Computers & Texts No. 13
Table of Contents
December 1996

Metacognition in the Computer-Mediated Classroom

A New Advantage

Joel A. English
Assistant to the Director of the Writing Program
Ball State University

We are certain that computer-mediated environments offer new advantages to the teaching of college writing; 'new advantages' means that, while some attributes are attractive to writing instruction, other aspects of computer environments could be distracting to learning. With this in mind, writing instructors at the university level have investigated computer-assisted learning for new advantages that merit its inclusion into their classrooms. We have found an important one.

In the past year, I have conducted a project with my composition students called The Ball State Writing Workshop Project. The project consists of supplementing my traditional writing classroom with consistent computer-assisted activities. Students email each other and meet on the real-time MOO (Multi-user dimension, Object-Oriented) to discuss their reading and writing; they conference one-to-one with me over the asynchronous and synchronous media; and they meet with graduate writing tutors using both types of correspondence. Of course, any additional exercise which engages students in study and dialogue about their writing can be beneficial, but I have found that online writing conferencing offers a new advantage to writing instruction that combines attributes of learning which, to my knowledge, have never before come together. The online classroom fosters a form of written metacognition that is extremely valuable for first year students, and the text that online discussion produces serves as a concrete, analytical map of the learning that takes place.


'Metacognition' refers to a writer's knowledge of the way she writes or how she learns. 'Writing about writing' is a complex task for first level students, but it may well be their key to understanding their writing processes. That is to say, if our writers do not write about how they are learning to develop their writing processes as they are developing them, they may never completely understand why they have improved in their writing in our classrooms, and they will lose what they have gained in our program soon after leaving it. As David Bartholomae explains, a successful pedagogy 'directs students in a semantic investigation of how they as individuals write. . . . The nominal subject of the [composition] course . . . is defined by an issue like "Work and Play", but the real subject is writing, as writing is defined by students in their own terms through a systematic inquiry into their behaviour as writers' (Bartholomae 1987, 85). Ann Berthoff agrees that the 'capacity for thinking about thinking, for interpreting interpretations, for knowing our knowledge, is, I think, the chief resource for any teacher and the ground of hope in the enterprise of teaching reading and writing' (Berthoff 1984, 743). First year writers (as well as advanced, graduate, and all writers) benefit from as much writing about writing as they can accomplish, and online conferencing, which is completely centred around metacognitive writing, can help hone students' metacognitive skills.

In 'Students' Metacognitive Knowledge about Writing,' Taffy E. Raphael expands upon the definition of metacognition. She says that metacognition builds upon the two most fundamental issues in learning and teaching psychology: 'First, metacognition describes the control process in which active learners engage as they perform various cognitive activities. Second, metacognitive or executive control processes may underlie the very important processes of generalization and transfer of strategies learned' (Raphael 1989, 346). Metacognition therefore provides writing students with the ability to describe how and what they have learned about their writing processes, and it allows them to generalize and apply the process to their future writing situations. Raphael goes on to describe three different types of metacognitive knowledge‹three levels of metacognition:

Declarative knowledge includes information about task structure and task goals. For example, declarative knowledge about writing includes knowledge that writing includes prewriting activities. Procedural knowledge includes information about how the various actions or strategies are implemented. . . . In writing, procedural knowledge includes the writers' knowledge that there are strategies to use such as inserting key words and phrases to signal potential readers about location of information, or that writers can revise by taking out or adding information to their papers. Most definitions of metacognition distinguish only between declarative and procedural knowledge, often identifying the former as 'knowing that' and the latter as 'knowing how.' However, it is conditional knowledge that addresses the conditions under which one elects to use a particular strategy . . . that is, conditional knowledge involves 'knowing when and why.' (347)

Therefore, metacognitive activity includes understanding concepts about the writing process, knowing how those concepts work in writing, and knowing which situations in writing are appropriate to use particular concepts.

Composition Classroom

The composition field supports and continually seeks new exercises and assignment that lead students in metacognitive analysis. One common metacognitive project in the composition classroom is the 'reflective essay.' This is an exposition that focuses on the student's writing process in general or the process during a particular written assignment. Another related type of assignment that fosters continual, consistent metacognitive writing is the 'writer's journal.' Journals are extended, self-reflective logs of thought and meta-thought that students write during a term, rather than formal essays that will be reviewed and graded. Reflective essays and journals can be powerful metacognitive exercises for first year writers as they develop their writing and learn why their writing is developing.

