George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

How Metacognition Boosts Learning

Students often lack the metacognitive skills they need to succeed, but they can develop these skills by addressing some simple questions.

November 21, 2017
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Strategies that target students’ metacognition—the ability to think about thinking—can close a gap that some students experience between how prepared they feel for a test and how prepared they actually are. In a new study, students in an introductory college statistics class who took a short online survey before each exam asking them to think about how they would prepare for it earned higher grades in the course than their peers—a third of a letter grade higher, on average. This low-cost intervention helped students gain insight into their study strategies, boosting their metacognitive skills and giving them tools to be more independent learners.

Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford and the lead author of the study, says she often had students coming to her lamenting their poor test scores. "Many students have come to me after their exams trying to understand why they did not do as well as they had expected, despite their hard work,” she recalls. She suspected that the issue was that they lacked awareness of how ill-prepared they were—metacognitive awareness—and that led to the unexpectedly low scores. They thought they understood the material better than they actually did.

Nearly two decades ago, Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted a landmark study looking at this perception gap. In a series of experiments, they found that many college students who performed poorly on tests of logic and grammar had overestimated their performance, believing themselves to be above average. This phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, explains why many students feel confident that they’ll pass a test despite being underprepared. Overconfidence leaves students “with the mistaken impression that they’re doing just fine,” according to Dunning and Kruger.

More recently, a team of psychologists and neuroscientists published a comprehensive analysis of 10 learning techniques commonly used by students. They discovered that one of the most popular techniques—rereading material and highlighting key points—is also one of the least effective because it leads students to develop a false sense of mastery. They review a passage and move on without realizing that they haven’t thoroughly understood and absorbed the material.

This has serious implications for learning: It’s far too easy for students to overestimate their understanding of a topic simply because they’re familiar with it. Metacognition helps students recognize the gap between being familiar with a topic and understanding it deeply. But weaker students often don’t have this metacognitive recognition—which leads to disappointment and can discourage them from trying harder the next time.

Research shows that even children as young as 3 benefit from metacognitive activities, which help them reflect on their own learning and develop higher-order thinking. To promote students’ metacognition, middle and high school teachers can implement the following strategies. Elementary teachers can model or modify these strategies with their students to provide more scaffolding.

Metacognitive Strategies to Use During Class

The key to metacognition is to encourage students to manage their own learning instead of passively absorbing material. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers use the phrase “drive your brain” as a metaphor to explain to students how they can become more aware of their learning. In addition, promoting a growth mindset helps students understand that learning isn’t fixed: Through dedication and hard work, they can learn to be more resilient and overcome many challenges that may otherwise feel impossible. Simply being aware that there’s a difference between a fixed and a growth mindset is one of the most effective metacognitive strategies that students can benefit from.

During class, encourage students to ask questions. Keep in mind that struggling students may not know what questions to ask, or may feel too embarrassed to ask any. Don’t assume that every student understands the material just because no one asks a question. Use low-stakes formative assessment strategies like exit tickets, pop quizzes, or the classic “One-Minute Paper” to identify gaps in knowledge and guide future lessons (Heitink et al., 2016; Marzano, 2012; Sundberg, 2010).

During class, students should ask themselves:

  • What are the main ideas of today’s lesson?
  • Was anything confusing or difficult?
  • If something isn’t making sense, what question should I ask the teacher?
  • Am I taking proper notes?
  • What can I do if I get stuck on a problem?

Metacognitive Strategies to Use When Preparing for Tests

To close the gap between what your students know and what will be on a test, encourage them to quiz themselves instead of just rereading and highlighting a text. This not only boosts long-term retention but also bridges the gap between familiarity with a topic and deep understanding of it (Adesope et al., 2017; Smith et al., 2013).

Before a test, students should ask themselves:

  • What will be on the test?
  • What areas do I struggle with or feel confused about?
  • How much time should I set aside to prepare for an upcoming test?
  • Do I have the necessary materials (books, school supplies, a computer and online access, etc.) and a quiet place to study, with no distractions?
  • What strategies will I use to study? Is it enough to simply read and review the material, or will I take practice tests, study with a friend, or write note cards?
  • What grade would I get if I were to take the test right now?

Metacognitive Strategies to Use to Review After a Test

Don’t let students receive a graded test and file it away without using it as a tool for further learning. Try using exam wrappers, short handouts that students complete after a test is handed back. These worksheets encourage students to review their test performance and improve their study strategies throughout the school year (Gezer-Templeton et al., 2017).

After a test, students should ask themselves:

  • What questions did I get wrong, and why did I get them wrong?
  • Were there any surprises during the test?
  • Was I well-prepared for the test?
  • What could I have done differently?
  • Am I receiving useful, specific feedback from my teacher to help me progress?

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