Metacognition: The Key to Self-Directed Learning

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by Hillary Steiner

By integrating metacognitive activities into your course, you can help your students develop into lifelong self-directed learners.

As instructors, we want our students to develop into goal-directed, independent thinkers with the ability to reflect on their own learning. In order to become this type of self-directed learner, students must develop “executive functioning” skills that allow them to take charge of their own thinking processes. The final principle of the eight principles of learning in this series describes the importance of metacognition in reaching this goal. Although definitions differ, at its root metacognition involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating one’s own learning (Schraw, 1998).

A metacognitive student is one who continually engages in reflection. She has an awareness of what she does and doesn’t know, a variety of learning strategies along with an understanding of when and how to use them, and the flexibility to change course when a strategy fails. Metacognitive students don’t simply file away a graded test; they take action--analyzing it for potential patterns of mistakes, reflecting on the strategies they used to study, and planning a revised approach for the next test.

Lovett et al. (2023) suggest that “to become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed” (p. 189), and decades of research has identified these behaviors as predictors of academic success at all grade levels (e.g., Pintrich & DeGroot, 1990; Young & Fry, 2012). With increased learning demands at the college level, learning strategies that go beyond memorization and passive knowledge acquisition are especially important (Kitsantas, 2002). Many of our students, however, are underprepared for the metacognitive demands of college (Cohen, 2012). This can be true of even our high-ability students (Balduf, 2009), who may never have been sufficiently challenged to prompt the development of metacognitive strategies. Even worse, students who continue to use poor learning strategies often do so because they don’t have the metacognitive skill to realize their mistakes (Kruger & Dunning, 1999); thus, “not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it” (p. 1121).

Fortunately, metacognitive skills can be taught (Cohen, 2012; Paris & Paris, 2001; Tuckman, 2003), and evidence suggests they are best taught within the context of individual courses. When strategies are embedded in or taught alongside a content area, students are better able to transfer the strategies to future tasks and reflect on the outcome of that transfer (Steiner, 2016; Steiner, Dean, Foote, & Goldfine, 2016; Tuckman, 2003). Therefore, instructors of all disciplines can help students develop in their thinking by integrating metacognitive activities into their courses. The section below discusses recommendations on how to help your students learn to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning.

Planning for Learning

Effective learning requires some initial effort in planning. Expert learners spend a great deal of time in the planning stage, but more novice learners may not realize its importance (Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reimann, & Glaser, 1989; Hayes & Flower, 1986). It is vital to teach students that time spent planning before a learning task is well worth the effort. Another necessary precedent for engaging in a learning activity is knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a learner. This is different from knowing one’s own learning style, a concept that is not supported by research (Paschler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2009). Rather than defaulting to a single preferred style, metacognitive learners are flexible in their approach, basing it on the task’s specific demands, their self-knowledge, and their own prior experience. Metacognitive learners also regulate the time allotted to various aspects of the task. Below are some strategies to help your students plan for effective learning:

  • Administer a non-graded pre-test tied to the learning outcomes for your course so students are aware of what they do and do not know.
  • Ask students to spend a few minutes previewing the assigned reading, generating two or three questions they have about the reading. Direct them to think about these questions during class, then continue to keep those questions in mind as they read.
  • Model your own thought and decision processes when planning for solving a problem, paying special attention to the process an expert goes through to determine what a problem is asking.
  • Model the processes used in planning study time, and ask students to develop a plan with time allotted to specific activities (see, for example, Steiner, 2016).
  • Consider using specifications grading (Nilson, 2014) to allow student choices in planning their learning activities in the course.
  • Share the learning strategies that typically lead to success in your class and help students reflect on how they might use them (McCabe, 2011; Tanner, 2012).
  • Introduce students to the terminology surrounding metacognition (Steiner, 2016; 2018) and allow them to brainstorm their own ideas for putting it into practice.

Monitoring for Learning

In addition to planning, students must actively participate in knowledge monitoring in order to assess whether or not they understand course material (Bielaczyc, Pirolli, & Brown, 1995; Palinscar & Brown, 1984). This is a continual process that can be encouraged through specific assignments that require students to take stock of their learning. Below are suggestions for prompting metacognitive monitoring:

  • Ask students to annotate the course text with paraphrased commentary and questions (Simpson & Nist, 1990)
  • Direct students to experiment with various forms of metacognitive note-taking, such as the Cornell method (Pauk, 1962), which allows space for questions, comments, diagrams, and summaries.
  • Assign “minute papers” or “muddiest point assessments” to help students assess knowledge limitations.
  • Use guided reading questions as a homework assignment to supplement textbook reading (Tanner, 2012)
  • Ask students to generate potential test questions (one of the most effective learning strategies), then allow them to choose test questions based on their self-assessment of knowledge (Isaccson & Fujita, 2006).
  • Teach students how to make a good quality study guide, and allow time for sharing with peers
  • During tests or quizzes, ask students for a judgment of confidence in the answers that they chose. Counsel them that when confidence is low, they should consider changing their answer. Follow up with a reflection (see section below) on how their confidence judgments are related to their performance (Couchman, Miller, Zmuda, Feather, & Schwartzmeyer 2016).

Evaluating Learning

Finally, it is important for students to circle back repeatedly to reflect on and evaluate the results of their efforts, adjusting their strategies when necessary. Metacognitive students realize when changing strategies might be advantageous (National Research Council, 2001), although some may be reluctant to do so unless encouraged by their instructor (Steiner, 2016). Below are recommendations for encouraging metacognitive reflection:

  • Ask students to compare the grade they received with the one they predicted, reflecting on any discrepancies.
  • Assign students an “exam wrapper” (Lovett, 2013) that requires students to think about how they prepared for a test, what worked and what did not, and how they might change their learning strategies in the future.
  • Include a reflection component to all major assignments, asking students to analyze their own performance.
  • Ask students to write a formal response to the feedback you give them. What was clear? What was unclear? If you wrote a second draft of this paper, what would you change?
  • Require a strategy project (Steiner, 2016) which asks students to outline their approach to a task then reflect on the outcome.

Metacognition is not a linear process; instead, students will continue to engage in the cycle of planning, monitoring, and evaluating as they grow as learners. Instructors have a crucial role to play in this development. By integrating metacognitive activities into your course, you can help your students develop into lifelong self-directed learners.


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