Metacognition Study

Influences of metacognitive beliefs on success in PhD candidature

ARC Discovery Project (DP110103007)

The Project Team

Emeritus Prof Sid Bourke
SId Bourke (CI)
Dr Robert Cantwell
Robert Cantwell (CI)
Dr Jill Scevak
Jill Scevak (CI)
Prof Allyson Holbrook
Allyson Holbrook (CI)
Ms Janene Budd
Janene Budd
(Project Officer)

Aims and Significance

Using a mixed-methods approach, this project offers a major reconceptualisation of the role of metacognition in higher-level adult learning. The primary focus WAS 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

Over 2000 participants were recruited from Australian and overseas universities. Of these, more than 700 participated in the 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 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.

The findings of this study are now being applied in a new ARC Discovery Project (DP150102088), a competent of which will use the 18 scales developed and refined for this project to design an intervention to enhance research learner metacognition.

What candidates 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."

Publications Research into PhD Examination

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.