But these activities are not enough metacognitive action alone for our students. Avon Crismore and Lih (Lie)-Shing Wang explain that 'a program for under-prepared students needs to possess the following four essential components: (1) individualized instruction, (2) multi-sensory stimulation, (3) immediate feedback and positive reinforcement, (4) student control of environment' (Crismore 1985, 8). Very often, reflective essays and journals lack all four of these characteristics, as do our classrooms (there is no immediate individualized instruction or feedback, nor is there a multi-sensory or controllable environment to speak of in any of those traditional forums). The attention first year writers find in normal peer conferences does indeed fill each of Crismore and Wang's components, yet it lacks the metacognitive writing that we know is vital (the format in the writing conference is speech, not writing). Though the journal and the writing conference work together well in providing all of these aspects of the freshman writing pedagogy, we have the need for a single activity that can combine them all.

Computer-Mediated Communication

Perhaps we have found our answers in computer-mediated writing instruction. Those researching computers and writing generally agree that the format of computer-mediated communication‹an individualized, multi-sensory, communicative environment which exists in and only in writing‹is an environment that requires metacognitive writing when used to discuss the writing process and other issues in composition. Moving a writing conference to the MOO turns the experience into a metacognitively-written one. Crismore and Wang conclude that 'CAI (computer assisted instruction) fills the need for the above missing components in a composition program, providing a promising alternative to all students under-prepared in reading reflectively and rhetorically' (8). When communicating on the computer, writers take part in sustained, substantial written conversation about their writing.

They discuss their written projects with tutors, which helps them improve individual projects; they engage in metacognitive discourse (writing about writing), which is usually a complex activity for freshmen but becomes surprisingly natural online; and they conduct all correspondence with cybertutors in writing. Students automatically combine oral conversation and argumentative skills with un-apprehensive writing. . . . They describe, explain, and argue with their peers, and they discover information about their topics as naturally in writing as they would in speech. But the conversation is not speech; it is writing. (English, 'Gorgian' 9)

The metacognition that takes place during computer mediated conversation surpasses reflective writing and journal keeping in that it is interactively instructive and exists in a controllable, multi-media environment; and it has the advantage over traditional writing conferences in that it exists in a text-based environment, stressing the importance of strategic, transactional writing. Furthermore, computer-mediated communication allows students to record their online metacognitive 'written conversations' and learn from them later. They can 're-read email comments and review transcriptions of the real-time conversations afterwards, in order to recall issues raised in discussion and to apply what they learned to their writing' (English 'Gorgian' 9). Jennifer Jordan-Henley and Barry Maid, directors of one of the first MOO-based writing centres, explain that 'all communication, including 'speaking' during the online discussion, gives both students and tutors more experience putting words together. . . . Students may carry around cybertutors' comments for days and read them over and over' (Jordan-Henley 1995, 212).

Case Study

Richard, a freshman writer who I conferenced with in the Ball State Writing Workshop Project, was asked to write an 'analysis paper' on a movie. He decided to analyze the movie Up Close and Personal, because he was interested in broadcast journalism as a field and wanted to contrast his knowledge of the real life field with the movie's presentation of the field. He sent me a draft of his paper, which amounted to a simple summary of the movie, not at all an analysis. Richard realized that his paper was thin and missing some critical elements, but he was lost as to what those elements were. At the end of his e-mailed paper, he wrote to me, 'I'm lost now, what else do I talk about...I feel like I was just summarizing the that right?' In my email response to Richard, I encouraged him,

You claim that you're 'lost' now, but I don't think you're lost at all. What you've done so far is a summary, and it is a very nice, complete summary. Very nice work. . . Now that you've summarized the movie and gotten your audience familiar with what goes on in it, it is time that you make the big point that you want to make about the movie. From here, you would begin discussing the different points about the movie that were wrong about Broad. Journ. This is where you, as an 'expert' about the field, can be really inform your readers that, if they want to see a love story, this is it; but if they want to see a broadcast journalism story, this ain't it.

As I continued to suggest ways that Richard could build a body of 'analysis' into his paper, Richard was able to read, re-read, interpret, and apply my suggestions to his writing.

Then, when Richard and I met in the synchronous MOO, we were able have a more dynamic discussion about his paper. Since he had already reviewed my email responses and thought about revision for his paper, I asked him how he intended to revise his paper. Richard (whose character name is 'Roach' on the MOO) responded,

Roach says, 'well, I wanted to expand more on real broadcast versus the movie...and I also wanted to discuss the love of Redford (Warren Justice) and Pfieffer (tally atwater)...I wanted to talk more about if they loved each other or if their loved what each other did' Joel says, 'wow! That sounds very intriguing.'

