- Metacognition in academic writing means paying attention to your writing process, to how well your sources support your thesis, and to which style of writing is likely to fit the needs of your reading audiences.
- Academic writing is a complex cognitive endeavor that requires authors to attend to the perspective of the authors of their sources, their own perspective on their topic, and the perspectives of their intended readers simultaneously.
- Bloom’s taxonomy provides a good road map for engaging metacognitively with each stage of the writing process.
- On the journey to analysis, it’s important to give your brain breaks so it can make the intellectual connections that will lead to your unique understanding of your topic.
Metacognition is poorly defined, in my opinion. Researchers routinely trot out the concise statement that metacognition is thinking about thinking. But what does that mean? And how does the concept relate to academic writing? According to the education literature, teachers teach students to think metacognitively from the time they’re in elementary school. So why is the concept so unfamiliar and so ill-defined?
For academic authors, metacognition means conscious thought about your writing process. Metacognitive thought monitors how well what you’re writing fits the structure you’ve made for your piece, evaluates how well your arguments are supported, and has a clear sense of where you’re going. It’s the key to strong analysis and strong organization. When you don’t engage metacognitively with your sources, there will be tears before bedtime. Trust me.
Some authors generate drafts by selecting quotes and stringing them in a file. This isn’t a bad strategy in the early stages of a draft. But much more needs to happen after that. I’ve seen some texts that consist largely of a string of quotes followed by restatements of what the quotes say. There’s a logic to how the quotes are organized, but there’s no original contribution from the author. This strategy on its own won’t get you where you need to be. You need to engage metacognitively with your sources to get to the next level.
The key to metacognition is a level of engagement with your sources that enables you to come up with some ideas about what your analysis will be even before you start writing. This is the key to next-level writing. You need an overarching idea that will help you organize your chapter or article before you start writing. That way, your sources will be working on your behalf instead of you toiling away to serve your sources and feeling frustrated when they don’t come together nicely. It’s about having power over your sources–probably one of the few places in your life when you can exercise power over something without feeling guilty. It’s what you’re supposed to do.
Three Stages of Writing Expertise
Cognitive psychologist Ronald Kellogg divides the journey to writing expertise into three stages. For the first 10 years, a writer’s interaction with texts is almost absent. For example, a writing assignment for children in this age group might ask them to write some persuasive sentences about Oreo cookies (so easy!) or some cultural event (e.g., Mother’s Day). The writer draws on what they already know for content. Kellogg calls this stage knowledge-telling.
During the next 10 years, the verbal ability of writers deepens and they begin to interact with texts. They can write about what particular authors say about a topic and they can plan an essay that compares and contrasts different points of view. During this phase of development, writers learn to juggle content, planning, and organization. Kellogg calls this the knowledge-transforming stage. This is the level of writing that educators expect of high school and college students.
The third stage also takes 10 years, Kellogg feels. This is the stage of development you’re in as academic writers, or skilled professional writers, as Kellogg puts it. In this stage, writers learn to present what a text says in a way that advances their own arguments while at the same time keeping in mind the needs of their readers–what they know or don’t know, what details will be persuasive, what arguments they will accept as convincing. They don’t just report knowledge or organize it; they use it to advance their own purpose. This is what Kellogg calls knowledge-crafting, and it’s the most difficult level of writing to master.
Kellogg argues that it’s not enough to keep the standpoint of imagined readers in mind as you write, although it’s important to do that. The thing that makes expert writing so tricky is that you need to coordinate the perspective of readers, the perspective of the authors of the texts you’re using, and your own interpretations of those texts. He writes, “Executive attention, in particular, must be fully mature and effectively deployed to maintain and manipulate all three of these representations as the writer recursively plans, generates, and reviews the emerging text. In knowledge-crafting, the reader’s interpretation of the text must feed back to the way the text reads to the author and to the message the author wishes to convey in the first place. Knowledge-crafting, then, is characterized by a three-way interaction among representations held in working memory” (Kellogg 2008, 9). Managing and coordinating these three perspectives simultaneously puts a heavy burden on working memory. This is why academic writing is so difficult, particularly when you’re in the early years of mastering that skill. Kellogg refers to academic writing as “a major cognitive challenge” (2006, 389). One of the best writing researchers of our time says that academic writing is very hard. I hope that makes you feel better about your struggles! You’re completely normal.
