Memory, metacognition and SRL

Cognition can be defined as set of all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge: attention, memory and working memory, judgement and evaluation, reasoning and “computation”, problem solving and decision making, comprehension and production of language, etc. Metacognition can be defined as knowing about knowing, or thinking about thinking. Metacognitive knowledge refers to acquired knowledge about cognitive processes, knowledge that can be used to control cognitive processes. For example, when and how to use particular learning strategies or strategies to solve problems.

thinking about thinkingI don’t know about you, but for me these concepts have always been somewhat vague, perhaps because they entail so much. Cognition and metacognition are main concepts including a multitude of sub-concepts such as memory, problem solving, reasoning etc. These sub-concepts in themselves are already complex in themselves. Human mind with all it’s processes is a complex network, that it makes it tricky to understand.


So this week we concentrate on memory, metacognition and how these relate to self-regulated learning. I have high hopes to gain some more knowledge to these complex issues, and gain deeper understanding to how people learn, and what are the strategies a self-regulated learner can exercise to improve his/her memory and especially metacognition which in turn enhance learning.

This week I plan to use the same strategies in my studying as last weeks. Though, time is again scarce, as we have to attend a video challenge, that will basically last for 1,5 days (from Thursday morning to Friday midday), and we also have to produce content for our group work on giving a teaching session to our classmates on the subject of “motivation and SRL”. This means I can start reading the articles, but put them of my tasklist at those days we have to concentrate on the video challenge and the group work.

Three main points from the articles

Butler, D. L. and Cartier, S. C. (2004). Promoting Effective Task Interpretation as an Important Work Habit: A Key to Successful Teaching and Learning.

1. Butler and Cartier claim in their article that task interpretation plays a critical role in successful learning as it forms the basis for effective work habits.

In schools teachers establish the learning environments and within them design activities which aim at fostering particular academic work habits and learning outcomes that students should adopt. Butler and Cartier (2004) suggest that

  • task purpose (e.g. writing a letter to a local politician to protest against shutting down the local school),
  • task structure (e.g. how is a good, convincing letter constructed), and
  • task components (e.g. breaking down the writing process to different phases)

are the key metacognitive knowledge about tasks. Student’s metacognitive knowledge about these components of task determine whether the student is successful in interpreting and navigating of academic tasks.

As students gain experience with repeatedly working with task and going through the different phases in them, they begin to develop work habits (i.e. habitual ways of working) that they adopt every time they are faced with academic work. As students first engage in interpreting the tasks, they then direct all their further  learning action (setting goals, choosing strategies and acting based on those, monitoring progress, and assessing their performance against the goals) based on their interpretation of task demands. In other words, task interpretation is the first critical step in self-regulation that sets the direction for all further learning. If, however, the interpretation is absent or faulty, it will mislead the student’s learning. Thus, for students’ learning to be successful, they must adopt an approach to academic work that always includes careful attention to interpreting tasks.

Students’ metacognitive knowledge about tasks play a key role in task interpretation and their engagement. Butler and Cartier (2004) state that strategic learners draw on their metacognitive knowledge about task purposes when interpreting task requirements and then modulate learning activities responsively to match different purposes. Understanding task purpose is not enough by itself, but successful learner needs also to understand how academic tasks are structured as well as what are the tasks components, which in turn guides them to select the learning strategies to be used. That is, student’s interpretation of a task impacts self-regulation, for example, the student’s belief about her ability to carry out the task (self-efficacy), interestingness or utility of the task, the strategies chosen to carry out the task etc.

2. How students’ task interpretations typically break down. Students may experience problems in interpreting tasks because of their limited or faulty understanding about task purpose, structure or components. According to research, students construct conceptions about academic work that do not always match with those expected by the teachers. For example, in writing a letter to a local politician to protest against shutting down a local school, the teacher’s aim could be for the student to learn how to write an effective and persuasive message, but the student might instead concentrate more her effort in making the letter just grammatically correct.

So, typically, according to Butler and Cartier (2004) problems in task interpretation arise when students have faulty or insufficient metacognitive knowledge about about task components, when students lack effective strategies for task interpretation, or when students fail to actively interpret task demands before starting work acting based on their misinterpretation of the task. With certain students the problems in self-regulation can be related to their cumulative histories with tasks, instructions and evaluation.

Understanding where task interpretation breaks down provides important information for directing interventions.

