Did you know that every time you read a sentence, your nonconscious mind doesn’t select every word to build a memory? You naturally and instinctively try to work out its meaning, which is the essential 15 to 35 percent of concepts per sentence. These concepts, or essential information, are what you will end up writing down on your Metacog. If you use more than that, you will have too many words to work with, and this redundancy will interfere with the memory of what is important. Between 15 and 35 percent is our ideal amount of information, because less than 15 percent will cause gaps in your memory and more than 35 percent can interfere with memory retrieval.
Following the principles of creating a Metacog in the correct sequence, every single time, is an important part of successful learning. Below are the instructions for building a Metacog.
- Preferably on a blank piece of paper, write the name of what you are working on in the center of your page. This could be the chapter or section of work you are studying; it could be the meeting you are about to attend; it could be an article you are reading and want to remember; it could be a holiday you are planning; it could be a blog post or an essay you are planning to write.
- Try to print all the words you put onto a Metacog. Don’t write in cursive script. It is easier to remember something that is printed. Write the main categories in capital letters so they stand out. Write details lowercase.
- Each concept word must be on its own line. You literally build a sentence on branched lines, one word per line. You have to decide on logical, propositional relationships between the concepts you select. This relationship needs to be reflected structurally on the Metacog, which is why you need only one word or concept on a line. Words on linked/connected lines lead to a spreading activation in which each concept triggers the next one in a logical and meaningfully associated way. This is what is happening inside your brain. More than one concept on a line interferes with the correct structuring of a Metacog and turns it into a type of flow diagram or a linear summary. This is fine once you have mastered the concepts, but not while you are mastering them. You need to build and create to learn. Each concept has its own electrical representation in the brain. If you put two words on a line, it is the same as putting two electrical representations onto a dendrite; the two collapse into one and half the meaning can be lost and/or confused.
- Put the first subheading on a branch that radiates out of the central bubble.
- Write the rest of the information in concept form—the 15 to 35 percent (don’t write out full sentences!)—radiating outward in branched format from that subheading . You should have lines branching from the subheading; write the words on these lines, which are much like branches of a tree. Remember to put one word per line as in point 3 above.
- The information radiating from the subheadings should progress from general to more specific. This means that you “grow” branches outward from the main category to accommodate the 15 to 35 percent you have selected.
- These concepts must be written on the line, not next to the line or under the line.
- Once you have selected and written down everything about that subheading, go to the next one and repeat the process until the whole section of work has been written onto the Metacog. You are essentially doing the first three steps of the Switch On Your Brain 5-Step Learning Process together—so, Input, Think, and Write for one chunk of information, then Input, Think, Write for the next chunk of information, and so on.
- The shape of the branches you are growing on your Metacog is, in a sense, matching the branches you are growing in your brain on the dendrites . The dendritic arbor in your brain is being reflected as a branched Metacog on paper. Without your being consciously aware of it, your neural network will dictate the shape of the branches on your Metacog. That’s why I like to say that a Metacog is your “brain on paper.” It’s as though, as you draw the Metacog, your brain has already created the same pattern as a memory. If the words are all over the page, and not on logically connected lines, that’s what will happen to the storage of information in your brain. It will be all over the place, and you won’t be able to access the information when you need it.
- Start your Metacog in the top right-hand corner of the circle and work clockwise from left to right. You can go counterclockwise if it is easier or if you are left-handed. As we mostly work from left to right, the Metacog generally follows the same format. You will need to rotate the page as you go so that you always work from left to right. In doing this, you will find that half the Metacog is upside down. This is actually a good thing, because as you rotate the page, you will promote synergy between the two sides of the brain. This turning of the page will also keep you awake and alert. It isn’t wrong if you prefer to read your Metacog without turning it, but brain research shows that this crossing over is good for deep thinking. You may actually also find that it is more natural to rotate your page as you instinctively work from left to right.
- Remember to always apply the Golden Rule of the Switch On Your Brain 5-Step Learning Process to understand how and when you select concepts: ask, answer, and discuss . This is the conversation you need to have with yourself, as you read in the Think step. You only want between 15 and 35 percent of information to go down on your Metacog to make sure you retain the essentials; you need to think about and understand what you are reading. You are not just trying to summarize information. You are filtering out what is superfluous and keeping only the relevant information.
- Use color simply to enhance organization at the Recheck phase (step 4) if you want to, but only after you have written down everything you think is important. Your Metacog will be more visually appealing with color, but you do not have to use it. When you first make your Metacog, use one color—for example, a lead pencil—so you do not interrupt the flow of thought in your brain. It also makes it easier to erase if you make mistakes, so you don’t have to redo your Metacog altogether. Only add color in the Recheck phase, as a self-monitoring and memory-enhancing tool, if it helps you.
- This step is entirely optional: use pictures, symbols, shapes, and images supportively to help with memory if, and only if, it comes naturally. You do not have to create an image for every word but rather for groups of concepts. As in the use of color, it is better to put the pictures onto the Metacog in the Recheck phase (step 4). When you concentrate on understanding and selecting 15 to 35 percent of the content, a picture may come to mind. If it does, you can put it on the Metacog. However, don’t spend too long trying to create a superb image at the expense of concept selection. It’s important to do what comes naturally to you. There will be plenty of time to add pictures (the simpler the better) in the Recheck and Output steps. Pictures are helpful to activate the nonconscious levels of learning, where metacognition is a strong driving force behind our conscious thinking. However, the use of pictures and whether you use them at all, like everything else, will depend on your gift—your default mode of thinking.
- Remember you build a Metacog, which means you are building a memory into dendrites.
- There are various apps that you can use to build Metacogs on your computer, and even though I use some of these, I only use them once I have mastered the content by a hand-drawn Metacog.