Meta-effectiveness, Effectance, Mindware and Other Key Concepts for Understanding the Development of Adult Competence

Luc P. Beaudoin, Ph.D. (Cognitive Science)
Adjunct Professor of Education
Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science
Simon Fraser University
EDB 7505, 8888 University Drive
Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6 Canada Skype: LPB2ha

First published: 2015–05–27
Last Revised: 2015–06–15 (See revision history)

Some importants concepts for understanding adult development of competence (including “learning to learn”) are rarely discussed, at least together. This article discusses some of them. Well established terms and concepts are not listed.

1. Key Insufficiently Used Concepts Regarding Meta-effectiveness

The key concepts include [1]:

  1. Meta-effectiveness: a term I introduced in Cognitive Productivity and defined as “the skills, dispositions and manifold underlying information-processing mechanisms [mindware] that enable and drive people to improve themselves.”.
  2. Architecture-based motivation: an extremely subtle but essential concept introduced by Aaron Sloman, 2009 to explain “top level” motivation; this is related to Gordon Allport’s (1937; 1961) concept of functionally autonomy and the concept of intrinsic motivation.
  3. Effectance: a term coined by Robert White (1959) to refer to the motivation to learn. It is well known amongst educational psychologists. However, I modernized the concept in Cognitive Productivity, specifying it in terms of architecture-based motivation. I also use the adjective effectant because English lacked a term for this concept.
  4. Fluid expertise: introduced by Carl Bereiter & Marlene Scardamalia (1993) to refer to the skills that enable one to (further) develop expertise; this is a core part of meta-effectiveness.
  5. Crystallized expertise: also by Carl Bereiter & Marlene Scardamalia (1993) to refer to the static expertise that can be used to solve problems that don’t require further learning. I now also use the expression “stagnant expertise” for this, to draw attention to its dangers.
  6. Mindware: term coined by David Perkins (1995) to refer to the “stuff” of which the mind is made. It is the mental analog to matter. I find it very strange that this term doesn’t have greater explicit currency as it is fundamental to cognitive science. I realize that reductive philosophers would abhor it (when they weren’t relishing criticizing it). It is as real as energy, money, and software are. In my book I distinguished several uses of this term (notably by Keith Stanovich). I relate this term to Popper’s World 2. Unfortunately this term was used eponymously with a completely different (World 3) meaning by Andy Clark ( 2000, 2013) [I emailed Andy about this in 2014.].

It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to adequately characterize, understand, and communicate about, how adults learn, and “learn to learn” without these concepts and terms to refer to them. Using an information processing framework, in Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, I modernized some of the older concepts and introduced new ones. Meta-effectiveness, in particular, is a critical umbrella concept for the literature on the development of adult competence. It is the central concept of Cognitive Productivity. That book is structured as follows.

A central theme of my book is that adult development requires the development of affective mindware (underlying “motivation”, “emotion”, attitudes and the mental implementation of standards). The book in this respect is an offshoot of Aaron Sloman’s Cognition & Affect Project that began at Sussex University and had its heyday at the University of Birmingham. Why then do I emphasize “cognitive science”? I answer this question in chapter 1. But in a nutshell, I interpret the expression broadly to include all mental mechanisms. It’s the core information processing metaphor that matters. Cognitive scientists can leverage data and theory from any discipline and on any aspect of mind.

2. Ancillary Concepts for Understanding Meta-effectiveness

Here are some ancillary concepts for understanding the knowledge-based development of competence in adults that, I believe, also deserve research attention. They, too, are developed in Cognitive Productivity.

  1. Knowledge gems: In introduced this expression in Cognitive Productivity to refer to fragments of objective knowledge (in Popper’s (1979) sense of the word) that are potentially helpful sources of competence. One needs to develop motive generators to detect them and respond with an inclination to master them (which doesn’t mean one should try to master every knowledge gem one encounters.
  2. Capturing knowledge gems. Extracting knowledge gems for use in problem solving, knowledge building and or productive practice.
  3. Productive practice: A form of deliberate practice and test-enhanced learning for mastering knowledge gems (developing mindware for them). I introduced the concept in Beaudoin (2011, 2014).
  4. CUPA: Introduced in chapter 12 of Cognitive Productivity. A set of criteria for assessing knowledge resources according to their Caliber, utility, potency and appeal. We need empirical research on adults’ tacit use of these concepts, and to measure the costs and benefits of various strategies to improve such assessment.
  5. Knowledge resources. A conceptual artefact expressing knowledge. An objective input to knowledge building and personal development.
  6. Mindware development. If there is mindware then there is the potential for mindware development, the mental changes effected during personal development/learning.
  7. Pedagogical utility. Sharon Bratt (2007, 2009) introduced this term to designate the extent to which software facilitates instructional design, teaching and learning. (See cognitive potency.)
  8. Cognitive potency. I use this expression to refer to a component of pedagogical utility. It is the extent to which software facilitates the comprehension and mastery of knowledge resources. An important use of information is to program one’s mind with it. Learning, in this way, is a matter of mindware development! So it is not just knowledge that can be more or less potent: so can cognitive tools. Meta-effectiveness involves selecting cognitively potent tools, recognizing their limitations, and working around them.
  9. Delving. This is a generic term for deeply processing any type of knowledge resources. English lacked an adequate superordinate term for reading, viewing (e.g., TED talks), listening (e.g., to podcasts or radio), attending (e.g., lectures), etc. It is an opposite of “skimming” or “speed reading”. The term is sometimes colloquially used in this grammatically transitive way in the context of reading; but the concept had not previously been expounded technically as I did.
  10. Fluid rationality [emphasis mine] encompasses the process part of rational thought—the thinking dispositions of the reflective mind that lead to rational thought and action.” (Stanovich, West, Toplak, 2011, p. 798). This overlaps with effectance.
  11. Motivators are internal information processing states containing monitors (Sloman, 1978; also known in AI as daemons) that drive purposive behavior. (Sloman, 1987; Beaudoin, 1994, 2014, 2015). Similar to Nico Frijda’s concept of concerns (Frijda, 1986, 2007). A major challenge for educational psychology and cognitive science more broadly is to explain the deliberate development of motivators.
  12. Illusions of meta-effectiveness. I introduced this expression as an umbrella for several classes of illusions (and point to the underlying cognitive biases) that interfere with meta-effectiveness, such as: illusions of (a) helpfulness of information (e.g., being distracted by information one takes to be helpful but isn’t of sufficient caliber, utility or potency [see CUPA]), (b) comprehension; (c) future ability to recall information; (d) rationality. While there is scholarly literature on these cognitive biases, they have not yet been adequately studied as part of a meta-effectiveness framework. (I hope my book will spur such research.)
  13. RD cue mnemonic (Reconstructible-discriminative cue mnemonic). This is a mnemonic system based on several key facts about memory and Norman & Bobrow (1979). Memory is cue driven. So to remember information it helps to remember a “path” to that information which discriminates amongst all other memories, which is the cue. Because of cue overload, that path needs to uniquely lead to the memory, as opposed to being associated with multiple targets (which would lead to the fan effect). Arbitrary cues are difficult to remember. To be effective in memory strategies, they should be easy to reconstruct based on information in memory at the time they will be needed, i.e., they should be meaningful. Hence effective cues are reconstructible and meaningful. The RD cue mnemonic is part of the meta-effectiveness / productive practice toolkit described in Cognitive Productivity. The skills and dispositions to use it can themselves be developed with practice.

