Metacognitive Strategies: Go From Mindless Instructions to Real Understanding

February 12, 2021
By David Montiel
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At first glance, “metacognition” or “metacognitive strategies” are terms a little out of this world.

Meta (“beyond”) suggests that it could quickly go over one’s head but before you start to develop an increasing headache, this is not going to be some lofty presentation.

Metacognitive Strategies: Go From Mindless Instructions to Real Understanding

I’m not going to jam a bunch of strange and speculative concepts down your throat, that you probably don’t need (or care about) anyway.

I’ll leave the more philosophical ideas to someone else and instead focus on how it matters when figuring out how to obtain your best language ability.

Then you can decide whether it’s useful or not.


Whatever Is Metacognitive Strategies?
The Difference Between Being Aware and Following Blindly

A Difference for Self-Regulated Learning

Figuring Out What Is Worthwhile Your Time

Take Control of Your Language Journey

Getting Out When You’re Stuck In Translation

2 Week Beelinguapp Challenge

Whatever Is Metacognitive Strategies And Why Should You Care?

Whatever Is Metacognitive Strategies And Why Should You Care?

The whole concept can essentially be broken down into something as perfectly inexplicit as “ thinking about thinking.”

Which crazed nut ever coined that idea about thinking?

Well, we can attribute most of it to a psychologist named John H Flavell.

According to him, it’s a practice you can tap in and out of when you’re learning something new.

Normally it happens when you notice that you’re having more trouble with one part of learning over another, like pronunciation vs spelling. If you stop to consider why that is then you’re effectively “thinking about thinking”.

If you start to look around, the term often gets dropped like some majestic academic concept, which is likely to make you want to dump it like toxic waste. Who could blame you?!

The way I see it, it’s not a groundbreaking concept or theory only fitting for top academic circles.

It’s something that we’ve been using since perhaps the first cave-women/men gathered around a fire to share stories. It’s an inherently human ability. We wonder and ponder about things and shape our lives around those very thoughts.

So what part does it actually play in learning?

Forget the word “meta” (lol not Meta as in that Facebook company) and instead think about it as reflecting on “how” and “why” you learn something

For example, I remember a time when I was struggling to keep up in math class. I’d drill through every math problem just because that’s what the teacher told us. But I never understood why it was important or how I was going to use it later on.

At some point, the teacher answered questions about why and how these math problems were important in our homework.

Once I understood why these, at first, ‘useless’ formulas mattered in practice and how it would apply to myself later, I was way more engaged in my homework and better at pointing out which exercises made me understand better.

I understood why and how I could have learned better. We even reflected on completely different parts of our lives

We even reflect on completely different parts of our lives.

Have you ever been at a crossroads in your life where you had to decide on one thing over another? Of course, everyone has.

Well, I’d be willing to put money on before you made that decision on which you probably thought was the better option for you. Drawing from past experiences, thinking about what happened and what you could’ve done for it to turn out one way or another.

So, if we’re all having these reflective thoughts in one way or another, what difference does it make if we do it more or less knowingly?

The Difference Between Being Aware And Following ‘Blindly’

The Difference Between Being Aware And Following Blindly

Whether or not you reflect on what’s going on consciously or unconsciously is where we can draw the line.

John H. Flavell would probably say you need to be aware that you’re thinking about how you’re learning if you want to move the borders of how you understand.

If we take the previous example about getting better at math this happened because I was able to make a connection from what was being taught to how that might help later on when facing a new problem.

On the other hand, if you’re presented with a flow of new information and introduced to exercises, that you don’t really understand how you’ll improve from and why it’s going to be helpful. Then you’re essentially learning while being blindfolded.

To be fair, we’ve probably all learned a whole bunch of things even if you didn’t really understand why – and you probably still thought about it on some level and then simply moved on. I mean, math is useful, right?! No need to dig deeper.

Most people, (including myself), have taken this ‘unwitting’ approach to language learning.

One major thing though, is that it requires a good amount of trust in the person or the material you’re learning from.

It’s the difference between someone handing you a hammer and telling you, “This will become useful,” vs seeing how the hammer works and in what situations it can make all the difference.
Have you ever asked your teacher, “Why do we need to learn this?” and got an answer along, “Because it’s in the curriculum.”

It seems deeply ingrained that we benefit from knowing what the damn point is. I’ve even found that when learning anything new, if we can’t see what the point is, it’s unlikely we’ll give it our best effort.

I’ve found that when learning anything new if we can’t see what the point is, it’s unlikely we’ll give it our best effort.

