A metacognitive profile of PhD candidates: Evidence of epistemic variation

Year: 2012

Author: Cantwell, Robert, Bourke, Sid, Scevak, Jill, Holbrook, Allyson, Budd, Janene

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Our purpose is to report on the underlying metacognitive dispositions of PhD students. The study derives from the assumptions reported in Cantwell et al (2012) of three foci underlying metacognitive decision-making: intellectual concerns, including beliefs about knowledge and about self-regulation; affective concerns including beliefs about  personal efficacy, coping behaviours and enjoyment of complex learning; and contingency concerns, including beliefs about volitional behaviours, procrastination and personal responsibility. Our aims were threefold: to describe the underlying dimensionality of the metacognitive concerns of PhD students; to determine the extent of individual variation across each domain of metacognitive focus, and to examine the relationships between such individual differences and the underlying dimensionality of metacognitive concerns.

Four dimensions to PhD students' metacognitive thinking were identified through Principal Component Analysis: "Active Control", a belief in a capacity to control internal states surrounding the doctoral task; "Efficacious Engagement",  a willingness to engage the doctoral task, a high degree of confidence and internalisation of the task; "Scholarly Immersion", an awareness and acceptance of the underlying intellectual complexity of the doctoral task and a willingness to seek support; and "Responsibility for Progress", a recognition and acceptance of responsibility for doctoral progress.

Individual variation in metacognitive thinking was assessed through Two-step Cluster analysis. Three clusters were identified. Cluster 3 (n=448) incorporated a higher sense of responsibility and enjoyment of complex learning, a more sophisticated sense of knowledge, and an unwillingness to compromise the quality of the task. It represents strong alignment with the doctoral task, and a strong sense of agency in engaging with it. Cluster 2 (n=397) incorporated high levels of coping and regulation, as well as high levels of volitional control, in conjunction with a less sophisticated understanding of knowledge. It is characterised by weaker alignment but strong agency.  Cluster 1 (n=548) reported moderate understanding of knowledge, combined with low coping, low regulation, low doctoral efficacy, and lower use of self-enhancing strategies. It is characterised by weak alignment and poor agency.

Cluster groupings were then shown to discriminate across the four dimensions of metacognitive thinking. Cluster 3 members were more likely to endorse 'Scholarly Immersion', 'Efficacious Engagement'and 'Responsibility for Progress'. Cluster 2 members were neutral on all dimensions except 'Active Control', whilst Cluster 1 members were neutral on 'Responsibility' and negative towards all other dimensions.

These results are discussed in relation to epistemic variation in PhD students' metacognitive profile, and the implications of this for supervisory practice.