Some studies in the last two decades, indicative of the growing interest in these questions, have investigated learners' strategies for CALL tasks and their use of online help. However, despite this growing interest in the relationship between CALL, CALL-enabled cognitive support and strategy use, there is still a lack of empirical data, and much research is still needed to achieve more conclusive results.
Dr Chan Wai Meng’s project on “Metacognition and Learners’ Interactions with the Computer”, funded by a FASS Research Grant, sought to contribute towards this growing body of literature. It has led to two conference presentations at Eurocall 2003 in Limerick, Ireland, and JALTCALL 2004 in Mito, Japan, as well as a book chapter which appeared in early 2006.
The project encompassed a qualitative study which investigated the relationship between learners' metacognition and their interactions with a web-based CALL grammar exercise and will hopefully lead to larger studies and the subsequent construction of hypotheses. It focused on the subjects' metacognitive processes and strategy use while performing the exercise as well as how these affect or are affected by their use of interactive aids. It was underpinned by the constructivist theory of learning and instructional design, and a model of metacognition in second language learning proposed by Dr Chan in a book published in 2000.
The specific objectives of the project were:
- To seek insights into the cognitive and metacognitive strategies employed by learners when performing a web-based CALL grammar exercise
- To explore how learners' metacognition influences their interactions with the exercise
- To explore if and how interactive aids included can support and improve learners' strategy use and metacognition
The subjects were 24 beginning learners of the German language at the National University of Singapore. All 24 subjects had little or no CALL experience prior to the course and were divided into three groups. The first – unaided – group worked on an exercise which offered practically no learning support. The second – aided – group were given the same six items to work on, but several forms of interactive aids were included in the exercise. In addition to these aids, the third – metacognitive – group received explicit metacognitive information on the learning objectives, the interactive aids available and their application possibilities. Data were collected through introspective think-aloud reports (see video), retrospective interviews and a tracking function built into the web-based exercise.
The results of the analysis suggest that interactive aids do provide vital support for learners' strategy use. For example, the built-in glossary was an important tool for the strategy of Translating and also supported the strategies of Analysing and Applying Rules. The correction function was used frequently to aid the subjects' attempts at Monitoring and provided accurate and reliable feedback on the correctness of their answers and progress. The hints included in the feedback supported learners’ self-correction in the aided and metacognitive groups. The presence of such learning support provides a reasonable explanation for the higher rate of success and lower levels of negative affects observed in these two groups.
Interactive aids also appear to have played a pivotal role in two CALL-specific strategy combinations observed. Both strategy combinations can be considered CALL-specific as their application is enabled or encouraged by the presence of particular interactive aids. The instantaneous feedback with hints (Using Feedback) was used in combination with the strategies of (Re-)Analysing and (Re-)Applying Rules for self-correction. The subjects, especially those in the unaided group, also used the correction function consciously as a quick monitoring tool (Monitoring) in combination with Guessing to complete the items.
The use of the interactive aids appears to have had a formative effect on some of the subjects’ metacognition. These subjects, who had initially lacked the task and strategy knowledge necessary for the effective utilization of the interactive aids, appear to have profited from their experience with this exercise and the application of these aids. Especially those who had encountered difficulties and switched to a more conscious mode of processing, made frequent use of these aids and developed some measure of skill in their use.
These findings are certainly significant when one considers that many CALL materials found in the Internet still provide little or no learning aids. It is not uncommon to find exercises in the Internet which are purportedly intended to enable learning, but are in actual fact much more like tests with minimal or no learning support.
The results also suggest that some form of guidance is necessary to help learners make optimal use of available interactive help. Integrating metacognitive information into the materials may not be an adequate or appropriate measure as some subjects in the metacognitive group did not seem to perceive the information provided as useful or even notice it without intervention. The lack of appropriate task and strategy knowledge for processing CALL tasks meant that many subjects failed to take advantage of the aids available to devise effective strategies. This implies that some form of strategy instruction for CALL may be necessary to ensure optimal performance. This raises further questions such as: Which strategies should be taught and how should such instruction be structured? Can it be implemented online? Is self-instruction appropriate and implementable? Or must it necessarily be classroom-based and teacher instructed? Clearly, further research is needed to provide the answers to these and other questions.
Chan, W.M. (2006). Metacognition and learners' interactions with a web-based CALL grammar exercise. In P. Zaphiris & G. Zacharia (Eds.), User-centered computer aided language learning (pp. 209-233). Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing.
Chan, W.M. (2004, June). Metacognition and learners' interactions with the computer. Paper presented at JALTCALL 2004 Conference, Tokiwa University, Mito, Japan.
Chan W.M. (2003, September). Interactive Learning Aids and Metacognition in Computer Assisted Language Learning. Paper presented at the Eurocall Conference 2003, Limerick, Ireland.