3. Practical advice for teachers about structuring activities, instructions and evaluation. Teachers influence students’ task interpretation, for better or worse, by the way they structure the learning environment. According to Butler and Cartier (2004) to support successful learning, teachers should structure learning environments to support active, reflective and productive task interpretation. Student’s should also be made more aware of task interpretation as an learning activity, and be taught about the strategies for interpreting tasks.

Teachers have a direct impact on students’ construction of metacognitive knowledge, task conceptions and self-regulations through their instructions and evaluation. For example, students’ interpretation of teachers feedback  (evaluation in the form of grades, for example) has a great impact on how the students view not only their success, but also their interpretation of tasks and thus also their construction of metacognitive knowledge and conceptions of academic tasks.

Prior to selecting activities, teachers should consider 1) their goals for students’ learning, 2) the variety and complexity of the tasks that compose the activity and how prepared to students are to face them, 3) what the selected activities will communicate to the students about academic work, 4) whether the selected activities will foster the intended learning outcomes. Also, when  breaking the activity down to smaller tasks (components), it is important not to lose the big picture, that is, the main idea of the activity. Instructions given to students, that supports effective task interpretation, tries to direct the students’ attention to learning processes, promote active engagement in learning, and maintain the focus on the goals of the learning activities.

Weinstein, C. E., Acce, T. W., & Jung, J. (2011). Self-regulation and learning strategies.

1. Components of strategic learning. Strategic learners can be defined as having the skills, will, and self-regulation that is needed to be efficient learners. Weinstein summarizes these three elements in her Model of Strategic Learning:

  • Skills refer to critical knowledge about knowing how to use learning strategies and other thinking skills.
  • Will refers to motivation and affective components of strategic learning that affect academic success.
  • Self-regulation is both the glue and the engine that helps student manage their strategic learning.

All the three elements interact with each other to create effective and efficient learning.

2. Types of cognitive learning strategies are rehearsal -, elaboration – , and organisation strategies. In rehearsal strategies the student uses repetition in trying to learn a certain thing, However, not all rehearsal strategies are efficient for deep learning as they do not involve much cognitive processes (i.e. it is “mindless” repetition). Using elaboration strategies in contrast requires active cognitive processing as it involves adding or modifying the material some ways (e.g. summarising, creating and answering questions) to make it more meaningful and memorable for the learner. Organisation strategies are a form of elaboration strategies in which the learner organises the new material in graphic format, for example mind maps.

Weinstein points out that what is more important is that the learner engages in active conginive processing than what specific strategy the learner chooses to use. Different strategies or their combination can work for learning different kinds of materials and issues.

3. Declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge. What ever strategy the learner chooses to use, she still needs to adopt three types of knowledge for any of the strategies to be useful, namely, declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge. Declarative knowledge refers to the basic definition of the strategies, procedural knowledge to how the strategies can be used, and conditional knowledge to in what circumstances the strategies can be used. This knowledge helps the student to choose and use the strategies efficiently in different learning situations.

Ormrod, J.E. (2009). Basic components of memory.

1. Dual-store model, and memory and knowledge types. The prevalent model of human memory today is called a dual-store model.According to the model, memory consists of three components: sensory register, short-term memory (aka working memory), and long-term memory.Brain

According to the model, input from the environment first enters sensory register where the information stays for a short period of time, time enough for it to undergo some preliminary cognitive processes to move to short-term memory, where the information is further processed for it to move to long-term memory.

Theorists make some distinctions between memory and knowledge types. Episodic memory – one’s memory about their personal lives and semantic memory – one’s knowledge about the world around them in general independent of one’s own experiences. Semantic memories typically stay longer with us than episodic memory. For example, we know what a bicycle looks like, but we might not remember how our first own bike looked like. Both these types relate to the nature of how things were or are – sometimes this can also be referred to as declarative knowledge.

But we also have something that can be called procedural knowledge; we know how to do things, like riding a bicycle. However, this as by itself it not enough, we also need information about what to do under different circumstances, like stop our bicycle when a car suddenly drives in front of us on the street. This is conditional knowledge.

Conceptual knowledge is our understanding of why certain events happen, why certain things are as they are, and why certain procedures are effective while others aren’t. However, whether this kind of knowledge is different from the other forms mentioned above, or simply reflects the relationships between them, is yet unclear.

Some theorists also make distinctions between explicit and implicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that we can easily recall and explain where as implicit knowledge we cannot consciously recall, but which however affects our behavior. That is, sometimes people have no conscious awareness that they have learned something but yet this is clearly present in their actions.

