May 012011

Metacognition: Thoughts on How People Learn

Metacognition: By Kaliym Islam

There are three major theories that attempt to explain how humans acquire knowledge.  These theories are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism.  Individuals who subscribe to the theory of behaviorism believe that humans learn as a result of the feedback that they receive whenever they perform a task (Cicciarelli, 2007). This supposition is based on the notion that everyone can learn if they are given the appropriate stimulus. Behaviorists believe that the environment serves as the stimulus, and that tweaking the environment in the appropriate way will elicit the desired behavior.  Proponents of this theory also believe that this “desired behavior” can be measured through observation (Bush, 2006).

The cognitive theory of learning postulates that the learning process is more complicated than programming individuals to respond to stimulus.  Followers of this hypothesis assert that learning is a result of both external and internal stimulus. This perspective suggests that the human mind is a key component of the learning process.  In this thesis the mind is analogous to a computer chip that receives inputs, in the form of environmental stimulus, processes and stores the information after which it provides outputs that manifest themselves in the form of learned capabilities (Driscoll, 2005).

Constructivism is a theory of learning which takes the perspective that learning is an active process that occurs as a result of the student actively constructing their own perspectives of reality.  Those who subscribe to this theory believe that the student is not a blank slate.  And that a better analogy of the student is as an information constructor who brings their own past experiences and cultural factors to a situation, links it with new information and experiences to put together a new paradigm (Sruggs, 2009).

My experience has been that none of these theories can singularly explain how learning takes place, and that learning occurs as a result of a combination of the components included in each of these theories.  The purpose of this blog entry is to share some of my experiences with each of these theories of learning.

As a fourth grade teacher in an inner city school district, I had the opportunity to work with a group of students who had not previously been successful in their academic efforts.  One main problem that I identified was that the students infrequently completed homework assignments.  I set a goal of changing this behavior and employed a variation of the token economy (Ayllon & Azrin, 1968) (As cited in Driscoll, 2005).  An experience chart was displayed in the front of the room.  Each day that a student completed a homework assignment they were given a star that they would place next to their name.  At the end of the week students with a certain number of stars would receive prizes.  Within two weeks every student was doing their homework every night.


As I continued working with this group of fourth graders, it became apparent that while the teacher’s guide recommended certain activities, a requisite skill was missing.  Recognizing this, I applied the concepts of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a framework to plan and assess the instruction that was being delivered.
This exercise uncovered that the students’ knowledge and comprehension (or lower-level processes skills) were lacking.  Because of this, it was impossible for the students to grasp the application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation which are considered higher-level processes.  Adjustments to the instruction were made and there was more of a focus on the lower level skills.  Once those skills were mastered, the students were quickly able to realize the higher order skills.

As a manager responsible for helping employees deliver products and services on time and within costs, I frequently sent employees to training classes in an effort to provide them with the skills necessary to be successful project managers.  The initial results were unimpressive.  Despite receiving training on every aspect of project management, the employees continued to make basic mistakes.  Over time however I began to notice that these same employees started to develop their own approaches to managing projects.   Although there were common best practices that everyone used, every employee developed their own unique approach to solving similar project-related problems.  One staff member began publishing weekly status reports to keep the team informed of changes to project status.  A second employee began to host weekly meetings to accomplish the same task.  In the end, employee learning took place as a result of the individuals constructing solutions based on their own experiences.


Individuals who subscribe to ideologies tend to become polarized in their views.  While there are three major theories that attempt to explain how humans acquire knowledge, none can singularly explain how learning really takes place.  My experience is that learning occurs as a result of a combination of the components included in each of these theories.


About the Author

Kaliym Islam

Kaliym Islam is an industry thought leader, author and a dynamic public speaker.  He is the author of two books – “Developing and Measuring Training the Six Sigma Way” and “Podcasting 101 for Trainers,” and a contributing author to two European publications Prussience in Six Sigma DUNDU Press, and The German e-Learning Handbook.  Kaliym is  vice president of DTCC Learning, where has responsibility for all global customer-facing learning activities. Kaliym can be reached through his website ( and his Twitter account (@thetrainingpro).



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