October 31st, 2012

Teaching Metacognition to Improve Student Learning


Metacognition can be a word that gets in the way of students’ understanding that this “thinking about thinking” is really about their awareness of themselves as learners. Most students don’t spend much time thinking about learning generally or how they learn specifically. In order to become independent, self-directed learners, they need to be able to “orchestrate” their learning. That’s the metaphor the National Research Council uses to describe planning for learning, monitoring it as it occurs, and then evaluating both what has been learned and how it was learned.

Kimberly Tanner’s excellent article on “Promoting Student Metacognition” expands those three fundamental activities (planning, monitoring and evaluation) into a set of questions that students can use to begin to develop this awareness of themselves as learners. She proposes planning, monitoring and evaluation questions for three central learning activities; a class session, an active learning activity or homework assignment, and a quiz or exam, plus a set of questions about the course overall. [Find her article and a table of sample questions to promote student metacognition at: http://www.lifescied.org/content/11/2/113.full.pdf+htm]

I worry a bit about giving students all these questions at once. I can see them skimming through the list and quickly deciding there are too many questions to answer. Besides, these are not questions with easy, obvious answers, especially if you haven’t thought about them before. To get students started, you may want to try one of these approaches—credit goes to Tanner for some of these ideas.

How have I prepared for class today? Have this question on a PowerPoint slide as students arrive in class. Ask them to write the answer in their notes. Comments could include, “I did the reading.” “I know what we’re covering in class today and have some ideas about it.” “I was in class last period.” Then show this question: What’s the best way for me to prepare for a class like this one? You might solicit some suggestions and then challenge students to try coming to class better prepared or to use a different preparation method to see if it makes the material easier to understand.

What questions do I have? Ask students to write questions in their notes as the material is presented in class. Writing the questions shouldn’t prevent them from asking questions but lots of students have questions that they never ask or write down. At the end of the period, have students circle the questions in their notes that they still can’t answer. They could ask someone sitting next to them one of those questions or see if they can find answer in the text. You could begin the next session by asking for any questions that students still can’t answer and you might solicit a couple of examples of questions they can now answer.

Why did I miss those exam questions? As part of the exam debrief, have students circle or list three exam questions they missed and then have them share in writing (on the test or in a note to you) why they think they missed those questions. You’ll likely get comments like, “I wasn’t in class the day this material was covered.” “I didn’t think there’d be a question about this on the test.” “I didn’t understand the question.” “I couldn’t remember how to do the problem.” “I didn’t read the material carefully.” Then give them this follow-up question: What do I need to do to avoid missing questions like these on the next exam?

When you start asking questions about learning, I wouldn’t expect students to greet the activity with lots of enthusiasm. Many of them believe learning is a function of natural ability and not something they can do much about. Others just haven’t paid attention to how they learn. They think of themselves as students, not as learners. I also don’t think most students think of learning as a life-changing force. It’s something they do while they’re in school. As devotees to learning, we might we need to sing its praises more often and with a bit more gusto. It’s powerful to be able to figure things out for yourself, to see things happening and understand why, and to discover knowledge that gives life meaning and purpose.

Reference: Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 11 (Summer), 113-120.

  • Anton Tolman

    MaryEllen, nice catch. I think these questions are useful, but I agree with you that simply presenting the entire list to students might be overwhelming. I also think it is useful to differentiate between content metacognition or students' awareness of their mastery of the material and process metacognition or their awareness of their own learning strategies and their effectiveness. Tanner's approach blends both of these, I think. I have also developed a set of metacognitive instruments to help students (and professors) evaluate students' readiness to change or to become more effective learners. These self-assessment scales can then be incorporated into an assignment called the Personal Learning Plan — when students fill out a survey or scale, they intrinsically want to know the meaning of their scores and so they become invested in the process of exploring their own readiness to become better learners. I also have a self-assessment scale that can be used to monitor and evaluate student learning using both a quantitative behavioral scale to see how often students are using known, effective learning strategies, and qualitative reflective questions. I think metacognition is a crucial element of helping students learn that faculty should build into their courses.

  • Greg

    A great article to start the day! My ramblings…….

    Tanner reflected on a comment I have heard many times: "…it's my job to teach [ your discipline or learning outcome goes here ], not study strategies." How often have we heard that our students don't know how to learn? Regardless of whose fault it is, your article shows how relatively easy it is to incorporate practical "meta-learning" strategies into our lesson plans. It's a no-brainer if a teacher conducts a structured pre-test review class, and a post-test follow-up activity, where many of the issues on clarity, confusion and preparedness will be brought into the light.

    One strategy that also worked for me in a first year Trades & Technology-oriented math course was to literally ask the students, prior to the review session, a series of questions in class approx. one week or so before the first big test, for which there was observable anxiety:

    – How do you prepare for a test?
    – What do you do (or not do) the night before a test?
    – What has helped you in the past?
    – What should be avoided before a test?

    The comments were insightful, sincere, and sometimes sobering and humorous. Some also gave me ideas on how I could better conduct my reviews. I received over 60 comments from two classes, which I summarized and and posted them on my faculty webpage for other students to reflect on. (I'm willing to share these if anyone wants, I didn't want to take up any more space than I already have.)

    While these are perhaps not very metacognitive-oriented results, I do believe the actual process of having my students think out loud and discuss with peers about how to prepare for a test, what might work, as well as what might not, helped some of them re-think or define their "approach strategy" for the test. For some, it worked well. (or so they told me.) For others, it did not. And some of those admitted they just didn't really prepare. That's not a metacognition issue, that's commitment – a different issue!

    Thanks for a great article! I'm back to work already….. 🙂

  • Georgina Julious

    This is a great article and an eye opener for nursing faculty. Some of the issue we are having in our upper level classes are students not taking the time to critically think about what they have learned and not having the ability to apply their knowledge to test questions. So, my peer and I have been meeting with students and asking some of the same questions that are stated above to see if we can get the to "think about their thinking", especially with developing better test taking strategies. I hope this works for them and if it does I will let you know.


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  • cognitioneducation

    For reasons noted here, that students aren't always meta-cognitively aware nor, from a more brass-tacks perspective do they know how to change their study habits for the better, I've created a new class called "The Psychology of Studying" and will teach it for the first time in January 2013. Theoretically, the kinds of student-teacher interactions that build self efficacy should, over time, coalesce into meta-cognition on the learner's part, but in practice we rarely attend to either end of the spectrum. My aims with the class are to inform students about the learning process with relevant information from developmental, cognitive, and motivational psychology, while they evaluate their own methods, compare what they do and have experienced to the literature we read, then write a personal improvement plan. I'm really excited about it, and so far the students I've spoken with who are currently registered are too.

  • Robin Jeffers

    And then there's Alverno College, where everyone teaches metacognition all the time.

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  • Osman Yasar

    I am a practitioner of computational modeling and simulation technology (CMST) and have been using it as a pedagogical approach (IEEE Comp. in Sci. & Eng., vol. 16, no. 3, May/June 2014) in K-12. I want to collaborate with people in learning science to advance my study on the impact of modeling on abstract thinking and metacognitive skills? Any articles on this subject, any references, or interested parties to communicate with? Thank you. Osman Yasar (oyasar@brockport.edu).

  • Jowel

    Maryellen Weimer, PhD

    Ver nice article!
    Why the metacognitive awareness of the learners are lower than teachers? Is there any article who can answer my question? The answer will be used on my study. Thank you