Initial Publication Date: July 1, 2014

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Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning

Metacognition (defined as "thinking about thinking" or "learning about learning") involves thinking about one's own cognitive processes. Metacognition is an important concept to understand for both improved study skills and gains in content learning. The process of self-regulating one's own learning is iterative: Identify a topic, plan/set goals to examine the topic, apply strategies to grapple with the topic, evaluate and adapt those strategies as your understanding deepens.
Metacognition explained »

Metacognition is important because it gives someone the ability to recognize what they understand, or don't understand, about a given problem and the means to approach that problem in a systematic way. You are likely already an expert in self-regulating your learning; the most obvious first step is becoming aware of your own metacognitive process. In doing so, you will be able to explicitly design activities and assignments that help students become proficient in those same self-regulating skills.

By doing some reflection on how you learn, you can scaffold your course so that your students will also be able to self-regulate their learning and master the materials you feel are most important.

Creating an environment that fosters learning to learn:

  • Be explicit with your students: Spend time discussing how self-regulated learning activities will help students learn (and tell them that it takes time to master these skills)
  • Ask students to plan and set goals for themselves
  • Show students strategies for approaching problems and encourage them to monitor their progress, assessing their own strengths and weaknesses
  • Encourage students to evaluate their own performance and adapt strategies as needed
  • Reward effort over ability (allow for revisions)
  • Encourage self-comparison over social comparison
  • Model and provide graphic organizers and other organizational structures

How can you help your students become more metacognitive?

Empower your students through self-regulated learning:

Empowering students to become self-regulated learners is something that you can do in any course by providing students with opportunities to reflect on their mastery of both course content and course skills. The key goal is that by teaching students how to become proficient self-regulated learners will improve their learning. Take a moment to consider some of the following metacognitive activities and how they might fit into your course...

(Many of the ideas above were developed by Marsha Lovett of Carnegie Mellon University. View her presentation on metacognition here.)

Metacognitive classroom activities:

Low effort (class or activity-level):
  • Think-Pair-Share (or TPS) activities are a great way to encourage student engagement and reflection in class. These activities pose a question students must consider alone and then discuss with a peer prior to settling on a final answer. Depending how it is implemented, TPS can help students synthesize course content or reflect on practicing for mastery. See the following link for more details on this method.
  • Retrieval practice is another way to enhance student retention of key material, making them more aware of the learning process. Recent cognitive psychology research shows that students who are tested or questioned on relevant course material at regular intervals tend to retain that material longer. Check out some of the findings of Bob Bjork and his team of cognitive psychologists at UCLA.
Moderate effort (activity or unit-level)
  • Reflective prompts are activities that require students to reflect on a given learning experience at a specific scale of interest. You might ask students to write a "minute-paper" on an index card, asking them to write down their thoughts or ideas from a specific class activity. This gives students the opportunity to quickly express their ideas on a specific topic
  • Exam Wrappers help students think about the exam experience before and after a given exam. They might be as simple as a series of questions asking students how much time they spent studying for the exam or they could be more involved. See any of the following links for further reading: Carnegie Mellon or The Teaching Professor.
  • Learning Journals are a way for students to describe their learning experiences over time. This could be a daily, weekly or periodic activity meant to gives students a window into their own understanding and how that understanding grows and changes as the term progresses. Ask specific questions or have them reflect generally about how they are doing, what their specific academic goals are in your course, etc. You may or may not review their journals regularly but attaching some participation points will make the students take the work seriously. Take a look here at one relevant resource discussing student learning journals.
Committed effort (course-level)
  • Classroom notebooks are similar to the Learning Journals above but with more structure and with regular check-ins/share-outs. This scaffolded approach to writing and reflection with associated points will empower students to take more control of their learning process and become more self-regulating of their progress.

How often do you use reflective activities in your classroom?

[CORRECT]Great! We encourage you try one or more of the specific activities found on this page.

[CORRECT]Any kind of metacognitive activities will assist your students. "More" isn't necessarily "better" in this case, it is the quality of the activity that matters. Students exposed to metacognitive activities have indicated that the activities support their learning and self-assessment and were more aware of their thinking processes. Instructors who have incorporated metacognitive activities in their courses find that their students are better able to grapple with the course materials and show proficiency in the skills they are expected to learn (Schraw et al., 2006; Wirth via On the Cutting Edge). Take an idea from this site, give it a shot in your course and let us know how it plays out.

[CORRECT]Have no fear! It takes a bit of work but adding these kinds of self-reflective learning activities into your course(s) shouldn't be much extra work but is a tremendous pay off in the long run! Pick one of the ideas listed above or below and give it a shot! We'd love to hear how it goes.

More on Teaching Metacognition...»

Resources for the interested instructor...

Interesting reading:
  • Schraw, G., Crippen, K.J., and Hartley, K., 2006. Promoting Self-Regulation in Science Education: Metacognition as Part of a Broader Perspective on Learning. Research in Science Education, Vol 36, pp 111-139.
Anne Egger discussing metacognition at the InTeGrate author webinar