Following blindly is;

“Okay, I guess I’ll do this, after all, it sounds reasonable.”

Being aware is;

“If I do A, then that will lead to B and then I can do C. That’s exciting, I can’t wait to get started.”

Does It Make a Difference For Self-Regulated Learning?

Does It Make a Difference For Self-Regulated Learning?

First, think about what other parts of life you improve by reflective thinking, (yes, you’re doing it now). There’s almost no end to how thinking about thinking is applied, even if you’re not aware that you’re going through the process.

Take the example of going through an obstacle course.

With each obstacle, you face you can only draw on what you already know to figure out the best way to beat it as fast as possible while preserving as much energy as possible.

However, it’s after you finish the course this kind of thinking starts to kick in.

If you’ve ever done one of these, the common thing to do is to immediately reflect and evaluate how it went. You go over every obstacle in your mind, over and over and over again.

What went well? Which ones you didn’t quite beat? What could you do differently next time?

You’re likely going over these things with your fellow competitors as well and the next practice-run will surely become influenced by those reflective thoughts.

We’re essentially experimenting towards better outcomes.

Now, if you deliberately plan to do this as a step in becoming better rather than just stumbling over it by default, there’s a good chance you’ll find out what works best and adjust your run sooner and with better accuracy.

It’s the same reason why a lot of athletes analyze their training sessions.

I’m not saying you wouldn’t improve your obstacle run regardless, (since you’ll reflect on some level anyway), but you might miss a few beats.

Whether it’s an obstacle course, life decisions or becoming better at a language, we do “thinking about thinking” in almost every area of life. Being aware of it opens up a chance to take note of new ways to learn smarter and better.

Figuring Out What Is Worthwhile Your Time

Figuring Out What Is Worthwhile Your Time

One of the biggest things you can do for learning a new language is just starting to do something.

That takes discipline, having the right motivation, and finding a strategy or method that fits you . Especially if you’re learning on your own.

Sure, you can have the discipline to do something even if you’re just following blindly.

However, getting the right motivation becomes a little harder as you have to ask yourself why you want to learn a specific language. why you want to learn a specific language.

When it comes to finding the best way of learning, I’d say it’s nearly impossible without a heavy dose of reflection and evaluation.

You need to be able to identify a good approach to reach fluency and direct real effort towards it. Maybe even drop something you thought was a good idea and take a revised approach if you’re not getting any better.

That’s not easy to do but the real benefit in being aware of how and why you learn something is essentially figuring out what’s worthwhile your time.

There’s a ton of information on how to learn a language and if you start researching now, you’ll probably not finish in this lifetime. To turn all this information into useful knowledge, (aka the best way to become fluent), you need to add thinking.

Bruce Lee has a quote about learning that sums up quite well how to become better by “thinking about thinking”;

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

It’s like knowing what tool to use and when to use it. Most often you’ll discover that you use the same ones most of the time to get 80% of the way there.

For me, this is usually talking to native or fluent speakers, listening to audiobooks and using an app to improve vocabulary and pronunciation.

To be fair this is hard. It’s not something you do in a day or two and that’s probably why most people end up scrapping it.

If you do want to develop a metacognitive language fighting style, I found that this also solves one of the bigger problems many people encounter sooner or later with languages – “What should I do next to become better?”

Having a clear head and steering in the right direction saves a lot of unnecessary complications.

Not only does it help with inspiration because you’re not ‘following blindly’ but you can also identify new ways of using the same information and apply it to examples that are more relatable to you specifically.

You’ll become a master of your own language path and invest your best in practice.

Stop Following The ‘Leader’ And Take Control of Your Language Journey

Stop Following The Leader And Take Control of Your Language Journey

I once asked a few friends, who were happily starting down the road of a new language, about how they decided on the best way of learning. Most of them weren’t aware of which approach they took.

They mostly cared about easy access and that it was fun on some level, which usually ended up being a mix of language apps on their phones.

On the other hand, they were acutely aware of evaluating if they were getting better, (or at least the illusion of getting better.)

What gives? You might ask.

I’m totally guilty of taking the easy path at first and while it’s not a bad way to start out, it can quickly turn into a mindless pattern where we think we’re getting better and instead, we’ve only progressed marginally at best.

For example, I’ve found myself stuck on an intermediate level watching movies with subtitles as my main form of practice. It worked fine for the first couple of weeks but after a total of six months, I finally stopped to think about it and realized that I’d had greatly diminishing returns when actually using my language in practice.

It’s the fallacy of a good study session.

