Learning How to Learn:
The ACM-Teagle Collegium on Student Learning

Kristin Bonnie, assistant professor of psychology at Beloit College, was curious about her students'
performance on exams in the introductory psychology course. As she explained to a packed room at the 2011 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in San Francisco, she had been giving her students, mostly first-years, the choice of deciding not to answer two or three of the approximately twenty-five multiple-choice questions that appeared on each exam. In some cases, students answered every question anyway, before indicating which ones they did not want graded

This anecdotal insight into students' decision-making process sparked Bonnie to wonder about ways that she and her students might gain a better understanding of their learning process. What if she were to ask all students to answer every question, and then ask them to decide which few to omit from grading? Going further, what if students had to report why they chose each question to omit? Did they eliminate questions that they actually had answered correctly? Did they know why they didn't feel confident about certain answers? Did knowing some of these answers make a difference in their learning?

Bonnie's curiosity was partly just the response of a good teacher and researcher wanting to know more about student learning in her classes. But her questions were considerably deepened and developed—and connected to ongoing discussions about metacognition—by her participation in this Teagle Foundation–funded Collegium on Student Learning through the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM).

Starting in November 2008, participants in the ACM Collegium embarked upon a thirty-month project to examine recent work in the cognitive sciences, to test out the theories through classroom interventions and experiments, and, ideally, to improve student learning through the process. They focused especially on the importance of metacognition, which might be summarized as knowledge of one's own thoughts and the factors that influence one's thinking. Other researchers emphasize the ability to plan, monitor, and evaluate the learning process as key elements of metacognition. (See the The Role of Metacognition in Teaching Geoscience for an especially useful set of resources on the topic.]

As Bonnie and her colleagues reported at the annual meeting, that focus not only had good effects on student learning but often a profound effect on the teachers. In creating scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) projects that documented their questions and interventions, and working as part of a group of scholars, collegium members reported becoming significantly more thoughtful about their teaching practice.

Bonnie was joined in the AAC&U session by David Thompson, associate professor of Spanish at Luther College (Iowa); Holly Swyers, assistant professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College (Illinois); Karl Wirth, associate professor of geology at Macalester College (Minnesota); and John Ottenhoff, vice president of the ACM. They worked with a dozen colleagues from other ACM colleges in the Collegium, which began with a November 2008 Opening Conference, featuring a keynote address from Patricia M. King, whose work on reflective thinking and self-authorship helped shape the thinking of the participants. Classroom interventions were carried out over the 2009–10 academic year, and a final conference about the group's work was held in October 2010.

Throughout the process, as reported in San Francisco, the group found that metacognition was by no means a "silver bullet" for improving student learning, but nonetheless was an effective tool for focusing student attention more consciously on their learning and, ultimately, providing a means to encourage students to think about the larger purpose of their education. Perhaps as important, the Collegium group found that by asking metacognitive questions of students, they became both more aware of their students' learning and increasingly self-reflective about their own teaching practices and effectiveness.


"Metacognition," in John Flavell's widely accepted definition, "refers to one's knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data.... Metacognition refers, among other things, to the active monitoring and consequent regulation and orchestration of these processes in relation to the cognitive objects on which they bear, usually in the service of some concrete goal or objective" (906). As it applies to higher education, metacognition refers to learners' abilities to predict their performance, to monitor their learning, to reflect on progress, and to make adjustments to achieve their goals. As John Bransford and colleagues summarize in How People Learn,teaching practices that take a metacognitive approach "have been shown to increase the degree to which students transfer their learning to new settings and events" (19). As Hope J. Hartman writes, "metacognition is especially important because it affects acquisition, comprehension, retention and application of what is learned, in addition to affecting learning efficiency, critical thinking, and problem solving. Metacognitive awareness enables control or self-regulation over thinking and learning processes and products" (xi). Bransford and colleagues identify three "key principles" that have emerged in much of the literature concerning cognition and classroom practice:

  • "A 'metacognitive' approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them." (18)

But metacognition also plays a significant role in the other two "key principles" they identify:

  • "Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom." (14-15)
  • "To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application." (16)

Related to this research is Robert Sternberg's work in the area of intelligent behavior and his emphasis on attitudes that can either promote or obstruct such behavior. Just as students must become more adept at understanding their own learning processes, faculty must understand how to provide experiences and models for students to help them become more skillful at identifying ways to be more effective, efficient learners. Dispositions for learning, habits of mind, and effective learning strategies, although connected in familial ways, also vary from discipline to discipline.

Faculty who participated in the ACM Collegium report on how their students developed insight into discipline-specific learning strategies but also about how they became more explicit in their teaching to facilitate the use of these strategies by their students. Strikingly, faculty also reported on how they came to understand their own learning processes more completely.