Joel says, 'Then, talk to me about each of the two issues for a minute. I'm gonna sit back and sip on my coffee for a minute, and you just talk on about 1) the fact that there is a different between real broadcast and the movie, and 2) what you see going on between warren and Tally that might indicate whether they love each others' jobs or selves.'

Joel sips.

Roach says, '1)The movie is set in a fantasy world of journalism. If I were a young jr. college dropout, I don't think I would be able to find someone to tutor me as intensively as warren did tally. My fear is that after seeing this movie people are gonna say 'That's what I want to be' and miss all other important information about the career. These people won't understand the hard work involved'

Roach gets off his soap box

Joel puts Richard back up onto his soap box for a moment

Roach takes a deep breath

Joel sips and waits for more oration

Roach says, '2) At the beginning of the story they were in love with each others work. I couldn't tell the difference between their love when they were married versus when they first met. Maybe I'm just warped but I think with the broadcast setting they never would have matched. But I guess that's the way it is in any relationship :)'

Roach says, 'I mean with OUT the broadcast setting'

Joel says, 'So you're saying that without the career binding them together, they were not a compatible couple, and they therefore wouldn't have gotten together?'

Roach says, 'correct.'

Furthermore, we talked about the more metatextual elements of his paper. I had made the distinction between summarizing and analyzing in the email comments, and here on the MOO, Richard began synthesizing the difference in application to his developing ideas:

Roach says, 'if I start talking about this stuff, am I reviewing the movie or am I ANALYZING the movie?'

Joel says, 'i would say that, the section of summary you sent me before is Reviewing the movie; what you're digging into now would be ANALYZING the movie‹getting into deeper matters than just plot and I liked it'.

After our online conversation, Richard was able to take what he learned online and apply it to his paper and to his future writing projects.

And arguably, just as important as what goes on during the online session is what goes on afterwards: The student saves and reads back through the conference to review what was discussed, what was learned, and what needs to be done during revision. Using the conference log as a metacognitive map of the learning process is the key to employing all of the usefulness of the computer-mediated writing conversation, and it has not been possible with traditional face-to-face conferences. What Richard and I produced, simply by writing about writing, is a virtual text of real learning that he can continually look back to, not only to see what he discovered and learned, but also how he discovered and learned it.

A unique aspect of computers is that they not only represent process, but they also naturally keep track of the actions used to carry out a given task, so that the process and its trace can become an object of study in its own right. . . . With a computational medium it becomes possible, and often easy, to capture directly the processes by which a novice or an expert carries out a complex task.(Collins 1986, 2)

By saving the email messages and the online writing conference logs, students can always re-read their metacognitive processes and continue to learn about their writing and learning processes. Conclusion

Computer-mediated conferencing provides a combination of metacognitive activity and the optimum learning environment for writers. Composition students participating in online writing activities can have the benefits of the traditional writing conferences and of metacognitive writing, and they never forget what a tutor or instructor said, forget what they said, or lose track of what it was that they learned. And by studying the 'learning maps' produced from conferences, writers are able to review what, how, when, and why they learn.


Bartholomae, David. (1987). 'Teaching Basic Writing: An Alternative to Basic Skills.' in A Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Random, 84-103.

Berthoff, Ann E. (1984). 'Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning.' College English 46.6 (Dec), 743-755.

Collins, Allan and John Seely Brown. (1986). 'The Computer as a Tool for Learning through Reflection.' Technical Report 376, 1-32. ERIC ED 281 503.

Crismore, Avon and Lih-Shing Wang. (1985). 'A Computer-Assisted Reading Component for Reading Reflectively and Rhetorically in a College Composition Program.' 1-45. ERIC ED 264 515.

English, Joel A. 'Gorgian Kairos in First Year Composition.' Unpublished.

El-Hindi, Amelia E. (1993). 'Supporting College Learners: Metacognition, Locus of Control, Reading Comprehension and Writing Performance.' 1-16. ERIC ED 364 852.

Jordan-Henley, Jennifer and Barry Maid. (1995). 'Tutoring in Cyberspace: Student Impact and College/University Collaboration.' Computers and Composition: An International Journal for Teachers of Writing 12.2, 211-218.

Kuhrt, Bonnie L. and Pamela J. Farris. (1990). 'Empowering Students through Reading, Writing, and Reasoning.' Journal of Reading 33.6 (Mar), 436-441.

Raphael, Taffy E. (1989). 'Students' Metacognitive Knowledge about Writing.' Research in the Teaching of English 23.4 (Dec), 343-379.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

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