Encouraged students to reflect on and evaluate what they have learned

Helping students “think about their thinking” is an important tool in helping them master course content as well as improve their strategies for learning. There are a number of approaches from simple to complex helping students acquire skills in “metacognition.”

Save ten minutes at the end of your next class and have students take out a piece of paper. Direct them to draw a concept map, diagram, or other visual representation of the day’s main concepts without looking at their notes. If appropriate, provide them with a blank or partially completed diagram as a prompt. Push them to briefly describe each part and represent it as meaningfully as possible and to place question marks on parts they do not remember or do not understand well-enough to represent. If there is time, ask them to go back to their notes and use them to fill-in missing pieces, or compare their work with a partner in class to see which parts the other student can complete for them.

Remember that this is just an example of how to get started
with this Teaching Method.

Author: Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Knowing what you know and what you do not know is one of the most important skills a person can have. But it is not as simple as it sounds. Cognitive scientists document the many difficulties we have in ascertaining our own knowledge. We are often overconfident in our understanding of material, biased in our self-assessment of knowledge, and blind to gaps in our knowledge1. Correspondingly, a broad range of research focuses on the mental processes that influence understanding and memory. Based on this research, instructors should take pains to encourage students to reflect on and evaluate what they have learned, processes falling under the umbrella term metacognition.

Metacognition, defined as “knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena” consists of assessing task goals and requirements, evaluating the status of learning goals, planning a strategy, applying the strategy, and reflecting on and adjusting the strategy as needed2. As is evident in this broad definition, there are many components to metacognition of which the key element is a reflection on one’s own thinking processes. The more instructors help students reflect, the more likely students will become self-regulated learners using cognitive skills that will enhance many facets of life. For example, instructors can ask students to reflect on the most important insights they gained from a reading, perhaps consider what surprised them most about an assignment, or to identify the most confusing points of a lecture. Instructors can also make sure they ask students questions on material just covered during lectures, or start class by having students look over notes and identifying material they may not have understood. aStudents who struggle to naturally engage in metacognitive behaviors can improve learning when instructors require explicit use of these skills. In one of the most comprehensive summaries of student learning evidence, John Hattie found that teaching metacognitive strategies had a large effect size with regard to student achievement (d=.69). Not surprisingly, instructors have tried many different ways to foster metacognitive skills in the classroom3,4.

A growing body of research shows that training students to focus on their learning helps. Many instructors concentrate on covering content in class and assume students should know how to study or that students have learned how to study in high school. To students, ‘studying’ often means rereading the textbook or notes, instead of practicing the many activities encompassed under the metacognition umbrella. In general, students who are prompted to self-explain their learning, essentially unpacking the process of their own learning identifying barriers and insights, have greater knowledge gains than students who received no prompt. For example, in one study, students who were given explicit self-regulated learning training outperformed students in a control condition6.Teachers trained students in summarizing the text, questioning themselves on material related to the text, and answered the questions raised by themselves and classmates thereby fostering self reflection. Students also performed better on comprehension tasks when engaged in comprehension monitoring activities7. Even something as easy to do as asking students to explain a concept from the readings to a classmate/neighbor, fosters metacognition.

There are many possible activities to choose from for addressing students’ metacognition at a pedagogical level. In one of the most comprehensive reviews of study techniques, Dunlosky and colleagues rated the effectiveness of ten learning techniques most commonly found to influence learning. The authors found that activities that helped self-reflection of knowledge showed the highest utility. One of the most useful activities was practice testing, also called practice retrieval, which forces students to assess what they know and do not know consequently enhancing self-reflection. The more students test their own knowledge, the better they learn the content. Learning is more likely to occur not only when the student is able to recall the item, but also when a student had successfully retrieved the items twice.

There are a number of ways to get students to test their own learning. Instructors can ensure students are testing their recall by starting class by asking questions on the material assigned for the day, asking questions through class (directly or with the aid of classroom response systems), and by assigning quizzes. Quizzes whether online or in class are one of the most effective ways to apply this teaching method and facilitate practice retrieval and consequently greater metacognition. Instructors should also advise students to study with classmates actively asking each other questions on the material. A related form of self testing is having students summarize reading assignments after they are completed. By writing down the main points of an assignment and sharing with a neighbor in class, or with the instructor, a student can practice their recall of material. Students may also want to create practice exams (training themselves to identify the main points of an assignment) and use these exams with each other to test their learning and understanding. A good start is to assess what methods students are using to study and then designing classroom interventions to foster greater self reflection8,9.

Another common strategy is the exam wrapper. Designed by Lovett, exam wrappers provide students with a structured reflection opportunity about exam performance10. Exam wrappers prompt students to reflect on three important components to learning: exam preparation (study skills used), types of errors made on exam, and adjustments for future learning (modifications to study habits to better prepare for the next exam). Exam wrappers don’t take up much class time (making them teacher-friendly), don’t require much time on the part of the student (making them student-friendly), are easy to adapt across different courses, and address several components of metacognition (assessing strengths/weaknesses, performance evaluation, strategy identification, creation of behavioral adjustments). Students complete an exam wrapper after each exam and discuss answers with the instructor providing an opportunity to hone preparation skills and perhaps learn new forms of studying.