Just because we complete to-do-language-lists and it feels like an accomplished study session, that doesn’t equal the best time spent.

Ironically, stopping to think about how things are going is the solution to how you can stop the ‘follow-the-leader’-approach.

Getting Out When You’re Stuck In Translation

Getting Out When You’re Stuck In Translation

Step 1

Set a goal for yourself to evaluate after about 2-4 weeks, (giving your choice of method enough to base an evaluation on.)

It doesn’t matter what method or resource you want to use, the point is you’ll revisit this after a few weeks.

Before you set out on the mission, answer two questions. First off, “what is my current level?”

Let’s say you’re learning Russian and you’re only just starting to understand how letters in the alphabet work. Instead of saying, “I’m a beginner”, be more specific.

For example, “I comprehend about half of the letters in the alphabet and know how to say, ”hello”, “thank you” and do a basic introduction of what my name is.

Second, “Where do I hope to be in 2-4 weeks?” – This is your goal.

Following the Russian example, this could be, 1. Learning all the letters in the alphabet 2. Be able to read and understand 3-5 paragraphs of a children’s story in Russian 3. Pronouncing all letters in the alphabet and reading out loud the paragraphs in the children’s story, correctly.

The more specific the better and remember to write it down so you can revisit your thoughts.

Step 2

When you reach the day of evaluation ask yourself the following four questions; let these questions simmer in your mind for a couple of days, (don’t write anything down yet).

  • 1. Why did I choose this method/resource?
  • 2. Did it help me to reach my goal, and why?
  • 3. Which part of my practice the past 2-4 weeks inspired me to do more?
  • 4. Could I improve it by doing more or consider switching to something else?

Let these questions simmer in your mind for a couple of days, (don’t write anything down yet).

Step 3

After you’ve let your thoughts marinate for a while write down your answers to the questions.

For example;

  • 1. (It seemed fun and fitting to my situation.)
  • 2. (I was able to learn the alphabet, and I reached my goal of pronunciation but I still can’t read more than a few simple paragraphs in a children’s story.)
  • 3. (Getting to completely recognize all the letters, know what they sound like and pronounce them perfectly gave me a strong feeling of progress.)
  • 4. (I realized that I wasn’t doing practice every day so perhaps I could put in more effort. At the same time, I think I would’ve done more if I had more variety to engage with. I also think examples of actually writing down translations back into my native language would help my reading ability and recently I thought about combining it with a game or other fun activity as a reward for each completed session.)

This is a simple example but already, you can single out three key areas that matter towards getting better;

1. That it’s fun/engaging, (which gives a higher chance of putting in the effort.)

2. Measurable progress, (to see the point and be inspired to do more.)

3. Variety, (to figure out if there is a better option and be more likely to practice.)

Note that this is also an exercise in honesty towards yourself.

It’s easy to ignore the times you didn’t practice and still conclude the method doesn’t work for you. At the same time, if you didn’t put in the effort with a specific approach then maybe you need to switch. The more honest you are the more likely you’ll be at evaluating in a way that’s useful.

[Tip: If you want to take it a step further you can write down how you feel when practicing and log it in a daily journal. Was it exciting, a damn struggle, boring, difficult but feeling smarter on the other side, motivating vs not, etc? Come the day of the evaluation you’ll quickly be able to identify a pattern over “how” well it worked for you and “why”.]

2 Week Beelinguapp-Challenge

Week Beelinguapp-Challenge

Metacognitive strategies are not for everyone and may not always be the best solution.

You can still progress without being fully aware. Like biking, you don’t think about why. You simply bike and still it works.

On the flip side, there’s a lot to be gained if you want to streamline your road to fluency.

Maybe you’ll discard it, maybe you’ll add it to your language journey, or maybe you’ll bend it to your own specific preference. However you decide to ‘Bruce Lee’ your language, I bet you’ll spend some time “thinking about thinking.”

Go through the steps with Beelinguapp and see if it works for you.

You’ll have several parameters to evaluate and clearly see if Beelinguapp knocks it out of the park for you, or not. Even if it’s not for you, at least you’ll start doing something to figure it out.

  • A side-by-side audio reading system integrating your native language as clever support for whenever there’s a word or sentence, you don’t understand.
  • You can move from simple structures and basic children’s stories to novels or even science and tech-related reading and audio – if you really need to challenge yourself.
  • You can move through different beginner to advanced levels on top of your choice of categories.
  • The audiobook plays from a native speaker so you get the correct sound and can practice pronunciation too.

Looking for a strictly fun part?

You can play with the flashcard function to mix it up or gamify it.

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