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Teaching Metacognition to Improve Student Learning

By: Maryellen Weimer, PhD

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Metacognition can be a word that gets in the way of students understanding that this thinking about
thinking is really about their awareness of themselves as learners. Most students dont spend much
time thinking about learning generally or how they learn specifically. In order to become independent,
self-directed learners, they need to be able to orchestrate their learning. Thats the metaphor the
National Research Council uses to describe planning for learning, monitoring it as it occurs, and then
evaluating both what has been learned and how it was learned.

Kimberly Tanners excellent article on Promoting Student Metacognition expands those three
fundamental activities (planning, monitoring and evaluation) into a set of questions that students can
use to begin to develop this awareness of themselves as learners. She proposes planning, monitoring
and evaluation questions for three central learning activities; a class session, an active learning activity
or homework assignment, and a quiz or exam, plus a set of questions about the course overall. [Find her
article and a table of sample questions to promote student metacognition
at: http://www.lifescied.org/content/11/2/113.full.pdf+htm]

I worry a bit about giving students all these questions at once. I can see them skimming through the list
and quickly deciding there are too many questions to answer. Besides, these are not questions with
easy, obvious answers, especially if you havent thought about them before. To get students started,
you may want to try one of these approachescredit goes to Tanner for some of these ideas.
How have I prepared for class today? Have this question on a PowerPoint slide as students arrive in
class. Ask them to write the answer in their notes. Comments could include, I did the reading. I know
what were covering in class today and have some ideas about it. I was in class last period. Then show
this question: Whats the best way for me to prepare for a class like this one? You might solicit some
suggestions and then challenge students to try coming to class better prepared or to use a different
preparation method to see if it makes the material easier to understand.

What questions do I have? Ask students to write questions in their notes as the material is presented in
class. Writing the questions shouldnt prevent them from asking questions but lots of students have
questions that they never ask or write down. At the end of the period, have students circle the questions
in their notes that they still cant answer. They could ask someone sitting next to them one of those
questions or see if they can find answer in the text. You could begin the next session by asking for any
questions that students still cant answer and you might solicit a couple of examples of questions they
can now answer.

Why did I miss those exam questions? As part of the exam debrief, have students circle or list three
exam questions they missed and then have them share in writing (on the test or in a note to you) why
they think they missed those questions. Youll likely get comments like, I wasnt in class the day this
material was covered. I didnt think thered be a question about this on the test. I didnt understand
the question. I couldnt remember how to do the problem. I didnt read the material carefully.
Then give them this follow-up question: What do I need to do to avoid missing questions like these on
the next exam?

When you start asking questions about learning, I wouldnt expect students to greet the activity with
lots of enthusiasm. Many of them believe learning is a function of natural ability and not something they
can do much about. Others just havent paid attention to how they learn. They think of themselves as
students, not as learners. I also dont think most students think of learning as a life-changing force. Its
something they do while theyre in school. As devotees to learning, we might we need to sing its praises
more often and with a bit more gusto. Its powerful to be able to figure things out for yourself, to see
things happening and understand why, and to discover knowledge that gives life meaning and purpose.

Reference: Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. Cell Biology EducationLife Sciences
Education, 11 (Summer), 113-120.