Some of these concepts are important for all knowledge workers. For instance, we would all benefit from (a) the term “delving” to help us distinguish, in communication and in controlling and reviewing our own information processing, between shallow and deeply processing information; and (b) the term “knowledge gems”, to help us focus our attention on very helpful information (and away from “seductive distractors”). Some are mostly pertinent to cognitive scientists.

Here is an article of mine containing excerpts from Cognitive Productivity that deal with effectance and meta-effectiveness.

Annotated References

Allport, Gordon W. (1937). The functional autonomy of motives. American Journal of Psychology. 50 141–56. (Incidentally, Allport was one of Marvin Minsky’s professors. Minsky refers to Allport in The Society of Mind).

Allport, G. W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. Harcourt College Publishers.

Beaudoin, L. (2015) Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. Retrieved from [The first edition of this book was published in 2013]

Beaudoin, L. (2015). An introduction to meta-effectiveness with excerpts from Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.

Beaudoin, L. P. (2014). Developing expertise with objective knowledge: Motive generators and productive practice. In J. Wyatt, D. Petters, & Hogg, D. (Eds.), From robots to animals and back: Reflections on hard problems in the study of cognition (pp. 161–190). Berlin, Germany: Springer. [The first version of this paper was published in 2011].

Beaudoin, L. P. (1994). Goal processing in autonomous agents. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Birmingham, Birmingham UK.

Bereiter, C. (1995). A dispositional view of transfer. In A. McKeough, J. Lupart, & A. Marini (Eds.), Teaching for transfer: Fostering generalization in learning (pp. 21–34). Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Earlbaum Associates.

Bereiter, C. (2002a). Education and mind in the knowledge age. Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Earlbaum Associates.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Bratt, S. E. (2007). A framework for assessing the pedagogical utility of learning management systems (pp. 218–225). Presented at the World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education (ELEARN), Quebec, Canada.

Bratt, S. E. (2009). Development of an instrument to assess pedagogical utility in e-Learning systems. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada.

Clark, A. (2013). Mindware (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [First edition published in 2000].

Frijda, N. H. (1986). The emotions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Frijda, N. H. (2007). The laws of emotion. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Norman, D., & Bobrow, D. G. (1979). Descriptions: An intermediate stage in memory retrieval. Cognitive Psychology, 11(1), 107–123. doi:10.1016/0010–0285(79)90006–9

Perkins, D. N (1995). Outsmarting IQ: The emerging science of learnable intelligence. New York, NY: Free Press.

Popper, K. R. (1979). Objective knowledge. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sloman, A. (1978). The computer revolution in philosophy: Philosophy, science and models of mind. New York, NY: Harvester Press. Retrieved from

Sloman, A. (1987). Motives, mechanisms, and emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 1(3), 217–233. doi:10.1080/02699938708408049

Sloman, A. (2003). How many separately evolved emotional beasties live within us? In R. Trappl, P. Petta, & S. Payr (Eds.), Emotions in humans and artifacts (pp. 35–114). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sloman, A. (2009). Architecture-based motivation vs reward-based motivation. Retrieved from:

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Toplak, M. E. (2011). Intelligence and rationality. In R. J. Sternberg & S. B. Kaufman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of intelligence (pp. 784–826). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (2011). Rationality and the reflective mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Waytz, A., Morewedge, C. K., Epley, N., Monteleone, G., Gao, J.-H., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Making sense by making sentient: Effectance motivation increases anthropomorphism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(3), 410–435. doi:10.1037/a0020240

White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: the concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66(5), 297–333.



[1]. I’ve used a numbered list rather than bullets to facilitate cross-referencing and not as a sign of priority. However I listed meta-effectiveness first as it is the missing overarching concept.

Revision History

2015–06–15. Added a couple of ancillary concepts ( RD cue and capturing knowledge gems). Fixed a typo.
2015–05–28. Added a couple of missing bibliography entries. Fixed two typos.

2015–05–27. First revision.