There are a variety of specific strategies that be employed via exam wrappers or even during the course of the class. Instructors may want to foster a class discussion on readings about learning and thinking, have students take a knowledge survey at the start and end of class to compare growth, reflect on new knowledge gained from assigned readings, videos, or podcasts, or build in various classroom activities such as classroom response system quizzes, and pair and share activities (See examples in Nilson and Doyle). In short, many regularly used classroom assessment techniques (see resources) once used primarily to test learning, can be modified and provided to students to help them test their own learning.

Online learning software is a convenient way for students to get additional contact with the material together with providing them ways to assess their knowledge. Given that students can access most online aids at any time and as often as possible, and they can be automatically scored, online software is one of the best forms for fostering self-reflection.

Different types of self-paced learning systems are available, and several studies have tested the effectiveness of them. Most programs assess what each individual student has effectively learned, what they need to spend more time studying, and how much time they need to spend studying it10. All the programs also allow for repeated testing on the material. Given that evidence from cognitive psychology shows that repeated testing as a key tool to learning, these online learning aids facilitate metacognition and should enhance learning via a testing effect. To further enhance learning, instructors of online courses may want to build in multiple self-testing opportunities. Allocating a portion of the course grade to self-testing will ensure students utilize these online tools.

Given the wide variety of ways that instructors foster self-reflection and the array of ways that students practice it, direct assessment of the benefits of this method are difficult. In general, students who report greater self-reflection show higher learning as measured by exam scores11. There are also published accounts about the use of exam wrappers in the classroom setting. Lovett (2013) implemented exam wrappers across introductory biology, calculus, chemistry, and physics demonstrating improved metacognition over the academic term. This positive change increased as a function of the number of courses in which students were enrolled that used the exam wrappers (1, 2, or 3 courses). Although there seemed to be no change for the students enrolled in only one course, there was no control group. Therefore, the results indicated greater gains when students saw the exam wrapper across multiple disciplines but did not address the question of whether using the wrappers in one course is also beneficial compared to not using wrappers at all.

Other researchers have also found that students increased their metacognitive skills due to the use of exam wrappers13. This increase in metacognition was supported by an overall increase in mean exam scores and students’ ability to monitor and adjust study strategies. Implementing exam wrappers in an intermediate Spanish course resulted in students scoring higher compared to a control group14.

In-class Polling to Check for Understanding and Stimulate Peer Discussion

In a lecture-style course, it can be challenging to assess student understanding in real-time, and the voices of frequent participants are not always representative of the class as a whole. In-class polling not only affords instructors a quick snapshot of students’ understanding of new material, but also creates opportunities for students to evaluate their own understanding in the moment. In this video, Dan Levy demonstrates how he uses interactive polls to check for understanding and peer discussion to clarify misunderstandings.

Learn more and see related resources about this Instructional Move from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.



  1. Dunlosky, J. & Metcalfe, J. (2008). Metacognition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  2. Flavell, J.H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive- developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 906-911.
  3. Kaplan, M., Silver, N., Lavague-Manty, D., & Meizlish, D. (2013). Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across disciplines, across the academy. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  4. Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2016). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed educational activities to put students on the path to success. New York: Routledge.
  5. Azevedo, R. & Cromley, J.G. (2004). Does training on self-regulated learning facilitate students’ learning with hypermedia? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(3), 523-535.
  6. Palinscar, A.S. & Brown, A.L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117-175.
  7. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., & Willingham, D.T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
  8. Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010).How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  9. Gurung, R.A.R., Weidert, J., & Jeske, A. (2010). Focusing on how students study. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(1), 28-35.
  10. Lovett, M.C. (2013). Make exams worth more than the grade: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVague-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (pp. 18-52). Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  11. Griff, E. R., & Matter, S. F. (2013). Evaluation of an adaptive online learning system. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 44(1), 170-176. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01300.x
  12. Miller, T.M. & Geraci, L. (2011). Training metacognition in the classroom: The influence of incentives and feedback on exam predictions. Metacognition Learning, 6, 303-314.
  13. Achacoso, M.V. (2004). Post-test analysis: A tool for developing students’ metacognitive awareness and self-regulation. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 100, 115-119.
  14. Thompson, D.R. (2012). Promoting metacognitive skills in intermediate Spanish: Report of a classroom research project. Foreign Language Annals, 45(3), 447-462.
  15. Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ slef-awareness and learning skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  16. Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: Putting the research on learning into practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Related IDEA Papers

IDEA Paper No. 63: Using Metacognition to Promote Learning, Millis

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