2. Attention. If we want to move information from sensory register into short-term memory we must pay a certain amount of attention to that information. Certain characteristics in stimuli easily draw our attention – size (big size draws attention more easily than small), intensity (bright colors and load noises), novelty (unusual vs. usual), incongruity (odd things in a certain context that don’t seem to fit or don’t make sense), emotion (strong emotional associations), and personal significance (the meaning and relevance to us). Also, even if people are all paying attention to the same stimulus (nominal stimulus) they all may be  attending to different aspect of it (effective stimulus).

People are incapable of attending to everything at once, people can attend to one complex source of information at once. People have limited processing capacity, thus they have to be quite selective about what stimuli they choose to process, and they must ignore a lot of information they receive through their sensory register.

wasnt-listening-memeIn school settings teachers can help their students to focus their attention, and thus helping them to learn by:

  • including a variety of topics and presentation styles in teaching (keep the students interested and attending),
  • providing frequent breaks, especially with young children, as they come easily restless and distracted,
  • ask questions to keep students attentive,
  • minimise distraction when students are doing independent tasks, so that they can better concentrate,
  • seat the students, who have difficulties paying attention, near the teacher,
  • monitor students behavior, and
  • remember that different people may attend to different aspects of the same stimuli (nominal vs. effective stimuli),
  • plan tasks so that students can perform the task successfully only if they are paying attention to the things that are most important for them to learn,
  • remember, that people can process only a limited amount of information  at a time, and getting information to long-term memory is a slow process – so there’s limit to how much information should pack into one teaching session,
  • people have to continually choose what information is important that should be remember and learner, and what not – teachers should try to help the students to recognise the important information (see the forest from the trees).

3. Working memory and long-term memory. Short-term memory, or working memory, is the place in which the active processing of information takes place, so the thinking takes place here. Working memory seems to be central for many processes important for learning, thinking and behavior, e.g. directing attention, coordinating information from different sensory systems, making sense of situations, drawing inferences, reasoning, planning, making decisions, solving problems, inhibiting irrelevant thoughts and actions.

There are three control processes that affect the functioning of working memory: organising, retrieval and rehearsal. Chunking information helps to increase the information amount that can be stored in working memory, retrieval is a process of scanning all the information content in working memory until the desired information is found, and maintenance rehearsal which provides means of keeping the information “alive” by repeating it.

Long-term memory’s capacity to store information is regarded as unlimited, and information in it is probably stored in terms of meaning, that is, schematically. Also, all the information stored there are assumed to be interconnected – related pieces of information is probably directly or indirectly connected to each other.

Anything sensed is stored in the sensory register, and anything attended to is stored in working memory. Most information must be consciously and actively processed before it is stored into long-term memory. People are most successful in this when they understand the information, organise it and integrate it with the information they already have! Storing information to long-term memory occurs slowly, and a lot of information is lost along the way, so in a sense working memory is the bottleneck in the memory system.

Retrieving information from long-term memory is rather slow, at least compared to short-term memory, as there are a lot more information that has to be “scanned” through. Successful retrieval depends very much on whether the person is searching for it from the right “location”. This is where schemata are important. The better the information has been understood, organised and integrated in the long-term memory, the easier it is to retrieve. Also, the more ways the pieces of information is stored, the better the chances of retrieving it.

Ice notes

ICE 1: Human capacity to remember is limited, but strategies help you to remember more; SMART strategies come handy in this.

S – search and select. Not all information is equally important, so you should try to pick out the important information or main points that are meaningful to you.

M – monitor your understanding. Are you paying attention, or are your thought wondering? Do you understand what you are learning? Have you activated your prior knowledge, and are you making connections between the knowledge you already have with the new information?

A – assemble. Try to organise and structure information by elaborating, doing summaries, generating questions, explaining ideas, comparing and contrasting. Try to identify and connect big ideas. Use concrete strategies to do this.

R – rehearse. Practice what you have learned in several different ways.

T – translate, that is, put what you have learned into your own words. Reflect about what you have learned.

SMART strategies, I think, highlight the fact the one has to be an active learner, a self-regulating learner. It’s really very much up to you how efficiently you are able to learn. Learning is by no means a simple thing, as you have to be aware of your emotions and motivation in addition to cognitive and metacognitive processes. However, being aware of these and practicing them will get you further.

Practicing our learning and hopefully thus becoming better self-regulated learners is something we are doing on our SRL -course. By doing the ICE -notes from the lectures and finding three main points from the articles lets us practice the S – search and select relevant information. When writing them in our blogs we are assembling (A) and translating (T) the information. During the process we are also expected to monitor our process (M) and reflect about our learning process. Additionally, we are also going to give a teaching session to other students, so in that part we are also rehearsing (R) what we have learned, as well as searching, selecting and translating what we have learned when preparing the material for the teaching session.


