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Guiding Student Learning: Metacognition Strategies that Work

Updated: Jan 18, 2018

Amy Gross, PhD

What is metacognition? Flavell (1976) described it as the ability to think about one’s own thinking; being aware of one’s self as problem solver; monitoring, planning, and controlling one’s mental processing; and accurately judging the level of one’s own learning.

At a Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching in Greensboro, North Carolina, Dr. Saundra McGuire gave a powerful keynote address that summarized how we can significantly increase brain based learning. After reviewing my notes and her presentation, I was as inspired and motivated to apply her concepts as I was during her engaging session. I’d like to summarize just some of her insights to keep the ideas in front of us as we reflect and apply what we learned from the conference.

As summarized in her handout, her bottom line message was:

  • We must teach students the learning process and provide specific strategies

  • We must not judge student potential on initial performance

  • We must encourage students to persist in the face of initial failure

  • We must encourage the use of metacognitive tools

Most students have never been taught about metacognition or effective learning strategies and are in the process of developing higher order thinking skills. There are a number of things that we can do as teachers to guide students in their development and use of metacognitive learning strategies that get students to engage their brains.

As suggested by Dr. McGuire, let’s help students change their paradigm of learning, refocusing the emphasis from “study skills” to “learning strategies”; moving them from a focus on memorizing for a test to a focus on more in-depth understanding in order to apply learning; helping them to focus on learning instead of grades; and developing a mindset that intelligence can be developed through their own actions and strategies – even if they fail at first! (Dweck, 2006).

Let’s be explicit with students about levels of learning, incorporating a lesson about Bloom’s taxonomy so that students will more clearly understand when we need them to remember (or memorize) factual information as compared to when we need them to apply that material or to analyze and evaluate it. If we explain this them – and then assess them accordingly – they will get it!

In order to move higher on Bloom’s taxonomy and to develop more complex thinking skills, let’s teach students the Study Cycle (adapted from Frank Christ’s PLRS system).

  • Preview before class

  • Attend class

  • Review after class

  • Study

  • Assess your learning

The Louisiana State University Center for Academic Success has some wonderful resources for students (and faculty) including a video (shown below) and summary diagram of the study cycle.

Let’s help students develop critical reading skills by teaching them to use the SQ5R method

  1. Survey – get an overview of what am I about to read/learn

  2. Question – Identify questions that want the reading to answer for you

  3. Read – break material into short sections and read each section then continue with the following steps

  4. Respond – think about what is being read and identify what is most important

  5. Record/wRite – highlight, underline, and take notes, putting the material in your own words and linking it to previous material

  6. Recite – think about and try to recite what was just read without looking at it

  7. Review/Reflect – Scan and review the entire chapter. Think again about how the questions were addressed. Revise notes and talk to others about it.

Dr. McGuire invited us to visit the LSU Center for Academic Success where there are a number of online workshops that will introduce us, and our students, to effective metacognitive strategies.

The key message was that rather than expect students to know how to use metacognitive strategies (and then get frustrated when they don’t meet our expectations), we need to meet them where they are and incorporate some lessons on learning into our classes – and they will be given the tools to excel.

Let’s get our students learning!

References and Additional Resources

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., Cocking, R.R. (Eds.), 2000. How people learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. ( ) Washington, DC:  National Academy Press.

Dweck, Carol (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York:  Random House Publishing

Flavell, J. H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The Nature of Intelligence (pp.231-236). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Gabriel, Kathleen F.  (2008). Teaching Unprepared Students. Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing

Hodges, Simpson, Stahl (eds.) (2012). Teaching Study Strategies in Developmental Education, New York:  Bedford/St. Martin’s

Hoffman, R., & McGuire, S. Y. (2009, September). Teaching and learning strategies that work. Science (4), 1203-1204.

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