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Promoting Student Metacognition

Teach students how to use any learning activity or assessment to identify their own learning gaps and improve their study strategies.

Are your students sometimes mystified by their grades? Have you ever been dismayed by the study habits a student describes with pride? Both of these scenarios point to students’ lack of metacognitive skills. This article describes specific strategies for promoting student metacognition. 

Metacognition is the awareness and ability of learners to assess their learning and develop learning strategies in accordance with their goals.

The problem

Instructors sometimes find that even though they are giving effective assessments and feedback, students are often surprised at their own scores. Also, students may describe using low-quality study methods, such as re-reading the text before a test.

These problems may indicate that these students are unaware of the gaps in their own learning, and that they don't have the study skills to meet college-level expectations for learning. 

The solution is metacognition

Promoting metacognition can address this problem by:

  • increasing students' awareness of the gap between their learning and course expectations
  • increasing students' understanding of how learning works
  • teaching students study techniques to close that gap.

Metacognitive testing

A powerful strategy for promoting metacognition is to explicitly teach students metacognitive testing and reinforce it as a habit. In metacognitive testing, students deliberately use their performance on a test to improve their metacognition. Instructors can include questions following a test to help students do this.

A metacognitive test is successful when, as a result of taking the test, students reach the following conclusions:

  1. “Tests reveal knowledge gaps that I can close.”
  2. “Tests boost knowledge.”
  3. “I will close the gap using a self-testing learning strategy.”

A metacognitive test also ensures that students take the following actions:

  1. List the gaps revealed in their learning.
  2. Write a plan for closing that gap.
  3. Include some form of self-testing in the plan.

Example of an activity modified for metacognitive testing

Suppose you want students to learn the global carbon cycle, so you have them illustrate a diagram of the cycle without looking at their notes. This is a test, of course. But you can make it a metacognitive test by asking specific follow-up questions. 

The metacognitive follow-up questions in the example below are found in steps 2 through 5. Because the metacognitive component of the test (the follow-up questions) may be new to students, take time to explain how these may benefit them. 

Global Carbon Cycle: Post Lecture Active Learning Activity

  1. Test yourself on the global carbon cycle. Without looking at your notes, sketch the global carbon cycle.

2. Remember—there are two benefits when you take a test or test yourself.

  • You measure what you know. What you see what you haven’t been able to remember, you'll know what to learn next. These are called "learning gaps."
  • You boost what you know. What you have remembered, you'll now remember faster and better in the future.

3. Please list the learning gaps revealed by the global carbon cycle test.

4. Please write a plan for closing the learning gaps revealed by the global carbon cycle test.

5. Please review your plan to ensure it involves some form of self-testing (demonstrating learning without looking at notes).

Additional strategies for promoting metacognition

Teach students what metacognition is

Present data on unawareness of knowledge gaps, unawareness of effective learning strategies, and metacognitive testing to students. Consider using the Promoting Student Metacognition slides to achieve this. You may include a quiz or other activity to reinforce learning.

Start with a pre-assessment 

Before a course or a lesson, help students to assess what they already know about the topic and what they don't know about the topic. This could be through a quiz, homework assignment, Poll Everywhere questions, or discussion. Include a reminder of the two benefits of metacognition; measuring what you know and boosting knowledge.

Follow-up with an activity where they list their learning gaps and write a learning plan that includes self-testing. Suggest how they can use the exposed knowledge gaps to inform their studies.

Do frequent low-stakes testing 

With frequent low-stakes testing, students stay aware of their level of learning and strengthen what they know. A weekly quiz may produce better learning and participation than two take-home exams.

Again, remember to include a reminder of how metacognition boosts knowledge and informs learning strategies. Prompt students to list learning gaps and write a learning plan that includes self-testing.

Open with reflection

At the beginning of a lesson, get students to reflect on what they understood about the content from the previous class (e.g., with a discussion, Poll Everywhere question, quick write, etc.). Ask them to explain what’s just happened to what they do know, and what they’ll do about what they don’t know.

Close with a reflection 

At the end of a lesson, get students to reflect on the most important concept or question they have from that lesson. Collect responses on a shared document to review before the next class. Reinforce metacognitive thinking and effective learning strategies with reminders and activities.

Managing workloads

Other instructors and students may express concerns that metacognitive activities will take too much time away from existing instructional time or add to grading workloads. Consider these suggestions for integrating metacognition into your course in a way that is balanced and efficient.

Integration into class time

These are ideas for using metacognitive testing during class, from the most time-intensive to the least.

  • Introduce metacognition using the Promoting Student Metacognition slides.
  • Allocate class time for metacognitive activities in a regular and predictable way to establish a routine. For example, use five minutes at the beginning and end of every session for students to reflect.
  • Dedicate more time to metacognition at the beginning of the quarter. Using the example above, stop the five minute reflections after a few classes.
  • Give metacognitive activities as homework. This way, promoting metacognition takes up no class time! For example, set up a metacognitive test on Canvas, or add metacognitive prompts to existing homework assignments.

Grading metacognitive activities

In addition to managing student workload, it's important to minimize grading workload. Here are some ideas, from the most grade-intensive to the least.

  • Grade metacognitive activities as part of existing assignments. For example, add a criterion to an existing rubric requiring students to write their key insight from the assignment without looking at it and to further explain how doing so promotes their metacognition. 
  • Grade metacognitive activities as a separate grade item across a period of time. For example, a single participation score for the quarter.
  • Grade metacognitive tests only for the first few assignments. Continue to provide metacognitive tests throughout the quarter, but make them voluntary.
  • Leave metacognitive activities ungraded, but gather feedback from students on their impact. For example, include questions about metacognitive practices in student evaluations, or create a survey asking students how they are using metacognitive techniques.

Works Consulted

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120. 

McGuire, S. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC. 

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.