I just read Stephen M. Fleming‘s article “The Power of Reflection” in the Scientific American Mind. It talks about the importance of metacognition, that is the ability of knowing our own thoughts and capacities.
This skill that allows us to evaluate our level of competence on a particular domain is totally independent of our effective competence in that specific domain. We can be bad at evaluating one particular skill,and still be good at it. We can also know we don’t know anything about a specific subject but that doesn’t make us know more about it. Though, knowing our lack of knowledge is very important! It allow us to evaluate correctly the situation and act properly accordingly. In this last mentioned case the proper action would be to look for help in that domain 🙂 A very typical action we take based on our knowledge of ourselves is writing lists when we tend to forget things, I fully recognize myself here, do you?
Having a good insight on our internal thoughts and processes is very important, it can even be more important than the knowledge itself because it drives our actions. Not being aware of the reality, as they point out in the article, can be very damaging not only for us but for our social relationships and family. Not knowing that we have a particular medical condition, thus not taking the medication, can make it impossible to live unattended, even if the condition itself is not so impairing.
It plays particular role in learning, and the article mentions a study where they tried to boost this ability among students:
[…] Thomas O. Nelson and his student John Dunlosky, then at the University of Washington, reported an intriguing effect. When volunteers were asked to reflect on how well they had learned a list of word pairs after a short delay, they were more self-aware than if asked immediately. Many studies have since replicated this finding. Encouraging a student to take a break before deciding how well he or she has studied for an upcoming test could aid learning in a simple but effective way.
Learners could also trigger better insight by coming up with their own subject keywords. Educational psychologist Keith Thiede of Boise State University and his colleagues found that asking students to generate a few words summarizing a particular topic led to greater metacognitive accuracy. The students then allocated their study time better by focusing on material that was less well understood.
This method of studying should be taught at school thus teaching this meta-skill to learn more effectively.