ICE 2: Meaningful information is easier to remember. This is connected to your prior knowledge, and how you have organised that knowledge in schemas. If you activate your prior knowledge, for example about what is SRL, it’s more likely that you are able to understand and thus remember better the new information you read about SRL, as you are able to integrate the new information to the existing one, especially if you are doing it SMART (see the ice-note above).

We had a great exercise on our lecture about how meaningful information is easier to remember . Try reading this:


Quite complex, right? How much do you remember about this? Not much? But what if I told you that the paragraph is about doing laundry, does it make more sense to you, and do you remember more about the text after reading again knowing that it’s about doing laundry. Yes, I think so. And I think also that this illustrates how you should activate your prior knowledge (in this case what you know about doing laundry), and that as you probably have organised that information in your mind somehow in a form of schema, it helps you to understand the new information as you are able to connect it to the existing knowledge that you have.

Moving on from doing laundry to a bit more wider view on this, namely experts vs. novices, that I started to think about after the exercise. Expert have a large body of usable knowledge, as the knowledge is organised so that it is easily retrievable, and they are able to use it adaptively in new situations, as well as integrate new information to their existing schemata. Previously I used to think that experts are in some ways more intelligent and experienced than other people, but recently I have become to think that perhaps expertise is not so much a matter intelligence rather than how effectively one learns and organises knowledge. That is, knowledge is build around big ideas which are organised in different schemata (contrasting to scattered pieces of information with no context).

This is getting a bit complex here, and I’m not completely sure if I’m able to explain this right, but let’s try. I imagine that I have at least some knowledge about what is expertise and what is SRL, and that information is organised in schemata. Having activated my prior knowledge about those, and when presented new information about the ways how learning and remembering new information can be enhanced, I connected this new information to both expertise and SRL. I started to wonder that perhaps there is a connection between good learning practises and expertise – that is, one central aspect of becoming an expert in a certain domain is connected to the person having effective learning strategies. Thus, expertice and being a good self-regulated learner are tightly connected. So hopefully this goes to show that I’ve understood something essential about expertice and self-regulated learning, and have begun to connect big ideas.


This week’s subject has been a fascinating one, that has yielded a lot of valuable information, but at the same time raised perhaps even more questions in my mind. This is an area that will need more inquiry and getting to understand the issues more deeply. But what I’ve specially learner from this is that in the future in my own studies I try to focus more on picking up information that is most important, try to see the big picture, try to explain what I think I have learned in my own words, and try to make relevant connections between the ideas that are meaningful for me.


One difficulty I stumbled into this week was reading of one of the articles, that is, I felt a bit unmotivated. I found the article to be quite long and dwelling in the single subject perhaps too extensively. However, being aware that it is important for me to read the article and try to understand the main ideas from it, I used the strategy that usually work for me the best (in addition to raising my motivation by recognising that the article is important for my learning): cut the article to shorter pieces to read one at a time, and do something else in between the reading. Like have a cup of well deserved coffee. 😉

The next and final solo task is related to how to implement effective interventions and how to assess SRL. I think this part will be tightly connected to teaching practices, and will be based on the current research on SRL as well as teaching. In the “how to assess SRL” we are probably going to go though several different research and different research methods, which most likely will be quite challenging to grasp. But I try to view the methods in the light of which of those methods I could be able to use in my own research, that is, the thesis.


Butler, D. L. and Cartier, S. C. (2004). Promoting Effective Task Interpretation as an Important Work Habit: A Key to Successful Teaching and Learning. Teachers College Record,  106 (9), pp. 1729-1758.

Weinstein, C. E., Acce, T. W., & Jung, J. (2011). Self-regulation and learning strategies. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 126, 45–53. doi:10.1002/tl.443

Ormrod, J.E. (2009). Basic components of memory. In Human learning (pp.166-186). Upper Saddler River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon. (CA)


About kaipihla

A student in Learning, Education and Technology Master's degree program in University of Oulu, Finland.
This entry was posted in Self-regulated Learning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Memory, metacognition and SRL

  1. I appreciate your work. Hope that all the Finns would work hard enough. Your write correct English and I am sure, also proper scientific argumentation. For some minor aspects I´d like to read long text with sub headers. It is because I see better in shorter chapters on-line.


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