Measuring metacognitive knowledge in undergraduates

If you dissect the word metacognition into its Greek and Latin roots you get a word that means “self-awareness” and “the act of acquiring knowledge”—that is, being aware of how one learns. But how can we become more aware of how we learn? And how can educators boost metacognitive skills in their students to improve learning, exam scores, problem solving, and other benchmarks of success?

That is the focus of research conducted by Julie Dangremond Stanton from the University of Georgia, Athens. Together with Amanda Sebesta at Saint Louis University and John Dunlosky at Kent State University, Stanton has published “Fostering Metacognition to Support Student Learning and Performance” in a recent issue of CBE—Life Sciences Education (www.lifescied.org/doi/10.1187/cbe.20-12-0289).  Stanton said that metacognitive knowledge involves both awareness and control (or regulation). 

“A student who has well-developed metacognitive knowledge is someone who can distinguish what they do and do not know about a subject, and this allows them to be more efficient in their studying,” Stanton said. “In contrast, a student who does not yet have well-developed metacognitive knowledge might recognize terms that relate to a subject and then assume that they know the subject very well.”

Likewise, Stanton said that students with good metacognitive control can select strategies for learning that are appropriate for the task (such as an exam) and then adjust those strategies based on outcomes (such as the grade they receive). If they are still developing metacognitive control, they may do poorly on a test and then assume that increasing the time they spend studying will improve performance, when this may not, in fact, be the best course of action.

“I like to think of metacognition as learning how to learn,” added Sebesta, “and knowing what strategies are out there that can help us learn and then knowing when, how, and why to use them.” Many students gain these skills organically through experience and trial and error. But in their current paper, Stanton, Sebesta, and Dunlosky have created a guide filled with actionable evidence-based strategies that instructors can implement immediately in the classroom. The guide, which can be found online at https://bit.ly/3BqK5Sn, has 14 different standalone nodes that instructors can use to help students be metacognitive in their learning. Click on a node and it will open a new window with suggestions to try in the classroom and a summary of the key research papers that support the suggestions. This approach, they said, could be used not only in STEM classrooms but in almost any undergraduate course.

Under the node “What Students SHOULD Do,” for< example, there are three recommendations, written by Sebesta, which can help improve student metacognitive control. These include self-testing methods, such as flashcards, that students can use to improve information retrieval; spacing, or spreading out study sessions over time—the opposite of cramming for an exam; and interleaving, where students study unrelated parts of content together. This last technique naturally creates spacing and allows students to develop comparisons between and among course material.

“Instructors can help students reframe how they study,” Sebesta said, “which gives students flexibility to spend more time with the concepts they find more challenging.” Sebesta added that educators should build discussions of metacognition right into the content of the course. “They should reserve class time to talk about metacognition skills. It can be incorporated in the teaching and assessment practices. Gaining these skills can become a goal of the course.”

The paper also discusses “social metacognition” and offers strategies for improving outcomes and learning from group projects. Stanton added that students can be trained to ask simple but specific questions that will help them assess how well they and their peers are learning. This helps students to stimulate metacognition in each other and forces group participants to put their thoughts into words, she said.

“Studying [individual] metacognition is a challenge because we are trying to measure something that is a thought inside someone’s head that they may not be able to put into words,” Stanton said.

Stanton said she hoped that educators who use their guide will offer feedback, and she invited educators to be a part of the data-gathering process. While grades are one measure of the success of these recommendations, she said that interviewing students about how they think these strategies are impacting their learning is also part of the data collection.

Stanton said that her team has received National Science Foundation funding so that they can conduct a longitudinal study to follow the development of metacognition in a group of students from a variety of institutions over four or more years to determine the trajectory of metacognition skills.

“It’s exciting because we will get to uncover some of those developmental milestones and see what we as instructors can do to help students reach them earlier on,” Stanton added.

A conversation with Stanton and Sebesta can be heard on the August Pathways Podcast here: https://anchor.fm/ascb-pathwayspodcast.

About the Author:


Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.