Metacognition: Knowledge and Regulation of Learning

Metacognition: Knowledge and Regulation of Learning
Metacognition: Knowledge and Regulation of Learning

The easier description of metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” To be metacognitive implies having knowledge of cognitive processes and having the ability to regulate them. In the case of students, that’s knowing about study strategies, their effects on learning, and the ability to act on the knowledge. Knowing that shorter, but regular encounters with content (distributed practice) promotes learning is fine, but that knowledge produces no learning benefit if the student doesn’t act on it.

A lot of college students aren’t all that metacognitively aware, and because it plays such a central role in learning, many faculty are exploring ways to develop it. For example, consider this set of metacognitive activities used in the second semester of a general biology course.

  • Pre-lecture assignments: Students completed these guided homework assignments before class. The assignments introduced students to important terms and concepts, required some organizational tasks, and the exploration of relationships. Most of them also included a metacognitive prompt or question that asked for a description of students’ prior knowledge or an assessment of how confident they were with understanding the content covered in the pre-lecture assignment. The pre-lecture assignments were collected randomly, scored for completion, and each worth five points (in a 1,000-point course).
  • Collaborative group work: During class, students worked in small groups. They discussed the content and took group quizzes.
  • Exam review assignments: After each of first three semester exams, students completed an in-depth reflective assignment. They corrected answers on the exam (citing sources used to make the corrections). They explained why the answer they had chosen could not be correct. They attempted to identify the reasons for their mistakes and they went over how they’d studied and prepared for the exam.
  • Pre-Metacognitive Awareness Inventory (MAI) and Post-MAI Reflective Essay: This was an extra credit assignment for which students took the inventory at the beginning and end of the course. They watched two videos about metacognitions and wrote two essays (one at the beginning, the other at the end of course) in which they assessed their strengths and weaknesses as learners, and the strategies they planned and did employ in the course.

And did these various activities develop these students’ metacognitive abilities? To answer that, these faculty researchers looked at pre- and post-scores on the MAI and qualitatively reviewed the essays. They also had students estimate their exam scores after having taken the first and the third exam, an approach considered to be a more objective measure of self-evaluation skills than self-reported data. They hypothesized (based on related research findings) that students who more accurately estimated their exam scores would score higher on those exams than students who overestimated their scores.

And that was the pattern observed in their data. On the first exam, over 60 percent of the students (in the three sections) overestimated their exam scores and had significantly lower exam scores than students who under-predicted their scores. But after the third exam, the percentage of students who over-predicted fell to 46 percent in two sections and to 23 percent in the third section. And their exam scores also improved significantly. “This suggests that lower-performing students are improving in self-evaluation skills over the course of the semester, and this may be a factor in their improved performance.” (p. 7)

However, students’ MAI scores and their predicted and actual exams scores did not correlate at significant levels. “This suggests a disconnect between students’ perceived and actual metacognitive skills.” (p. 8) Qualitative analysis of the essays did reveal that most students could identify their strengths and weaknesses as learners and develop action plans to remedy their deficiencies. Students also reported that they were trying out new study strategies and about half of them believed their metacognitive and study skills had improved along with their exam scores.

“Our observations are promising and suggest that curricular activities designed to promote metacognition do indeed help students improve their self-evaluation skills and may preferentially help lower-performing students.” (p. 8) Supplementary materials including descriptions of the metacognitive parts of the assignments described above are available via electronic links in the article. —MEW


Dang, N., Chiang, J., Brown, H., and McDonald, K. (2018). Curricular activities that promote cognitive skills impact lower-performing students in an introductory biology course. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, 19 (1), 1-9.

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