Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat: Equip, Empower, Energize

Student driver gets encouragement from instructor

No one can deny that the world in which we live and work is changing at a tumultuous pace. We live in a knowledge economy, driven by technologies that require different skill sets than were needed of workers in the age of industry. Students will encounter work and life situations that require them to learn as they go, perhaps even teach themselves, as they address contemporary problems, challenges, and proposed solutions—ones we have no way of anticipating as we prepare our curriculum. Although this is reality for students, “we rarely (if ever) purposefully teach these students to be self-regulated learners—a feature that historically tends to be a serendipitous result of classroom instruction rather than part of a purposeful plan designed to equip students for their future” (Box, 2018, p. 124).

The question du jour for universities, then, is this: What should be our role in preparing students for success in a knowledge economy? It is a given that students need content knowledge in math, science, technology, and so forth, but content knowledge is not enough. I join the chorus of educators who proclaim a moral imperative for universities to prepare students for what lies ahead by explicitly teaching them how to learn, fostering the skills they need to monitor and mediate their own learning in order to be productive and prosper.

I propose we do this through metacognition and the process of formative assessment. Educators often define metacognition as “thinking about thinking,” but that description sometimes creates the misconception that thinking critically about content is metacognitive. It is not. In short, metacognition broadly means having knowledge about cognition as well as control over and regulation of one’s own cognitive systems (Händel, Artelt, & Weinert, 2013; Vrugt & Oort, 2008). I suggest we call it “thinking about learning,” a nuanced but crucial distinction.

So how do we purposefully embed the teaching of metacognition into our curricula? I recommend using student formative assessment strategies to drive the process. As a reminder, formative assessment includes a series of practices in which both students and teachers gather evidence of learning while learning and use it to determine what comes next. Students use and develop their metacognitive skills as they monitor their own progress and decide what adjustments they need to make in their learning tactics, and teachers reflect and adjust as well. We often neglect the role of the student in the process, assuming that it is our job to assess and the student’s to respond. But by not partnering with students in the process, not empowering them, and leaving their self-regulation to chance, we fall short of preparing them for the future.

There are many strategies serve this purpose, but here are a few that are effective, relatively easy to implement, and structured around three guiding questions: (1) Where am I going? (2) Where am I now? and (3) How can I close the gap? (Chappuis, 2015).

Where am I going?

If students are to monitor their own progress, they first need to be aware of intended learning targets or outcomes. Expectations should never be a mystery to students. Additionally, we know that learning improves when students reflect on what they already know, what they might not know, and what they think can be learned before and throughout a unit of study. An effective strategy that meets this need is to have students create course-related evidence portfolios.

Evidence portfolios allow students the opportunity to (1) become aware of expectations up front, (2) document their learning, and (3) show evidence of mastery by the end of the semester. Portfolios are intended to help students think about what they have learned and reflect on their success.


  1. Determine your learning targets and share them with your students at the beginning of the semester. To do so helps them become familiar with course expectations before getting started—a necessary first step in self-regulated learning.
  2. Ask students to “traffic light” each target before beginning instruction (green = I know this, yellow = I need some help with this, and red = I don’t know this at all).
  3. Periodically during the semester, ask students to traffic light again and reflect on their growth. What have they learned? What do they still need to work on?
  4. At the end of the semester, ask students to traffic light each learning target again and provide evidence of growth or mastery of each target.
    • Artifacts that serve as evidence may include anything graded that indicates mastery of a given learning outcome.
    • Students should include a written reflection that describes the artifact, why they chose that artifact to serve as evidence, and how completing the assignment contributed to their knowledge.

Where am I now?

Once students are aware of learning targets and course expectations, they should have the opportunity to assess their level of mastery and set goals. The process of reflection has the potential to deepen the learning and puts students squarely in the driver’s seat as they think about where they are in the process and what they should do next (Sawyer, 2014). But students do not normally do this on their own; they need guidance. Additionally, students tend to set performance goals (i.e., grades) rather than learning ones. Thus we need to foster and encourage the habit of focusing on learning. One effective strategy that directs students toward self-assessment and goal setting is a post-exam review.

Faculty have used a variety of post-exam review formats, but many reviews fail to help students set concrete goals with specific learning tactics that can later be analyzed for effectiveness. This review includes those important metacognitive steps.


  1. While taking a test, students indicate their level of confidence in each answer (sure or unsure), then after the test is graded and returned, they analyze each wrong answer.
  2. For each wrong answer, they indicate whether they missed it due to a simple mistake or a lack of knowledge. Ideally, students will have marked missed questions as unsure, but often this is not the case. Prompting students to link the two forces them to assess their knowledge of what they do and don’t know.
  3. Students list learning targets that they’ve mastered, ones that need a little work, and ones they just don’t get.
  4. Next, students answer questions such as these:
    • What study strategies did you use to prepare for this exam?
    • How happy are you with your exam results? Did you know the information that you needed to know to succeed?
    • Based on your test analysis, what percentage of questions did you miss due to simple mistakes? What percentage did you miss because of a lack of knowledge? Were you aware that you didn’t know the answer to questions that you missed?
    • What stumps you?
  5. After analyzing their progress and the process they used to get there, students set learning goals and articulate specific study strategies they plan to employ, such as concept mapping, using flash cards, and making practice test questions.

How can I close the gap?

It probably won’t surprise you that many of our students simply do not know how to study. They often rely on unproductive techniques such as “going over” the material again and again and highlighting important concepts. In fact, the study strategies learners prefer—rereading text and massed practice—are also the least effective. As Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel write in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014), “By massed practice we mean the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory, the ‘practice-practice-practice’ of conventional wisdom. Cramming for exams is an example. Rereading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery, but for true mastery or durability these strategies are largely a waste of time” (p. 3; emphasis added).

Our students need to be taught how to study and how to learn, and you have the perfect opportunity to teach them. During the semester and especially before exams, discuss their study habits with them. Talk about what works and what doesn’t; give them something concrete to try. You are familiar with discipline-specific study strategies, so why not share them?

Join Cathy Box on Thursday, February 20 at 1:00 pm for her live online seminar, Teaching Underprepared Students to Take Control of Their Learning by Developing Metacognitive Skills. This seminar will help you identify key characteristics of metacognition, and recognize and explain the benefits of implementing metacognitive activities into curriculum.

This article first appeared in The 2019 Best of Teaching Professor Conference © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


Box, C. (2018). Formative assessment in United States classrooms: Changing the landscape of teaching and learning. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chappuis, J. (2015). Seven strategies of assessment for learning (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.

Händel, M., Artelt, C., & Weinert, S. (2013). Assessing metacognitive knowledge: Development and evaluation of a test instrument. Journal for Educational Research Online, 5(2), 162–188.

Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.) (2014). The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Vrugt, A., & Oort, F. J. (2008). Metacognition, achievement goals, study strategies and academic achievement: Pathways to achievement. Metacognition and Learning, 3(2), 123–146.