Teach the Earth > Metacognition > Workshop 08 > Participants and their Contributions > Cathy Summa

Making Learning Explicit

by Cathy Summa, Geoscience Department, Winona State University

Like many of my students, I was one of those kids who coasted through high school only to be stunned by my relatively poor performance in my first year of college work. I struggled to figure out how to succeed and realized that I had to learn how to learn college‐level material differently because my earlier strategies weren't working.

Reflectingback on my teaching evolution, I see the profound impact these early experiences have played in shaping my approach to my interactions with students. I had the good fortune of being introduced to How People Learn (Bransford, et al., 1999) shortly after its publication. This volume, coupled with the Greater Expectations report (AACU 2002), provided insight and motivation that supported my early efforts to change my courses to focus more intentionally on student learning rather than on content delivery. In short, they provided the rationale in support of adopting a "less is more" approach, particularly in general‐education courses that serve as the terminal science experience for many students.

Myearly attempts failed, at least by my standards; not surprisingly, students complained about being asked to write in a science class, but quite surprisingly, they also complained about taking time from "learning science" to learn material they perceived as unrelated. I've learned that making the relevance of the metacognitive approach explicit and transparent to students leads to far greater receptivity and to greater learning gains. One of the keys to success, in my experience, has been embracing failure as an explicit and necessary part of the learning process. In addition to addressing failure, I also address student fears – of failure, of the content, and of the ambiguous. I've found that once these fears are out in the open, students are more empowered, in part because they recognize that others share their fears. Another benefit of addressing fears explicitly is that students are more open to taking responsibility for monitoring their learning, particularly once they understand that failure is important to their learning. I am convinced this approach yields more robust learning because of the nature and level of the questions that students ask.

The Winona State Geoscience department is currently working to develop a student learning portfolio assessment strategy for all majors; how we plan for, support and assess our students' metacognitive development is an important component of our effort.


AAC&U, 2002, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College: American Association of Colleges and Universities, Washington, D.C., 62 p. Available at: https://www.aacu.org/publications/greater-expectations.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, A.R., (eds.), 1999, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 346 p. Available at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=6160#toc.