Written by Noelle Dubay

What is metacognition and why does it matter?

Just as important as the content students learn in a class is the process by which they learn it. Metacognition describes an awareness of this process: the ways we absorb, assimilate, and convey information and participate in knowledge production. A growing body of research shows that as students practice metacognition, they are better able to assess and adapt their facility with the knowledge and skills of a discipline and to transfer their learning to new contexts.

Writing exercises are particularly useful for engaging students metacognitively. The right prompts allow students to make their thinking explicit: How did I arrive at this result? Where do I remain confused? What strategies have worked well? The reflexive awareness instilled through such exercises helps students to more effectively channel their effort as they study for the next exam or sit down to compose the next assignment.

Incorporating metacognitive activities in the classroom can be beneficial for instructors as well as learners. When students can articulate their learning processes, teachers can better assess the value of assignments and class activities and trouble-shoot where needed. Insight into a student’s process can create opportunities for affirmation or targeted feedback on assignments. Finally, hearing how lessons have taken hold in students’ minds can provide instructors with concrete evidence of teaching success.

Opportunities for reflective writing

  1. At the end of the day (exit ticket)
  2. Throughout a unit or assignment sequence
    • Activities may be anticipatory, as in a pre-writing assignment or design plan, or they may accompany drafts or stages as a self-assessment or reflective notes on difficulties, successes, or aspirations for revisions.
  3. At the end of an assignment (cover sheet/ quiz or exam wrapper)
  4. At the end of a semester (reflective survey / letter to a future student)
  5. Throughout a semester, in an ongoing reflective journal or portfolio
    • This could be handed in at the end of the semester as an assignment in itself or be used to facilitate a cumulative reflective activity

Conveying the importance of metacognition to students

Many students enter college accustomed to passive instruction and may initially be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with metacognitive exercises or activities. They may not consider such activities to have the same value as the content they are learning or associate metacognition with success in one’s field. The metacognitive activities you employ will work best if you can convey the purpose and relevance of metacognition to students, helping them recognize it as an important learning and professionalization tool. You can do this by:

  1. Including such activities on your syllabus, elevating them to the importance of other classroom expectations and assignments
  2. Asking students to engage in metacognition across the semester, not just as a final gesture
  3. Providing specific guided prompts and questions. Research has found that open-ended reflective questions are less effective at supporting learning than specific prompts
  4. Responding to reflective assignments, even briefly
    • Responses can be individual or collective (“Many of you mentioned…”)
    • You might also mention a student’s self-reflective comments in feedback on major assignments (“X, Y, and Z strategies have clearly paid off in your ability to…”
  5. Modeling self-reflection and metacognitive awareness in class: e.g., “When I first started writing reports, I found myself…” or identifying ways self-reflection is involved in the field (i.e. how to “think like a biologist“)

Cited and Recommended Sources

  • Ambrose, Susan A., et al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Wiley, 2010.
  • Bangert-Drowns, Robert L., et al. “The Effects of School-Based Writing-to-Learn Interventions on Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 74, no. 1, Mar. 2004, pp. 29–58, doi:10.3102/00346543074001029.
  • Chick, Nancy. Metacognition. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. 2013. Retrieved 29 May 2022 from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/metacognition/.
  • Dori, Yehudit Judy, et al. Cognition, Metacognition, and Culture in STEM Education: Learning, Teaching and Assessment. Springer, 2017.
  • Haukås, Åsta, et al., editors. Metacognition in Language Learning and Teaching. Routledge, 2018, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351049146.
  • James Joyce, Douglas. “On the Use of Metawriting to Learn Grammar and Mechanics.” The Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 4, Fall 2002. National Writing Project, https://archive.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/quarterly/2002no4/joyce.html.
  • Kaplan, Matthew, et al. Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy, Stylus Publishing, LLC., 2013.
  • Schon, Donald. Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. Wiley, 1987.
  • Sternberg, Robert J. “Metacognition, Abilities, and Developing Expertise: What Makes an Expert Student?” Instructional Science, vol. 26, no. 1/2, 1998, pp. 127–40. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23371269.
  • Tanner, Kimberly D. “Promoting Student Metacognition.” CBE—Life Sciences Education, vol. 11, Summer 2012, pp. 113–120, doi: https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.12-03-0033
  • “Using Reflective Writing to Deepen Student Learning.” Writing Across the Curriculum, University of Minnesota. 2021. Retrieved 29 May 2022 from https://wac.umn.edu/tww-program/teaching-resources/using-reflective-writing.
  • Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Utah State University Press, 1998.