Metacognitive Strategies for Learning (LD) vs. Intellectual Disabilities (ID)


Summary. This article describes some metacognitive strategies to learner profiles and then evaluates those strategies for individuals of different ages with intellectual and learning disabilities. In order to do so, different variables that effect those with intellectual and learning disabilities are identified. Social and cultural implications, as well as life span stages and interpersonal communication are discussed.

Metacognitive knowledge

Metacognitive strategies belong to the knowledge category that was by origin defined in the 1970s by Flavell as a regulatory knowledge about one’s learning [1]. Metacognitive knowledge touches a broad range of learning and development theories and finds its common ground in the agreed goal of helping students to become better learners. Learning strategy knowledge enables for memorization and understanding of content from heard or read content through planning, controlling, and adjustment of one’s cognition and learning [2].

The role of metacognitive instruction for individuals with learning disabilities (LD)

Learning disabilities (LD) involve learning difficulties due to central nervous system malfunction resulting in weaknesses in specific areas like oral and written expression, reading, listening, and mathematics and are therefore also referred to as specific learning disabilities (SLD). Such learning difficulties result in gaps between capability potential and actual academic achievements [3]. LD was therefore also used to be considered an unexpected underachievement compared to typically developing children [4]. The five percent of children in school that suffer from a learning disability make around half of the students who need special education [3]. More systematic multiple-assessment response to intervention (RTI) programs [4] can improve reading mastery, identify more accurately LD, and therefore reduce the number of children requiring special education [5]. Besides low academic performance, attentional, social, or behavioral problems can accompany LD [4].

The development of metacognitive knowledge starts around the age of five and continues throughout the lifespan [1]. Students with and without LD deploy the same metacognitive processes, albeit on different levels of depth. The ‘Matthew effect’ of accumulating spread of performance gap with increasing age could not be evidenced [6]. However, the lack of metacognitive skills impedes the acquisition of knowledge and can persist into adulthood and negatively impact not only school but also career outcomes [7]. Metacognitive strategies for reading were found to be lower in individuals with SLD than in those with typical learning development [8]. There is extensive evidence that increased metacognitive skills can positively influence learning outcomes in addition to learning ability (i.e., intelligence) and therefore allows the compensation of cognitive disabilities [1] given one knows about the different strategies and how to apply them [2]. Metacognitive training can also increase creative thinking in the long-term [9].

Example structure of a metacognitive instruction for adolescents with LD

Although LD should be addressed as early as possible, learning difficulties can remain throughout school time [10]. Adolescents and young adults get confronted with career challenges like having to identify and choose suitable possibilities. For individuals with LD, due to their limited self-awareness and capacity to learn in a self-reflective way, these tasks are even more demanding [11]. University counseling and transition support interventions that support metacognitive skills have shown positive results ([7]; [3]).

Metacognitive instructions (as for a target group of students transferring to the post-secondary stage like mentioned above) should convey certain contents following suitable approaches. Individuals with LD typically poorly assess their level of ability which leads them to inappropriate learning regulation [12]. Even more important is a professional assessment and feedback, whether with an online or offline questionnaire, an interview, or observations [1], that is enabling an individually tailored starting point and structure of intervention [2].

Knowing about a repertoire of learning strategies involving rehearsal (e.g., repeating), elaboration (e.g., summarizing, paraphrasing, etc.), and organization (e.g., mapping, note taking) represent general tools that can be applied to any domain. Also, techniques like working from end-states backward and the accurate estimation of task difficulty in a specific social and cultural context are strategies for problem-solving [2].

A critical success factor for teaching metacognition is to integrate it explicitly as such [2] and connect it to significant and relevant (according to the specific LD) tasks [13]. Assistance for higher-order cognition (e.g., reading comprehension) activates metacognition [4]. Play also provides an effective means to stimulate metacognitive functioning [14]. Scientific approaches to education increasingly account for social aspects in the form of mediated learning, using emotions to transport shared interests between the student and educator, and mediating the significance of the learning [7]. Family relationships as models for practicing with peers may be an essential factor too [15]. Despite the need for mediators and models, metacognitive approaches can enable students to assume increasing control for their learning [16]. Such self-governed behavior can be understood as self-regulated learning [17] that can be enabled through the use of, for example, portfolio maps documenting students’ draft works along the learning journey [18].

Metacognitive training for individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID)

In contrast to SLD individuals who possess high general abilities while having difficulties in specific areas, children with intellectual disabilities (ID) have a general mental disability [19]. Also, unlike ordinarily intelligent people with LD, those with ID suffer deficits in comprehension, memory capacity, and cognitive efficacy that language cannot efficiently mediate learning processes [17]. ID reduces the ability to engage in metacognition consciously. The goal of improving the metacognitive skills in people with ID is less the improvement of academic achievements but rather a higher self-awareness, as in autism [20], to increase the quality of life [21].

Active and participating aging is to enhance quality of life in older age [22]. It is crucial to instruct elderly with ID to remain active [23]. Individuals with ID possess less self-regulation capability than individuals with LD [24]. Instruction needs also to be adapted considering that intellectually disabled tend to require more social acceptance than learning disabled [25]. Like in autism, which is a detail-focused cognitive bias [26], skills need first to be acquired step by step before applying and generalizing them to complex situations [21].


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  • I was one with SLD. I was very highly functioning and could read very well but I had trouble (and still do) with my eyes trying to absorb the whole paragraph at once. I have to force myself to focus on one word at a time. I made it into college at Marshall University where I actually took part in round table discussions with the PhDs on how to educate children with LD.

    • Thank you very much for this first-hand experience. That responds to the need to increase awareness that SLD is SPECIFIC and that there are strategies to overcome these specific challenges. Thanks for sharing!

      • You’re welcome. I’m happy to add something to the conversation. My current outlook is that with the rise of Artificial intelligence that the entire education system will soon undergo major changes. I feel that self directed learning will become the norm. The new system will have to be able to accommodate special education needs. (It was considered Special Education in my day)
        There will be a lot of challenges but broader resources to Draw from.

      • Great point, and quite visionary. I agree that in minimum a blend of traditional ways and new technologies like AI will facilitate a more flexible personalization for different learning needs. Technology can help with self-directed learning, but social and emotional aspects of cooperative learning with teacher and peers will remain important too, especially in earlier school years, and especially with children with learning or intellectual disabilities. Most technology is built for the masses (because of commercial reasons) and does not well take minority needs into account. Let’s hope that educational systems will address such design equality issues. As you say, all this may present some challenges for the education system and its sponsors. Thanks again!