unseen but related pictures, you need to understand the whole picture, not just the pieces.

    Of course, it takes practice to learn how to ask the right questions.  Usually if you start asking yourself 'why' and 'how', you will learn what you do and do not know about each topic.  For example, could you explain why DNA is the genetic material, rather than the other options--proteins, carbohydrates, or fats?  Could you explain why organisms need genetic material?  Could you explain why  genetic material is organized into genes?  Could you explain why only some genes are used in each cell of an animal?  Could you explain why one gene isn't enough, and organisms need many genes?)  

    Finally, as you learn the process of metacognition, you have to practice.  I and others might be able to help, but you have to use the advice to start trying (sometimes failing) and practicing to improve. 

[Return to the Seven Rules for Learning]

Last updated  12/01/2009
College of William and Mary, Department of Biology

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