Activating Student Metacognition: How to Help Students Learn More Effectively and Efficiently

Image by Biljana Jovanovic from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

“I thought that I did great, but my grade doesn’t show it.”

“I spent weeks preparing, but still received a bad grade.”

“It made sense in class, but not on the test.”

“I’ve tried studying in lots of different ways and nothing works for me – I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

“I planned to review my notes after each class, but didn’t get around to it.”

Have you ever heard your students say any of the above or some version of them? If so, it’s likely they are struggling with metacognition the ability to think about and direct their own learning process.

Students with strong metacognitive skills are able to successfully plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning process. They recognize their unique strengths and weaknesses as learners, understand what they already know and what they still need to learn, choose strategies that will help them reach their learning goals, and use these strategies effectively. Along the way, they continue to self-assess and modify their learning plans accordingly.

Yet, unfortunately, most students enter university with poor metacognitive abilities.

While this probably doesn’t surprise anyone who has ever taught a first-year course, it is important to realize that students generally do not have the planning, monitoring, and evaluation skills they need to be successful in their courses (Hora & Oleson, 2017). Plus, students usually don’t begin using metacognitive thinking until they encounter a new challenge or perform poorly on a major assessment (Dye & Stanton, 2017), so even those who did well in high school tend to lack metacognitive abilities when starting university.

Given that metacognition is a critical component of learning, how do we help students develop the metacognitive abilities they need to do well in our courses and meet our learning goals?

Below, we take a research-based exploration into why students struggle with metacognition, how we can help them develop metacognitive abilities, and why this is important.

What prevents students from being metacognitive about their learning?

Before we can help students develop metacognitive abilities, we need to understand what is getting in their way. Here are some of the common barriers and challenges students face with respect to metacognition.

Students aren’t good at judging what they do and do not know

“It made sense in class, but not on the test.”

Students tend to overestimate their abilities and think that they know more than they actually do, especially lower-performing students (Osterhage et al., 2019). The inability to accurately perceive their own knowledge prevents students from properly planning and carrying out their learning process. They end up spending too much time on things they already understand and not enough time on things they don’t. To be able to accurately evaluate their own knowledge and abilities, students need opportunities for self-evaluation and feedback.

Students spend too much time on unproductive learning strategies

“I spent weeks preparing, but still received a bad grade.”

Students tend to spend time on passive activities that are ineffective or inefficient, such as rereading or highlighting text (Hora & Oleson, 2017). Even if they know that a certain learning strategy is not working for them, they may continue to use it because it is comfortable or has worked for them in the past (Dye & Stanton, 2017). Students need guidance in determining what learning strategies to use and how to best use them.

When students don’t know how a learning strategy connects to the learning process, they tend to use it inefficiently…or not at all

“I’ve tried studying in lots of different ways and nothing works for me – I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

Students who have a better understanding of how learning works choose better learning strategies and are able to modify them to their context to capitalize on the learning benefits (Stanton et al., 2019). Students need to understand how learning works and how specific strategies relate to the learning process to be able to choose effective strategies and use them efficiently.

Students struggle to follow through on their learning plans

“I planned to review my notes after each class, but didn’t get around to it.”

Even if students have a good understanding of where they are in their learning process and what they need to do to progress toward their goals, they might not be able to appropriately act on this knowledge (Stanton et al., 2015). Thinking about and planning their learning process is an important first step, but for these plans to be useful, students need to be able to put them into practice.

How can we help students become more metacognitive about their learning?

While students generally begin university with poor metacognitive abilities, they can improve over time with guidance and opportunities for practice and feedback.

Embed metacognitive elements in things you’re already doing

Incorporating metacognition into your course doesn’t have to take a lot of extra time or effort – it can be as simple as embedding one or more metacognitive questions into an existing lesson, activity, or assignment. Tanner (2012) provides a repository of questions focused on the three main components of metacognition (planning, monitoring, and evaluating), and offers implementation strategies, such as course activities and reflective writing assignments, and recommendations for building a class culture grounded in metacognition.

Provide opportunities for self-evaluation and feedback

To be able to accurately evaluate their own knowledge and abilities, students need opportunities for self-evaluation and feedback. You can help students check their understanding by providing self-evaluation tools, such as clicker questions, formative quizzes, practice exams, worksheets, and problem sets. Explicitly discuss with students how they can use these tools to identify gaps in their knowledge and inform their decisions about what learning strategies to use.

Recommend high-impact learning strategies and how to use them

Let students know what learning strategies work best in the context of your course and how to use them effectively. If possible, share student data. You can also ask students to appraise their own learning strategies and share what worked well for them with others in the class (students tend to value the advice of their peers). When suggesting learning strategies to students, provide the rationale for the strategy and explain how it activates the learning process or connects to the neurobiology of learning (Owens & Tanner, 2017).

