Talking Teaching: How to encourage metacognition

Hello, I'm Bryce. Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies. This month, we discussed the concept of metacognition and how to encourage students to use metacognition in the classroom.

In this blog, I’d like to discuss Fostering metacognition to Support Student Learning and Performance. The article is published in CBE–Life Sciences Education and is free to access.

The article we’d like to share with you this month:

Stanton et al. (2021). Fostering Metacognition to Support Student Learning and Performance. CBE Life Sci Educ, 20:fe3. 

What is metacognition?


Metacognition has a variety of definitions in the literature. The one I like the best is “awareness and control of learning”. In essence, metacognition is thinking about how you learn, when and why to use particular learning strategies, and what learning strategies work best for you. Metacognition can be split into two areas: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation.

Metacognitive knowledge involves knowing yourself as a learner, understanding learning strategies and when/why to use them. Metacognitive regulation is deciding which strategies to use, assessing and adjusting learning plans, and assessing learning plan effectiveness. This is a hot topic, as pointed out by Stanton et al. 2021 the most cited paper in CBE (Cell Biology Education – Life Science Education) is an essay about metacognition. It’s an important skill for students to develop, but many students struggle not only to be proficient with the skill but to use it altogether.

How are students using metacognition?

An important thing to keep in mind is that university is likely the first time students will need to use metacognition. In general, high school level courses are simple enough that metacognition isn’t required to pass. University-level education is a different situation (I’m looking at you Fluid Dynamics and Organic Chemistry). This means that metacognition is an underused, or never-used, skill for many students.

In general, students tend to use study strategies with the least mental stress such as reviewing presented material. Some students use metacognitive strategies, but with a black-box approach (that is, they know the strategy is supposed to work, but not why or how it works). Finally, students tend to focus on learning for the exam, which means they benefit from short-term gains to increase test scores instead of long-term recall and understanding.

Research has shown that students perform better if they set specific goals, space their review, and use self-tests to recall information. However there is a resistance to adopt new methods. This resistance can be in part due to student’s holding a belief that the evidence-based practices will not work for them as an individual. They already have some method that got them this far; changing habits now is a risk when you can’t afford to fail.

So how can I encourage my students to use metacognition?

The authors propose a list of four strategies to get students using metacognition.

1. Instruct students about the power of practice tests for improving retention and exam performance.

Practice tests are a powerful metacognitive tool. These self-administered tests can include “taking” exams from previous years, flashcards, or any activity that allows students to recall information. Students have an opportunity to assess their learning in a low-stakes environment and identify any areas they need to improve. Correct answers also enforce the correct information to be recalled more easily, so students benefit from correct or incorrect answers.

2. Encourage students to space practice.

Spacing practice forces students to spend a bit of time planning their learning (which is one of the first steps to using metacognition). This also encourages good retrieval practice by spreading out study time over days and weeks, instead of “cramming” - the gaps in time between study sessions allow the neural connections to be reinforced which leads to better recall. Spacing self assessments also reduces superficial familiarity with concepts, so students are less likely to think they’ve internalized a concept when they just recognize terms.

3. Develop practice questions that help your students accurately monitor their learning.

Practice questions should mirror the structure and style of the high-stakes exams. Your questions should test the content that will appear on these exams. This gives your students similar benefits to self-assessment: correct answers aid recall and incorrect answers determine which areas students struggle with. Students also gain experience with the kinds of questions that they will see in the actual exam. Feel free to reuse questions, too – repetition is a beneficial strategy to use and in low-stakes environments it’s alright to use the same question.

4. Prompt students to develop study plans and to evaluate their approaches after an exam.

Prompting students to make a study plan helps improve their metacognitive knowledge and regulation. It encourages students to have intent behind their study time and gives them a way to assess what worked for them and what did not. Once students reflect on how various learning strategies worked for them, they can adapt their approach to achieve the outcome they desire. This process encourages students to keep an eye on their learning, which is your goal, too!

Join the discussion

Do you have any tips or tricks for getting your students to use metacognition? Do your students have the same habits as described in this article? Have you found something else that has helped your student’s ability to assess their learning?

Join us in the ADI: Educator Community on LinkedIn and let other educators know your thoughts!

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