Metacognition: The Skill Students Need and Often Don’t Have


Another of those loosely defined but favorite words in higher education, metacognition is mostly understood superficially—“thinking about thinking.” We consider it broadly, generically, as it relates to learning. The mental processes involved are not easy to observe or measure. Even though most academics have good metacognitive skills, their understanding of them rests mostly on tacit knowledge.

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

A recent article (Stanton et al., 2021) does an exceptional job of clarifying and deepening our understanding of metacognition by explaining what it does for learning and what actions students take without it: “Metacognition is awareness and control of thinking for learning.” Even just those few extra words add precision to the meaning of metacognition. When they are metacognitively aware, students can identify the concepts they don’t understand. They have strategies they can implement to help them learn. They can assess how well those strategies are working and make adjustments if need be. Do students develop these skills on their own? Not according to these researchers. “While metacognition can develop over time with practice, many students struggle to meaningfully engage in metacognitive processes.”

For teachers interested in redressing student metacognitive deficiencies, the authors explore the development of metacognitive skills in three areas: (1) supporting students’ use of effective learning strategies, (2) encouraging students to monitor and control their learning, and (3) promoting social metacognition during group work. They propose evidence-based solutions while admitting the challenges associated with getting students to use them.

Effective learning strategies

More often than not, students rely on passive strategies for learning. They review material “as it is written or presented, as opposed to connecting concepts and synthesizing information to make meaning.” Students cram for exams that they pass but would fail a week later. Extensive evidence supports the use of active learning strategies such as self-testing, spacing study sessions, and interleaving (not studying content chunks in the same order every time).

But students don’t always find the evidence that supports these strategies persuasive. They may accept it but remain convinced that the strategies don’t work for them. Moreover, if students get the grades they want with the strategies they use, why should they change? And finally, some active learning strategies create discomfort. Self-testing is a good example; it’s stressful to ask yourself a question only to discover you can’t answer it. By contrast, “looking over” what’s in your notes and the text makes for less stressed studying.

Monitor and control of learning

The authors write about this area of metacognition using exams as an example. A lot of students misjudge how well they know the material when they review for an exam. They persuade themselves that they “know” something because they recognize it. They’ve seen the term or concept in their notes and encountered it again in the reading. It looks familiar, but being able to define or apply content requires more than recognition. Students discover their lack of understanding during the exam but not before it, when they can take control of their learning with strategies that foster understanding.

Good metacognitive monitoring should happen during the exam as well. How often do they know the answer? When do they have to guess? Where are the questions coming from? What criteria justifies changing an answer? And finally, evaluative monitoring should occur after the exam. Students need to objectively confront how well they performed with how they prepared, realizing they’re the ones who decide how they’ll study. Because of sloppy monitoring during the exam, the unexpected score comes as a surprise, and the response is more emotional than rational.

Social metacognition during group work

In this case, the thinking is the awareness and control not of one’s own thinking but of others’. It happens when students share ideas with peers, give and receive feedback, and evaluate (sometimes try out) the hypotheses, predictions, explanations, and interpretations offered by their peers. To gain these metacognitive benefits, students need to know how to ask each other questions and how to evaluate the information they receive from others. Students can learn from each other and can do so in ways that develop metacognitive skills, but teacher instruction develops those skills better than experience.

The authors have developed a guide for teachers that addresses these metacognitive skills (see here). They put it together with science educators in mind, but it offers a well-organized, accessible distillation of research that applies to metacognition generally. What’s proposed to develop these skills can be used with all sorts of different content. It’s a great resource, and access to it is open.


Stanton, J. D., Sebesta, A. J., & Dunlosky, J. (2021). Fostering metacognition to support student learning and performance. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20(2).

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