Teaching Metacognitive Strategies

Saundra McGuire, Louisiana State University

My introduction to the word "metacognition" happened over fifteen years ago, when I was director of the Learning Strategies Center (LSC) at Cornell University. I heard the word from some of the students who were taking the LSC Critical Reading and Thinking course that was taught by Dr. Helene Selco, a learning strategies expert and the LSC Associate Director. I remember being intrigued by the word when I first heard students talking about it, but my interest was not piqued enough to investigate what the word meant and why students were discussing it. In fact, whenever a Cornell student said to me, "I need help studying. I study for hours and hours and still make C's on the tests", I would say "Go see Dr. Selco." They would visit with her in her office, and come out appearing satisfied and optimistic about their future learning. But sadly, I never asked her exactly what she was telling them or how she felt she had helped them. I didn't ask because I assumed that she was telling them how to study, something that I thought that all faculty (especially chemistry faculty members like myself!) already knew how to do. Boy was I ever wrong!

When I arrived at LSU in August of 1999, as the new director of the Center for Academic Success (CAS), I started getting requests to conduct workshops on learning and to meet individually with students – tasks I felt very ill equipped to perform. However, after speaking with Sarah Baird, the CAS learning strategies expert, and observing her conduct an individual consultation with a student, I understood how students' attitudes and behaviors about learning could be immediately and dramatically transformed if they understood the learning process and recognized that they had control over their own learning. That's when I began reading using cognitive science principles to improve student learning.

The works by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000); Bruer (2000); and Zull (2004) were particularly important in my developing the techniques that I use today to help students understand the learning process, embrace their responsibility for taking control of their own leaning, and motivate themselves to implement behaviors that lead to meaningful learning and critical thinking and problem solving. The remainder of this essay will discuss my current approach to teaching metacognitive skills to students at all levels and in all disciplines.

When defining metacognition I use concepts from a variety of sources. I particularly like Flavell's (1979) description of metacognition as thinking about thinking. It involves one's "knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes or anything related to them". I also use Winn and Snyder's definition. They indicated that metacognition involves "monitoring your progress as you learn, and making changes and adapting your strategies if you perceive you are not doing so well".

My approach to helping students develop metacognitive skills involves the following steps:

  1. Sharing the before and after scores of students who began using metacognition to improve their academic performance
  2. Having them reflect on the difference between studying and learning
  3. Introducing Bloom's taxonomy to help them understand the components of the learning process
  4. Providing efficient, effective learning strategies that are easy to immediately implement
  5. Assessing their understanding of the difference between their old study habits and the learning strategies they will begin implementing
  6. Assessing their level of motivation for using the metacognitive strategies
  7. Emphasizing my confidence in their ability to excel

I have found that students eagerly embrace the idea of using metacognitive strategies because it gives them back their confidence in their ability to excel academically. Confidence is crucial to success in any endeavor. As Henry Ford put it, "Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right." I have observed that a students' confidence in their ability to succeed is their perception of their professors' confidence in their ability to succeed. Thus, when faculty teach students metacognitive strategies and stress that effort and not ability will determine success in a course, more students are motivated to put forth the effort to implement metacognitive strategies to succeed.

The impact of teaching metacognitive strategies to LSU students is striking. A sampling of results from individual students, from classes, and from groups is shown below:

  • Travis, junior psychology student - Test scores: 47, 52; 82, 86
  • Robert, freshman chemistry student - Test scores: 42; 100, 100, 100
  • Aimee, junior organic chemistry student - Test scores: 54; 82, 76, 78
  • Dave, senior analytical chemistry student - Test scores: 65, 67, 61; 107
  • Chemistry 1001 students who attended an EAM session earned 238 points higher out of 1000 points in the class than students who did not attend.
  • LSU Dental School students exposed to these concepts scored an average of 10 points higher than the previous year's class on their histology exam.

Improved G.P.A.s:

  • Terrence, junior Bio Engineering student - Cumulative GPA (after four semesters) 1.67; 3.54 (fall 2003), 3.80 (spring 2004)
  • First year STEM program students belonging to underrepresented minorities who were exposed to these strategies earned a 3.73 vs. the 3.17 G.P.A. of students with comparable high school G.P.A.s and ACT scores who did not receive these strategies.
  • All First year STEM program students who were exposed to these strategies earned a 3.72 vs. the 3.29 G.P.A. of students with comparable high school G.P.A.s and ACT scores who did not receive these strategies.

After seeing the dramatic improvement that learning metacognitive strategies makes in student learning, I am a bit perplexed that so many faculty resist teaching these skills. I would like the conference participants to discuss how we might get more of our colleagues to use metacognitive strategies to improve their teaching and to spend time teaching learning strategies in the context of their disciplines.


Bruer, John T. , 2000. Schools For Thought: A Science of Learning in the Classroom. MIT Press.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., Cocking, R.R. (Eds.), 2000. How people learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Cromley, Jennifer, 2000. Learning to Think, Learning to Learn: What the Science of Thinking and Learning Has to Offer Adult Education. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Ellis, David, 2006. Becoming a Master Student. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.

Taylor, S. (1999). Better learning through better thinking: Developing students' metacognitive abilities. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 30(1), 34ff. Retrieved November 9, 2002 from Expanded Academic Index ASAP. academic.pg.cc.md.us/~wpeirce/MCCCTR/metacognition.htm

Winn, W. & Snyder D. (1996). Cognitive perspectives in psychology. In D.H. Jonassen, ed. Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 112-142. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan

Zull, James (2004). The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.