Centre for the Study of Research Training and Impact

Metacognition Study

Influences of metacognitive beliefs on success in PhD candidature

An ARC Discovery Project (DP110103007)

Summary and Significance of Program

Using a mixed-methods approach, this project offers a major reconceptualisation of the role of metacognition in higher-level adult learning. The primary focus is the filtering effects of metacognitive beliefs of PhD candidates moving through the complex demands of doctoral study. Candidates' metacognitive beliefs are described, and their relationships to institutional, supervisory and life issues in successful candidature are identified. The emphasis on individual factors represents a significant advance in potential explanations of candidate progress. The innovative instrumentation and breadth of sampling allows for testing for the independent effects of metacognitive beliefs. The study extends metacognition research into PhD education.

Summary of Research Questions:

  1. What is the nature of metacognitive beliefs associated with doctoral candidature?
  2. What is the nature of an individual student's response to the challenges associated with key tasks/milestone in candidature?
  3. What is the relationship between reported metacognitive beliefs and responses to challenges identified in candidature (e.g. formal and personal goals or targets)?

The Research

The initial survey data collection began in February 2009, and over 2000 participants were recruited from Australian and overseas universities. Of these, more than 700 have participated in monthly Journey Tracking Surveys over a 12 month period. Over 400 participants also agreed to undertake two interviews by either telephone or email.

The first part of the project was the development, analysis and validation of a set of 18 scales as indicators of PhD candidate behaviours and characteristics.

Based on 2041 candidates, the scales were then used to develop candidate profiles clusters:
Group 1 – unproblematic candidature at this stage
Group 2 – actively attempting to surmount problems arising in candidature
Group 3 – overwhelmed by problems at this stage of candidature

In the next phase, the 18 measures of cognitive, metacognitive and affective  behaviours/ characteristics were simplified  through a second-level factor analysis. The 18 measures factored into four scales with high scale reliabilities:
Active control
Efficacious engagement
Scholarly immersion

In subsequent phases, candidates were offered the opportunity to further participate in phone interviews and a second survey 12 months later.

Application of the findings

How a candidate thinks about learning emerges from how they reflect upon three key dimensions of any learning task:

  1. What they think the task is and how they should approach it (the 'intellectual demands'
  2. How they feel about their capacity to complete, and reasons for engaging with, the task (the 'emotional demands')
  3. How they can manage the inevitable challenges to task completion that emerge from time to time (the 'contingency demands')

The ways in which candidates frame their thinking about these dimensions form the basis of the dispositions that they draw upon to control and direct their learning as a PhD candidate. Like any form of knowledge, the understandings that underpin these dispositions can be highly appropriate and accurate, partly appropriate and accurate, or deeply flawed.

In an OLT (Office of Teaching and Learning) application for a project to be funded in 2013-15 - Start to finish: An innovative online diagnostic resource to support doctoral student learning - the results are being used to provide a resource that translates the finding of this study into a resource that offer PhD candidates an on-line self- diagnostic and support materials.  

What the candidates have to say about their doctoral experiences

 "I have become withdrawn and at times depressed. I have lost my self-confidence and I am unsure of myself. In the past I was a very confident person in my career which was a role in high management. Doing a PhD and working in academia has sucked the life and confidence out of me."

"Most of my PhD colleagues are profoundly depressed, isolated, lack motivation and it's like a 3 year slum."

"Simply put, I associate my PhD experience with an array of negative emotions. Anger, frustration, disappointment, anxiety, depression. There have been two instances where I almost walked away. I had my withdrawal paperwork ready to go. It was my pride that kept me going and the knowledge that I had sacrificed so much to do this."

"I've actually decided to discontinue. I'm so disenchanted with the whole thing and with academia in general, that I recognise that I will be happier elsewhere."

"I'm a more independent thinker now and I hope that growth continues."

"I crave the joys of "training" (PhD journey) not the reward at the end of the "race" (designation)."

"I don't want to finish it, actually: the joy of daily intellectual stimulation, after cycling leisurely through the park, is what keeps me going, mentally and physically."

The Research Team

All members of the project team are from SORTI, Faculty of Education & Arts, The University of Newcastle

Professor Sid Bourke
Chief Investigator
Phone: +61 2 4921 5901
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Dr Robert Cantwell
Chief Investigator
Phone:+61 2 4921 6735
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Dr Jill Scevak
Chief Investigator 
Phone: +61 2 4921 6734
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Professor Allyson Holbrook
Chief Investigator 
Phone: +61 2 4921 5945
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Ms Janene Budd
Project Officer
Phone: +61 02 4921 6658
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Budd, J. (2010). On being a PhD student. Paper presented at the SSTAR Conference, University of Newcastle, January.

Budd, J., Scevak, J. & Cantwell, R. (2011). "I didn't expect to feel like this" - Affect management and perseverance in doctoral candidature. Paper presented at the Conference of the European Association for Research into Learning and Instruction,Exeter, UK, 30 Aug - 3 Sept.

Budd, J., Scevak, J.,Cantwell, R., Bourke, S., & Holbrook, A. (2012). Tracking the doctoral journey: developing a measure of perceived progress and well-being for PhD students. Paper accepted for the 10th Annual Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference, Glenelg, April 17 – 20.

Cantwell, R. (2012). A metacognitive profile of PhD candidates: Evidence of epistemic variation. Paper to be presented at the 2012 AARE/APERA Joint international Conference as part of a symposium: 'Thinking' and 'feeling' the PhD: Findings from the metacognitive influences on success in doctoral candidature study, Sydney 2-6 Dec 2012.

Cantwell, R., Scevak, J., Bourke, S. & Holbrook, A. (2012). Individual differences that affect the quality of learning in doctoral candidates. In M. Lawson & J. Kirby (Eds.). Enhancing the quality of learning: Dispositions, instruction, and learning processes. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cantwell, R., Scevak, J., Bourke, S. & Holbrook, A. (2012). Identifying individual differences among doctoral candidates: A framework for understanding problematic candidature. International Journal of Educational Research, 53, 68-79,DOI:10.1016/j.ijer.2012.02.001

Cantwell, R.H., Scevak, J., Bourke, S., Holbrook, A., & Budd, J. (2010). Developing measures of metacognitive and affective attributes of doctoral students, and their use in tracking the doctoral journey. Paper presented at the 9th Annual Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference, Glenelg, April 13 – 17.

Cantwell, R. Scevak, J., Cholowski, K., Bourke, S. & Holbrook, A. (2011). Rethinking the scope of metacognition: A multidimensional account. Paper presented at the EARLI Conference, Exeter, UK, 30 Aug - 3 Sept.

Holbrook, A. (2011). Models for doctoral training. Paper presented at the AARE Conference, Researching Across Boundaries, Hobart, Tasmania, 27 November-1 December.

Holbrook, A. (2011). Adaptive Knowledge Production. The program findings to this point. CHEER Seminar, Sussex University, UK, 10 October.

Holbrook, A. (2012). Harnessing doctoral student knowledge of how they learn to support the doctoral journey. Paper accepted for the 10th Annual Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference, Glenelg, April 17 – 20.