This cognitive balancing act is the cauldron of creativity, the source of analysis that makes original contributions to your field. But how do authors get there? It turns out there’s a model out there that works pretty well. It’s based on a stepwise construction of knowledge that transfers very well to expert writing.
Steps to Reaching Analysis through Metacognition
In the 1950s, a committee of educators came up with a taxonomy of intellectual development that has stood up fairly well over the decades. Bloom’s Taxonomy (named for Benjamin Bloom, the chair of the committee) was designed to help teachers think about education goals in the classroom, but it also works very well for writers.
Each of these levels is important for any writing project. The first level, “Remember,” is about shoving information into your long-term memory so your short-term memory will have the resources it needs to think about how to organize your text. It’s about learning as many facts as you can from your sources and putting them in long-term memory.
The second level, “Understand,” is about knowing what your primary sources mean in their proper context. So, for example, if you’re a sociologist and you’ve chosen to work with nineteenth-century sources, you’ll need to do some reading in the secondary literature by historians to understand fully what the words in your sources meant at the time they were written. If you’re a historian using sociological sources, you’ll need to do some background reading about the sociological ideas you’re working with. You need to know more than the facts of what your sources say; you need to know what those facts meant to the people who wrote them and to their readers. This is the stage when you’re doing what I call “reading around”–reading everything you can to learn the deep cultural context of your sources.
The third level, “Apply,” is where your expertise (your domain knowledge) starts to kick in and it’s where your creative juices will start flowing. Here you begin to make the shift from learner to creator. This is where you start plugging the knowledge in your primary sources into the context of what you know in your field of specialization. It’s where your work beings to converse with the work of colleagues in your field who have written about your topic. And here I’m not talking about a superficial literature review. I’m talking about a deep engagement with the thinking of these colleagues, thinking about how their ideas support yours (or not) and how your ideas add to theirs (or perhaps go in a different direction). Writing researchers Kara Taczak and Liane Robertson refer to the kind of knowledge this stage will generate as “integrated knowledge,” which they define as how a writer knows what they know, how they continue to build on what they know, and how they use what they know in particular contexts for a particular purpose (Taczak and Robertson 2017, 212).
This isn’t something you can force. You need to know the literature and you need to know your sources. And then you need to take a walk and let your mind wander so your brain can do its work. This is the stage where you begin creating hypotheses and analysis that will guide you in your writing. It happens after you’ve collected your sources and taken notes on them and formed some preliminary ideas about how to use them to support your own analysis of their content. It happens before you begin writing your first draft.
Your first ideas might not work: they might be too basic and may grow as you work through your drafts. Or you may find that your first ideas don’t work at all–but! you know what other ideas will work. Or you may find that your ideas aren’t working in the way you envisioned and you feel stuck. This is not the time to say to yourself “I’m a crap writer with crap ideas.” This is the time to say “Every writer hits this stage at some point and it’s time to call in the troops.” This is the time to start talking with trusted colleagues or with a supportive editor. Talking with others is often a key part of generating analysis. One study found that nursing students solved problems much more quickly when they talked through them with a listener who played the role of monitor. The monitor’s role was to listen but not provide advice. Monitors could say things like “I heard you mention a potential obstacle to solving the problem earlier, but then I didn’t hear more about that,” but they couldn’t say “I see a couple of other obstacles that you didn’t talk about.” This is called Talking Aloud Partner Problem Solving (TAPPS), and it’s a good aid to increasing metacognition (Tingley 2012). There’s just something magical about talking through an intellectual problem with a supportive listener. It helps your brain make connections and bring to consciousness insights that are already there in your mind–you just need to bring them to the surface.
The fourth level, “Analyze,” is where your craft as a writer begins. You have a sense of where you analysis will go. Now it’s time to get all your sources into line to support your ideas. (Keeping in mind that this may be a process you go through several times. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep going.) This is a stage where your inner office-supply geek will be ecstatic. Different colored Post-Its on a whiteboard! Different colored highlighters! An Excel table with different shading for different topics! A brand-new notebook and your lucky pen! Any of these will work as you decide how to organize your sources. Try several different organizing schemes before you start to write. Don’t get impatient: this is a stage of the writing process where your brain is working very hard to see patterns in the knowledge you’re working with and connect those patterns with your domain knowledge–the knowledge you’ve acquired about your field of expertise. Those patterns and connections are the cauldron of creativity; they will lead you to your own unique way of understanding a large volume of knowledge. This stage will take you to a rough outline of your piece, each section of which will be driven by your analysis. Each section will be far more than a mere report of what others have said.
