Metacognition and Team Based Learning

by Francis Jones, Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) and Department of Earth & Ocean Sciences, University of British Columbia

Metacognition is a very broad term encompassing many related aspects of learning. Descriptions of metacognition in two commonly cited books illustrate the breadth of the issue. Bransford etal (2000) describe metacognitive abilities as those that focus on sense-making, self-assessment, and reflection. These abilities are noted as an important part of distinguishing experts from novices. The authors suggest that characteristics of pedagogies addressing metacognition include: (i) explicit support for developing relevant frameworks; (ii) encouragement of abstraction; (iii) conscious evaluation of progress; (iv) learning specific content in some depth; and (v) persistent awareness of the learners' foundational knowledge. Handelsman etal (2006) refers to metacognition as "the internal dialogue about what is being learned", and state that it includes "the process of setting challenging goals, identifying strategies to meet them, and monitoring progress toward them". The latter two aspects, in addition to addressing student's beliefs about learning, are also the focus of Lovett's approaches to teaching metacognition (Lovett, 2008).

Given the scope of metacognition, one common thread seems to be that actions (pedagogies) supporting development of metacognition must be rich in feedback. I believe that focused social settings such as discussions, team or group work, tutorials & recitations, or individual tutoring, are the types of situations which are most conducive to provision of ongoing feedback which is highly responsive to both the context and the individuals.

This benefit of focused social settings is one reason I considered using Team Based Learning (TBL) (Michaelsen, etal, 2004) to shift an applied geophysics course (roughly 50 students) from a physics / math perspective towards a more applications orientation. I had tried both formal Problem Based Learning (PBL) (Torp and Sage, 2002) and traditional lectures with adhoc group activities, but the first was too radical a departure for this one course within our curriculum, and the second was not producing noticeable improvements in outcomes or classroom behavior.

Many of the details that make up the Team Based Learning strategy are aimed directly at enabling sophisticated learning situations in which students can utilize and develop their maturing metacognitive skills. Generally, the TBL strategy develops and supports highly effective learning teams, and gives them suitably complicated and relevant exercises without the overhead of producing detailed outcomes. Four key components of TBL support metacognitive development as follows:

  • Permanent teams: If growth of metacognitive skills is supported by high level discussions within a team setting, then the effectiveness of how the learning team operates is a crucial component of fostering that growth. Strong teams depend on trust, adequate preparation, and focus on task, therefore careful construction of teams, time for them to develop as units, and organizational structures to keep teams together and productive, are all important. Much useful background on what makes teams effective can be found in Birmingham, 2004.
  • Pre-class readings with corresponding in-class quizzes: Quizzes on required readings and other lower level learning are first done individually, then immediately re-done (the identical quiz) as a team using an instant feedback mechanism. This format supports accountability and team building. It also provides a setting for higher level discussions which presumably support metacognitive skill development.
  • In-class applications exercises: The majority of class time is spent on exercises that require teams to make complex, multi-faceted decisions, report in very simple forms, then justify and discuss choices as a whole class. Complexity results in rich opportunities for team members to debate, think, and rethink in a focused social setting. Simple reporting keeps the effort on the task of higher level learning rather than generating a communications product. The final class-level discussions provide further opportunities to consider concepts socially and internally, with guidance (i.e. modelling of appropriate metacognition) provided by the expert instructor.
  • Periodic peer assessment: Ideally, students are given two or three opportunities in the course to evaluate the contributions from team members, the effectiveness of the team as a whole, and their own perceptions about whether individual and team learning goals are being met. This improves accountability and supports reflection about the learning process. Anecdotally, based on traffic on the TBL list-serve, this appears to be one of the most challenging aspects of TBL.

Since beginning to use TBL, I have been pleased by the energy in the class and the sophistication of exercises that students can tackle. Rigorous action research proving enhanced metacognitive abilities has not been carried out, but midterm and end of term surveys do provide data on students' opinions about their experiences (see for example Currently, the course is being taught by a new instructor with very little teaching experience, and his use of the TBL components has been both effective (based on midterm survey results and interviews), and informative concerning the transferability of these techniques.

In conclusion, our anecdotal experiences do suggest that Team Based Learning in this setting is causing students to practice at least some characteristic metacognitive behaviors. We have benefited from plenty of references on team and group behavior (Birmingham, 2004); however, there is no doubt room for focused research on the relationship between learning in teams and development of metacognition.


  1. Birmingham, C. and M. McCord; Group Process Research: Implications for Using Learning Groups, in Team-based learning: a transformative use of small groups, Michaelsen, L. K., A.B. Knight , L. D. Fink editors, Sterling, Va. Stylus Pub., 2004.
  2. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L. & Cocking, A. R., editors (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC.
  3. Handelsman, J., S. Miller, and C. Pfund; Scientific Teaching, W.H. Freeman & Company, and Roberts & Company Publishers (2006).
  4. Lovett, M.C., 2008, Teaching Metacognition: Presentation to the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting, 29 January 2008.
  5. Michaelsen, L. K., A.B. Knight , L. D. Fink; Team-Based Learning - A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching, Sterling, Va. Stylus Pub., 2004.
  6. Torp. L. and S. Sage, 2002, From Problems as Possibilities: Problem-Based Learning for K–16 Education, 2nd Edition, Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.