Documentation:Learning Principles & Strategies/Metacognition

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Learning Principle

To become self directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progess, and adjust their strategies as needed. Ambrose, et al.(2010)[1]

Research Says...

  • novice students tend to rely on strategies they learned in high school and miss the goal of the assignment. (Carey, Flower, Hayes, et al 1989)
  • we tend to be poor judges of our own knowledge and skills.
  • novices tend not to plan enough or plans are not suited to the type of task.Ambrose, et al.(2010)[1]
  • self testing and teaching others are effective strategies for supporting learning because they support retrieval practice. (Ambrose, et al.(2010)[1])
  • elaboration strategies (like concept mapping, advance organizers and visuals) support learning. (Ambrose, et al.(2010)[1])
  • re-reading on its own is an ineffective strategy. It fools us into thinking we know the material we are reading (because it is familiar).
  • students do not tend to adopt newly learned strategies unless benefits outweigh costs. (Ambrose, et al.(2010)[1])


  • most students need support in learning, refining, and applying basic metacognitive skills.
  • metacognitive skill development and practice should be part of the course assignment/goal.
  • scaffolded support for planning (through models, maps, etc) are useful to support student's development of competencies.
  • be explicit about blind spots that students may face (over or underestimating their knowledge and skills).
  • uncover your own metacognitive processes by posing questions and breaking down the processes required to address them.


Assessing the Task

  • Help students develop more sophisticated process skills. Process journals to document ideas, decisions and thought processes can be useful. Explain that the goal for this activity is to uncover patterns and processes in addressing challenges. The use of this approach can improve consistency and ability to handle complex tasks.
  • Use examples: show an annotated example of a work, outlining it's strong and weak points and why. Give students samples to annotate or analyze.
  • Check students understanding of the assignment by asking them to write plans (to handle a particular problem, assignment or prepare for an exam) and provide feedback and suggestions on their stated approach.
  • Provide performance criteria.**
  • Use rubrics indicating varying levels of mastery or checklists of key requirements.**

These can be used more frequently at the beginning of the term and less at the end - as a scaffold rather than a crutch.**

Evaluating Skills and Knowledge

  • Associate metacognitive skills with the assignments and tasks - be explicit about what is required of the learner (simple definition or more complex analysis of function and relationship)and the strategies they might use to tackle the problem.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to share their strategies with others.
  • Provide opportunities for self assessment and self testing.


  • Create a plan for students: divide large projects into chunks - breaking down components into parts with deadlines.
  • Have students create their own plans with associated deadlines - much like a project proposal with specific "deliverables".
  • Make planning a goal for the assignment. Plan an approach to solving a problem and identify possible challenges, roadblocks or enablers along the way. Have students implement their plans and assess merits and weaknesses.

Applying Strategies

  • Provide simple (or discipline specific) heuristics for students to assess their own work and identify errors or problems. This may include questions about the reasonableness of an answer to a problem or questions about assumptions that are being made, etc.
  • Self - guided assessments. Have students assess their work against a set of criteria.
  • Require students to reflect on and annotate their own work by documenting their processes, and reflecting on challenges, assumptions, methodology, etc.
  • Use peer review with supporting guidelines or rubrics for assessment.

Reflecting and Adjusting

  • Require students to reflect on their performance. What did you learn? What skills did you bring that helped you? What skills do you need to develop? How would you approach this differently the next time?, etc.
  • Prompt students to analyze the effectiveness of their study skills using exam wrappers. Exam wrappers are short handouts given to students with returned exams that ask them to reflect on: what types of errors were made, how they studied and what they plan to do to prepare themselves for the next exam.
  • Show multiple ways of solving the same problem. Short presentations from students about how they approached a particular question, problem or challenge.
  • Emphasize assignments that focus on strategy rather than implementation. Consider ssignments that focus on predicting outcomes, assessing application of various solutions to a problem or task, etc.

General Strategies

  • Think out loud as you are describing how you would approach a task or problem - uncovering your own process as you go. It is helpful for students to see experts self-assess and re-adjust as they go.
  • Scaffold students in developing their metacognitive processes by braking down the processes involved in a task and givinf students feedback on each component - before they practice integrating the skills to achieve a particular goal. Balance the instructor developed plans and schedules, with those that students develop themselves - so they have the opportunity to practice.