This creative process of organizing your knowledge will take you to level five, “Evaluate.” Think of this as product testing. (Remember, all of this happens before you begin writing your draft.) In this stage, you assess what you’ve done. You consider your plan from every angle to look for weaknesses. How strong is your analysis? Do your sources give your analysis strong enough support? Does any part of your analysis need more support? Should any of your sources be set aside now because they don’t work as well as you thought they would? Do you need some new sources now that you have a clearer idea of your writing plan? To what extent is your work in conversation with the ideas of other authors? Can you tweak your analysis to make it deeper? Do the sections you’ve roughed out flow nicely into one another?
Here, and this is very important, take another break. I mean a serious break. Listen to music. Go on a good walk. Visit a botanical garden. Play a game of squash with your nemesis. Massage your dog. Play a board game with your peeps. Do whatever activity will fill your brain with endorphins. Give that hardworking brain the nurturing it needs and step away from conscious effort regarding your writing. You’ll be surprised with what your unconscious brain will offer you when you give it space and time to bring ideas into your conscious mind.
Now you’re ready for level six, “Create.” Here’s where you start drafting your text. You know your sources backward and forward, you’re aware of what other authors have said about your topic, and you know what you want to say. You’ll probably find that you have even more to say than you realized. What you’re writing is bringing something new into the world. You’re saying something important about something you care about.
This final stage of the writing process is when metacognition kicks into high gear. As you write, “the task situation is constantly changing . . . so the writer is never thinking about the text in exactly the same way” (Hacker, Keener, and Kircher 2009, 159). Metacognitive thought enables you to know how to respond to the many microchanges that take place as your thinking evolves while you write.
I’m not saying that using these six stages as scaffolding for writing is a magical process that will make writing painless. Writing is hard work and most authors feel like they’re either going to throw up or have a stroke while they’re doing it. (As you gain more years of experience as a writer, those birthing pains will subside somewhat.) But going through each of these stages (and not skipping any!) will prepare you and your brain for the kind of thinking and the kind of organization that will make it easier for you to start putting your thoughts into words that matter.
What won’t work is skipping metacognitive work until you sit down to write, hoping some good ideas will come to you and it will all work out somehow. That’s a recipe for everything that makes you anxious about writing. You’ll be overwhelmed because you “know too much” and can’t see the forest for the trees. You won’t see a clear way to put it all together. You’ll be able to do the knowledge-transforming stage of writing but you’ll run out of steam when you try to do knowledge-crafting. You need to engage metacognitively with your sources and your topic right from the git-go. Consciously attending to seeing patterns in the new knowledge you’re working with and making connections with the knowledge you’ve already accumulated is a crucial step in academic writing. It provides the base that will enable you to make that leap into original thought about your topic. You know you have something to say–that’s why you picked your topic. Give your brain all the support it needs so you can bring your brilliant thoughts into the light of day.
Hacker, Douglas J., Matt C. Keener, and John C. Kircher. 2009. “Writing Is Applied Metacognition.” In Handbook of Metacognition in Education, edited by D. J. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, and A. C. Graesser, 154–172. New York: Routledge.
Kellogg, Ronald T. 2006. “Professional Writing Expertise.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 389–402.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kellogg, Ronald T. 2008. “Training Writing Skills: A Cognitive Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Writing Research 1, no. 1: 1–26
Taczak, Kara, and Liane Robertson. 2017. “Metacognition and the Reflective Writing Practitioner: An Integrated Knowledge Approach.” In Contemporary Perspectives on Cognition and Writing, ed. Patricia Portanova, J. Michael Rifenberg, and Duane Roen, 211–230. Fort Collins: WAC Clearinghouse.
Tingley, Judith C. 2012. “Enhance Metacognition and Problem Solving by Talking Out Loud to Yourself.” Sharpbrains, February 9. https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2012/02/09/enhance-metacognition-and-problem-solving-by-talking-out-loud-to-yourself/.
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