Using software programs to support students’ metacognitive processes
Online learning has the potential to enhance student learning in the classroom. However, in order to be effective, digital resources need to have a specific purpose (Sims, Dobb & Hand, 2002). They cannot simply be digital versions of paper resources but should be an appropriate mix of motivation and engagement. This means that the online learning environment needs to be one that integrates collaboration, communication and engaging content with specific group and individual learning activities.
One area of online learning in which these principles have been applied is in the use of software for supporting metacognition in online inquiry activities. Inquiry learning requires students to engage in numerous cognitive and metacognitive processes. Students must generate research questions, search digital materials relevant to the research questions, evaluate, read and make sense of information and coherently integrate information to answer the initial questions (Quintana, Zhang & Krajcik (2005). Students can often face problems when completing inquiry activities because they have trouble asking appropriate questions, searching for information and using effective analysis and synthesis strategies.
In addition to these challenges, students also face metacognitive challenges throughout the inquiry process. Through out online inquiry activities, students must engage in metacognitive work before, during and after an inquiry task. This means they are required to use strategies for task understanding and planning, monitoring and regulation throughout the process and reflection after the task is finished. These elements of metacognition can be supported through the use of specific scaffolding software programs. Examples of such software are ‘Atemus’, ‘Symphony’ and ‘The Digital IdeaKeeper’. The key to supporting students’ metacognitive process throughout online inquiry tasks is by making it explicit through the use of various visible tools.
Task understanding and planning involves the nature of cognitive tasks, the demands they make and strategies for addressing them as well as identifying how to divide up a task, approach each component and allocate mental resources. (Quintana et al., 2005). Naïve learners who do not understand the nature of cognitive tasks and how to approach them can be supported through the use of scaffolding programs. These programs scaffold the understanding and planning stage of online inquiry by making task structures visible. This can be done through the use of notepad tabs, graphical process maps, textual prompts and providing specific planning workspaces.
Throughout the process of online inquiry, students should be monitoring and regulating the strategies being used. This can involve gathering information about one’s own through processes and regulating the direction of one’s own thinking. To support this part of the inquiry process, scaffolding software provides a ‘scaffolded learning environment’ (Quintana et al., 2005). This learning environment simultaneously displays multiple elements involved in the inquiry process. These elements include search history, research questions and goals and also allow students to interact through online discussion.
The final stage of inquiry, reflection, is an area that students can find particularly challenging. Despite this, it is a crucial part of the inquiry process as it helps to integrate knowledge and reflecting on one’s own cognitive processes and is part of flexible thinking and effective problem solving. To support this area of metacognition, scaffolding software provides explicit opportunities for reflection through the use of textual prompts. Other ways of reflecting is through the use of a reflective journals or reflective assessment rubrics.
Software programs the ability to support learners with metacognitive aspects of online inquiry (Quintana et al., 2005). They do this through making the implicit aspects of metacognitive process explicit through visual representation. These software programs are not digital versions of paper resources but are designed to motivate and engage learners in the process of inquiry by supporting their metacognitive processes. However, by making the implicit nature of metacognition explicit, these software programs could lead students to disengage with the learning process as opposed to helping. If students are given explicit instructions, reminders and obvious tools to use they can potentially follow the steps given without much individual thought. This means instead of scaffolding for further learning, these software programs could be hindering students’ learning. Therefore designers need to be careful when designing these software programs that the optimal amount of support is given to allow students to feel supported but not too much so they are still required to fully engage in the activity.
Quintana, C., Zhang, M., & Krajcik, J. (2005). A framework for supporting metacognitive aspects of online inquiry through software-based scaffolding. Educational Psychologist, 40, 235-244.
Sims, R., Dobb, G., & Hand, T. (2002). Enhancing quality in online learning: scaffolding planning and design through proactive evaluation. Distance Education, 23, 135-148.