How to Apply Metacognitive Tools in Outdoor Education

Updated: May 23, 2019


Children doing team activities on a field during an outdoor education program
Metacognitive monitoring can be used to maximize the outcomes and performance of children in outdoor learning situations. Location: Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Metacognition sounds complex. To my ears, it sounds like thinking beyond the metaphysical boundaries of the known universe! But thankfully it's actually quite simple. It literally means 'thinking about thinking' or 'knowing what you know.' Paradoxically, the better one becomes at a skill the better he becomes at accurately assessing his own prior performance and predicting future performances (known as a self-efficacy belief). Generally, until this competence develops, an individual will tend to overestimate his abilities and is less capable of accurate self-assessments (e.g., Hodges, Regehr & Martin, 2001).


Amid this paradox, we now know that through exercises which encourage metacognitive processes, it's possible to help individuals calibrate the accuracy of their self-assessments and self-efficacy beliefs.


"A slight overestimation in self-efficacy beliefs can be beneficial and increase persistence, yet overinflated beliefs tend to result in improper selection of behaviors, and decreases in performance or failure."

This article looks at ways that metacognition can be used to maximize the outcomes and performance of children in outdoor learning situations.


What is Self-Efficacy?


Have you ever come across a child who vastly underestimated their skills and abilities in a particular outdoor learning task? Or vice versa, have you ever witnessed a student who hugely overestimated their ability to succeed in a given outdoor activity? My guess is your answer is "Yes!" on both counts. But what exactly is going on when this happens? Well, is all relates to self-efficacy, or one's belief in one's ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. As children push their boundaries and learn about themselves, they're constantly playing with (and re-adjusting) their self-efficacy beliefs. There are several ways that these beliefs can play out and metacognitive monitoring is a useful tool for outdoor educators to use during the outdoor learning process.


As children push their boundaries and learn about themselves, they're constantly playing with (and re-adjusting) their self-efficacy beliefs

For instance, imagine you're a young child who's about to begin a low ropes adventure course like the child in the photo. You've never been on a low ropes course before but you do have experience playing on adventure playgrounds. So you figure you might be able to apply those same skills and abilities (such as strength, balance, focus and coordination) to the new challenge. In this case, your self-efficacy beliefs are likely to be quite high since you're pretty confident in your ability to do well in the low ropes activity. Then when you start the course, you find it a lot more challenging than you first expected. So you push yourself and you try really hard to meet the expectations of your self-efficacy beliefs. Lo and behold, you successfully complete the challenge course.


"As children push their boundaries and learn about themselves, they're constantly playing with (and re-adjusting) their self-efficacy beliefs."

In this case, you predicted you'd do reasonably well in the low ropes activity based on your prior experience. However, in reality you found the low ropes course more difficult than you expected (i.e. you were pushed out of your comfort zone) and this pushed you even harder to boost your performance and achieve success in the challenge.


How Can We Use Metacognition in Outdoor Teaching?


So how does metacognition fit into this puzzle? The process of rewriting a child's self efficacy beliefs is something that we do every day as outdoor educators. However, rather than simply muddling through outdoor activities without focus on the self-efficacy beliefs of the participants in our outdoor programs, we can maximize the potential for learning and development through self-assessment, or metacognitive monitoring. The idea is that by becoming more aware of the impact of self-efficacy beliefs on performance in outdoor activities, children can better calibrate the accuracy of their self-assessments. This is very important as research suggests that a slight overestimation in self-efficacy beliefs can be beneficial and increase persistence, yet overinflated beliefs tend to result in improper selection of behaviors, and decreases in performance or failure (Vancouver, 2012).