What is Higher Order Thinking?

Highlighted articles. Text courtesy of Sargolini et al., 2006.

Highlighted articles. Text courtesy of Sargolini et al., 2006.

I was working on my masters thesis today, and I started to think fundamentally about what my brain is doing as I work on an academic project like this. Like many other students undertaking academic writing for the first time, I have found it quite hard at various points. Sitting with a journal article in front of me, or having a blank document on the computer screen can be daunting.

I have found the best solution to be to break everything down in to small pieces. If I don’t know what I’m looking for in a journal article, I begin by just highlighting different bits of key information, such as areas of the brain, or the rationale for the study. Instead of viewing the project as a linear entity that I just need to get on and do, I look only as far as the first step that will open more doors for me.

When I view it this way, I begin to realize that academic work is really just making lots of small decisions. Each decision requires me to take what I know, and decide how it relates to something else. This process is a microcosm of thousands of such decisions that will be made between the start and end of a project. For me, thinking about it this way builds my confidence and makes my work more achievable.

When I tell people I’m doing a masters degree in cognitive neuroscience, I often get replies such as ‘I’d rather you than me…’ or ‘I’m too stupid to do anything like that…’ My message here is that this need not be the case. Achieving in university need not be something just for the ‘smart’. All that I do at university is practice decision making in such a way that I produce scientific research. I suppose somewhere along the way I also memorize some stuff, but that is really just a natural bi-product as I learn this new way of thinking.

The point I want to make about this is that anybody can do it! I’m not saying it will happen at the click of a finger, but I am saying almost anyone can do this with the right mentoring and practice. This, however, is what separates higher education from regular learning and work. There’s lots of very straight forward jobs out there where we know exactly the what, when and how. That’s fine; there are plenty of jobs that need doing, which are highly valuable (or ought to be), but that don’t take much higher order thought. But there’s plenty of complex problems to solve too, which can be addressed by a higher level process of thought. I hope when we view higher education in this way, it can become more graspable. Rather than a scary and mysterious realm of perpetually hard work, a place for the mind to be excercised.

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How Metacognition Might Have Saved Tesco’s Bacon

tesco_2584551bThis week, the UK supermarket Tesco has landed itself in trouble over providing incorrect figures of its profits to the city (the stock markets). Now questions are being asked about whether Tesco bosses were being deliberately misleading, or instead incompetent. From a psychological perspective, I believe the answer lies in a factor named ‘metacognition’.

Some of you who follow me on Facebook or other social media channels will know that I have been making a bit of noise recently relating to this topic. I’ve been publishing my latest metacognitive awareness score, which has been calculated through a smartphone app, which I have been working on during the last few months. With this blog post, I intend to answer the questions of what it is about and why you should want to download it.

So, what is metacognition? Metacognition means knowing about what you know. We are defining it as an awareness of ones own knowledge and mental processes. A higher metacognitive awareness will make you think better. It will help you to be more effective in how you handle your knowledge and your learning.

The app we have produced is based upon several years worth of research conducted at Bangor University. Through empirical studies, it was shown that this metacognitive awareness could be increased through confidence based testing. Confidence based testing is a secondary component attached to a question, wherein the participant not only gives an answer, but also an indication of their surety of that answer. As a result of these studies, we have developed the Cognaware app to replicate the study methodology for individual smart phone users.

How sure are you?

How sure are you?

This general knowledge quiz will reward confidence in correct answers, as well the users ability to correctly identify when they are guessing. On the flip side, it will punish users who are confident in an incorrect answer, while giving only a token point for users getting a correct answer thought to be a guess. The responses are then analysed, using signal detection theory, to give you your metacognitive index, or in other words, your ability to discriminate between what you know and what you don’t.

At this point, you may understand everything I just said, or you may find it all awfully complicated. Instead of worrying about the ins and outs of it, let me tell you why metacognitive awareness is important.

Have you ever listened to somebody harp on about something, when they don’t actually know what they’re talking about? Politicians and other people trying to save face do it all the time. Either these people have no integrity, or they have a poor metacognitive awareness, although in reality it is probably an interaction of them both.

Consider the way we handle knowledge, whether it be in business or higher education. Working with accurate facts and knowledge is the difference between a cutting edge success and a tragic failure. When it comes to hard line reality, sometimes saying ‘I think’, just won’t do. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, the evidence (i.e. the absence of weapons of mass destruction) revealed that the grounds for the invasion of Iraq were based on a hunch. When I listen to political debates, I am becoming increasingly aware of the absence of sources being used to back up politicians arguments. We have seen some tragic and foolish decisions made off heuristic knowledge.

Bringing it back to Tesco, I believe that if more people within the senior ranks of the organisation had a higher metacognitive awareness, somebody would have blown the whistle before it came to this. Either through an increased conviction in recognizing discrepancies, or through being more willing to face the reality that the city would notice a £250 million deficit, that ability to discriminate between hopeful ‘I think’s’ and reality might have saved four senior executives their jobs.

Now this isn’t a miracle pill. It’s not a get rich quick scheme. It’s an evidence based app which will train you in a wise thought pattern. But now you are aware of metacognition, and the role it plays, and so I ask you: is this a skill you want to work on? If it is, a daily quiz on Cognaware is a fun way to do that. Remember, it’s not what you know, it’s what you know about what you know.

Cognaware is available on the Apple and Google Play stores. For more information, including learning about the peer reviewed literature that supports metacognition, please see www.cognaware.com.