Provide accountability

Students need support and accountability to follow through on their learning plans. One way to nudge students to carry out their learning plans is to have them clearly articulate the what, why, when, how, and where of their plan, and to identify potential obstacles and challenges and how they plan to overcome them. Participation in learning communities can also provide additional peer support and accountability (Siegesmund 2016).

Make metacognition valuable

Students are more likely to engage in metacognitive activities if they understand what metacognition is, how it benefits them, and why you are including it in the course. Provide explicit instruction about metacognition and directly link it to the course material or something students care about, such as learning, grades, or professional skills. Offer incentives or points to encourage students to engage in metacognitive activities.

Incorporate metacognitive instruction and activities throughout the curriculum

Developing metacognitive abilities takes time and practice. Metacognitive development has been shown to occur within a single course (Ziegler & Montplaisir, 2014; Siegesmund 2016; Dang et al., 2018; Osterhage et al., 2019), and over the duration of an academic program (Stanton et al., 2019). Offering metacognitive practice throughout the curriculum allows for students to continually develop and hone their metacognitive abilities.

Start early

Early interventions can have a big impact. Osterhage et al. (2019) found that a metacognitive intervention aimed at improving self-evaluation resulted in higher scores on the first exam, which is significant, considering that early exam grades are predictive of course grades (Jensen & Barron, 2014). Similarly, offering opportunities to learn about and practice metacognition in first year courses allows students to start developing these skills early on in their program, setting them up for success in later courses.

Why is all this important?

Studies have shown that providing students with opportunities to activate metacognitive thinking can result in improved learning and retention of course material (Mynlieff et al., 2014), better follow through on study plans (Sebesta & Bray Speth, 2017), and higher exam scores (Zhao et al., 2014; Osterhage et al., 2019).

But the benefits are not limited to your students – in the process you will also become a better instructor.

Having your students engage in metacognitive activities will allow you to learn more about them and their learning process. You will better understand what they do and don’t know, what learning strategies they use, what they’re struggling with, and how they experience the learning process. You can then use this knowledge to inform changes to your course structure and teaching practices to better meet your students where they are and help them get to where they need to be.

For much more information on this topic, check out the CBE-LSE Student Metacognition Evidence-based Teaching Guide and accompanying paper (Stanton et al., 2021).


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

Dye, K. M., Stanton, J. D. (2017). Metacognition in upper-division biology students: Awareness does not always lead to control. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(2), ar31.

Hora, M.T., Oleson, A.K. (2017). Examining study habits in undergraduate STEM courses from a situative perspective. International Journal of STEM Education, volume 4, article 1

Jensen, P.A., Barron, J.N. (2014). Midterm and first-exam grades predict final grades in biology courses. Journal of College Science Teaching, 44, 82-89.

Mynlieff, M., Manogaran, A.L., St. Maurice, M., Eddinger, T.J. (2017). Writing Assignments with a Metacognitive Component Enhance Learning in a Large Introductory Biology Course. CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 13, No. 2.

Osterhage, J.L., Usher, E.L., Douin, T.A., Bailey, W.M. (2019). Opportunities for Self-Evaluation Increase Student Calibration in an Introductory Biology Course. CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 18, No. 2

Owens, M.T., Tanner, K.D. (2017). Teaching as Brain Changing: Exploring Connections between Neuroscience and Innovative Teaching. CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 16, No. 2

Sebesta, A.J., Bray Speth, E. (2017). How Should I Study for the Exam? Self-Regulated Learning Strategies and Achievement in Introductory Biology. CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 16, No. 2

Siegesmund, A. (2016). Increasing student metacognition and learning through classroom-based learning communities and self-assessment. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 17(2), 204–214.

Stanton, J.D., Dye, K.M., Johnson, M. (2019). Knowledge of Learning Makes a Difference: A Comparison of Metacognition in Introductory and Senior-Level Biology Students. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18, ar2.

Stanton, J.D., Neider, X.N., Gallegos, I.J., Clark, N.C. (2015). Differences in metacognitive regulation in introductory biology students: when prompts are not enough. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 14, ar15.

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

Tanner, K.D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 11, 113-120.

Zhao, N., Wardeska, J. G., McGuire, S. Y., Cook, E. (2014). Metacognition: An effective tool to promote success in college science learning. Journal of College Science Teaching, 43(4), 48–54.

Ziegler, B., Montplaisir, L. (2014). Student perceived and determined knowledge of biology concepts in an upper-level biology course. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 322–330.

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